The world is littered with unsolvable problems: the Goldbach conjecture, the Riemann hypothesis, the chicken or the egg, how wireless chargers work. The Celtics too have had an unsolvable problem, at least, until now. Maybe.
The problem relates to Jayson Tatum, but it also has nothing to do with him. The Celtics need to solve how to play above average basketball when Jayson Tatum sits on the bench. With the addition of Kristaps Porzingis, the Cs might finally have a solution.
This issue has plagued them for a very long time. It dates back to the 2019-2020 season where the Celtics had a Big 4 (of sorts) featuring Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Kemba Walker, and Gordon Hayward. Even that disbursement of talent and salary wasn’t sufficient to solve this issue. The Cs’ net rating when Brown, Walker, and Hayward shared the floor while Tatum sat? A not good -2.32. More generally, the Celtics were +10.24 with Tatum on the court and -0.5 with him off.
How about in 2020-21, the season that shall not be named? Well, even in that dreadful, COVID destroyed season, the Celtics outscored opponents by 3.2 points per 100 possessions when Tatum played. And when he sat, they were outscored by 2.0 points per 100.
2021-22 is even more drastic — +11.8(!) with Tatum on the court and -2.6 when he was off. This past season was supposed to be the year that fixed it with Jaylen Brown at an All-NBA level, Malcolm Brogdon running the bench offense, and Derrick White shooting 40% from 3. Surely, we are at least not terrible when Tatum sits right? RIGHT?
Actually, yes, at least in the regular season. For the first time since Kyrie Irving was on the team, the Celtics had a positive net rating when Jayson Tatum was on the bench. The Cs were +2.5 when Tatum sat this season, actually quite good.
The primary reason the Cs were positive was because the defense played at a rate that would effectively tie the #1 defense in the league, the Cavs, in defensive rating at 110.0 (it improved about 3 points per 100 possessions with Tatum off the floor). With the removal of Marcus Smart, it's possible this number could regress, but let’s assume it doesn’t. Things get grim without Tatum on the offensive side of the ball though. The ORTG dropped from 121.1 to 112.4, which would be good for 26th in the league this season.
All was well in the regular season. Then, the playoffs hit. The Celtics had a positive net rating when any player on the team sat in the playoffs, except one: Jayson Tatum. With Tatum off the floor in the playoffs, they were a -3.2. Every team gets worse when its star sits, but the Celtics are supposed to be deep. What’s the point of investing in depth if it doesn’t bear fruit in the playoffs? In those 166 minutes Jayson Tatum wasn’t on the floor, the Celtics had a similar net rating to the Indiana Pacers. Playoff games are won on the margins, the six to eight minutes Tatum sits can swing a game. That matters when you’re as close as the Celtics are.
Enter Kristaps Porzingis.
The offense without Tatum in the regular season and playoffs was a disaster. The best way to fix that? Easy offense. Porzingis is a 7’3” walking Staples Easy Button for offensive production.
The pick and pop is one of the foremost versions of easy offense. When you are running it with a guard that can get himself to the rim at ease, like Jaylen Brown, it should open up threes for the big popping. Porzingis was a master at it in Washington.
Elite shooting bigs can make offense pretty easy. KP being a knockdown 3pt threat should ease some of the pressure off JB to carry the load when Tatum sits. pic.twitter.com/6zgcgWOH9L— Wayne Spooney (@WSpooney) June 26, 2023
The handoff game is another way teams with bigs that are comfortable with the ball exploit their gravity. As Al Horford’s aged and has lost his ability to attack, his effectiveness in handoff actions has waned. Rob Williams shows flashes, but he’s still too raw with the handle to make work regularly. That is not the case for KP, who can attack out of a handoff in just about any way you can imagine. He can keep it and drive; keep it and shoot; flip it back, set a screen and pop; lay it off and roll hard. These are all actions he can run without an elite playmaker and with two guards that lean on their scoring ability for effectiveness. It should work beautifully with Jaylen Brown and Malcolm Brogdon.
If you listen to @First2TheFloor, you know @jakeissenberg has been begging for the Cs to run more handoff stuff. Not sure how much the Wiz ran it, but looks like KP is pretty comfortable in those actions and can attack in a ton of ways. pic.twitter.com/WDjQCRstl8— Wayne Spooney (@WSpooney) June 27, 2023
Perhaps most importantly, KP shot a career-high 46.5% from 10-19 feet last season. While that’s an inefficient shot in a vacuum, it’s a necessary one in the playoffs, especially against the Celtics’ worst enemy: Miami’s zone. KP did his job against Miami’s zone in the regular season, and I see no reason he couldn’t do it in the playoffs.
Porzingis shot 46.5% from 10-19 feet last year (really good!) on high volume. Most of his damage was done around the FT line and FT line extended. Really effective way to beat the zone. Here he is lighting up Miami's. pic.twitter.com/kXMRcLD6lu— Wayne Spooney (@WSpooney) June 22, 2023
The Celtics have a problem they need to solve if they want to raise Banner 18, and it’s one many teams never quite figure out. Losing Marcus Smart hurts, really, really bad, but Brad Stevens may have brought in a guy that can finally bolster the Cs when Jayson Tatum sits. Let’s all hope that’s enough.