In the NBA, depth is a necessity.
With an 82-game regular season and a culture which (rightfully so) prioritizes health and injury prevention, there are many games when bench players – sometimes even players who might normally be DNP’s – must pick up the slack and play big minutes for their teams.
On the Celtics, we’ve seen Payton Pritchard, Luke Kornet, and Blake Griffin abruptly increase their roles in these exact scenarios. Furthermore, on other teams with star players who don’t play as much as Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown do, effective bench players are even more imperative if playoff seeding matters (and, I know this might be news to some NBA teams, but it actually does).
Perhaps more importantly, though, bench players can give different looks on the court than can the starters. NBA teams – especially during the playoffs – are so locked into their opponents' tendencies that they can begin to predict what they’re going to do. But when opponents have to worry about more players, they are met with a far more difficult task.
How the Celtics can use their depth:
The Celtics have the deepest roster in the NBA, and it’s quite frankly not that close. Literally every single bench player on the team that has at one point played meaningful minutes this season could make an argument for even more minutes and could probably find another NBA franchise that they would have a more considerable role on.
This depth will be especially useful come playoff time, because different players offer different strengths and weaknesses that can be dialed up or dialed back based on what the matchup necessitates.
For example, against a team like the Bucks, Grant Williams needs to be out on the court. He’s maybe the best primary defender the Celtics can throw at Giannis Antetokounmpo because he’s able to use his elite strength and solid lateral quickness to stay with him like few can.
However, against a team like the Warriors, Grant becomes far less valuable. He’s not a great screen navigator defensively, which makes him tough to have out on the court with the off-ball movement and cutting that makes the Warriors offense so special. In this matchup, a guy like Derrick White – one of the best screen navigators in the NBA – would be far more effective.
Too much depth?
There can be, in my opinion, too much depth on an NBA team and I fear this year’s Celtics team might face the repercussions of this during their title run.
Three-point shooting has become the backbone of the Celtics offense; they take the second most threes in the NBA, and they shoot them at the eighth best percentage in the league. The entire premise of their offensive success has been getting into the paint and forcing help via dribble penetration or some sort of three-man action, kicking out to an open player, and then making extra passes to find the best look. What has made this team so special is that when the ball movement and energy eventually reaches the ideal shot (which it seems to often do), the player holding the ball is usually a great shooter. I mean, Robert Williams is literally the only player in the rotation who wouldn’t be advised to shoot an open three.
The problem with this method of offense is that it relies on the shot actually going in (duh). And, despite having tons of players who can make the shot, any player can be cold on any given night (we saw it with Derrick White towards the end of last year’s playoffs and we saw it during Monday night’s loss to the Knicks).
What worries me is that, due to the plethora of great bench options on Boston, there’s too much pressure on their shooters. If the alternative to a Derrick White corner three was another bench player who couldn’t defend multiple positions and wasn’t a good three-point shooter, White would know that a few misses probably wouldn’t result in him being benched. The problem, though, is that the alternative is actually Malcolm Brogdon, one of the best three-point shooters in the NBA by percentage and a very solid defender.
And, furthermore, Brogdon likely feels the same pressure as White does, because he’s got Payton Pritchard – an excellent three-point shooter and pest-like defender – breathing down his neck if he misses a few open shots.
Essentially, any time a Celtics role player (Brogdon, White, Hauser, Pritchard, G. Williams, Griffin, or Muscala) misses a few open threes in a row, questions will be asked as to whether the wrong decision was made in terms of who should surround the Jays in crunch time.
Despite the fact that the roster is riddled with shooters, making shots when they matter the most is the only thing that’s relevant. And, unlike many other teams, the Celtics just can’t predict which guys are going to be the guys that can do that, because they have so many with the ability to do so.
Don’t get me wrong: too much depth is an awesome problem to have. Like, a really awesome problem. But, it shouldn’t be glossed over, because it can certainly cause a lack of confidence in certain role players.