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In defense of the bench

Yes, it’s been bad, but it’s not all their fault.

Boston Celtics v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

Do you remember those magic eye things? It was an incomprehensible collection of shapes and colors covering an entire page, but if you looked at it long enough, at the right angle, and relaxed your eyes, it started to make sense. Eventually, you could make out the outline of a schooner or a sailboat, which may be the same thing.

The Celtics’ bench is in their incomprehensible collection of shapes and colors phase. After watching whatever that 4th quarter against the Wizards was, it really feels like none of these guys make a lot of sense (except maybe Lamar Stevens and Oshae Brissett) after a cavalcade of missed shots on offense and a procession of easy buckets on defense. It was, if I could put it poetically, bad. But if you look hard enough, if you really focus, it also makes sense.

Brad Stevens has constructed a bench that isn’t self-sufficient, and he did it intentionally. Brad specifically targeted players that accentuate star talent and guys that space the floor and know their role. Payton Pritchard does it with his feisty pace on both ends and elite shooting. Sam Hauser does it with his elite shooting and surprisingly sturdy iso defense. Brissett and Stevens (Lamar, not Brad) do it with their hard work, physicality, and decision making. All of those attributes make sense next to stars, but they don’t make a whole lot of sense together.

A quick look at the, admittedly, limited lineup data paints a pretty clear picture. We start to see the schooner.

3-man lineups with PP-Hauser and any bench player not named Beautiful Eyes (sorry, Al Horford) and the net rating absolutely plummets. Much of that is certainly influenced by the Washington debacle, but it’s also not all that surprising. None of the bench, save Delano Banton on his absolute best days, can truly break down a defense. Nobody can generate good shots for themselves or others. There’s not a ton of value in Brissett stealing extra possessions or Stevens stonewalling Wizards bench player #7 when those possessions just lead to another failed Pritchard-Kornet pick and roll, or a Hauser desperation three.

But put two of those guys next to the Jays, or Tatum and KP, or Jaylen and Derrick, and all of the sudden, those skills are magnified. The space created by Hauser and Pritchard, even when their shots aren’t falling, or the offensive rebounding work by Brissett makes the stars’ lives easier. That extra space allows Tatum and Porzingis to run pick and roll without weakside help. Those extra possessions generated by Brissett lead to Jaylen Brown charging downhill against an unsettled defense. All of the sudden, the picture becomes a lot clearer, like the first time I tried on glasses and my best friend said I looked like Harry Potter. Yeah, it’s not pretty, but it sure is effective.

Before we wrap up, you’ll probably notice most of the analysis has been on Pritchard and Hauser with a side of Oshae Brissett (which sounds like a delicious barbeque dish). There are two reasons. First, those three, and especially PP and Hauser, are the only bench players that have had any significant run with the top 6 other than Luke Kornet. Second, I have no idea what to do about Luke.

For starters, the Celtics are 47.7 points per 100 possessions better with Luke off the floor so far this season (per PBP Stats). For enders, which is probably not a real phrase, that stat completely backs up the eye test. Luke has looked pretty lost on both ends this season, especially on the defensive glass where Boston needs him most. Kornet had a very decent season last year, so he’s entitled to some extra burn, but if his play doesn’t come back around in a few weeks, it’s probably time to start looking elsewhere.

All told, the Celtics certainly do not have the best bench in basketball, even if they may have the best player off the bench in Al Horford. But what happened in Washington is meaningless. It might have been uglier than my first pair of glasses, but they did their job. The starters didn’t have to come back in. even if it felt inevitable that they would. It’s still the early days, and it’s time to relax the eyes a bit and let the bench come into focus.

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