Nearly Halfway Through The Celtics Season, Let's Take A Look At What Is And Isn't Working

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When it comes to the NBA calendar and evaluating what your favorite team is doing, I tend to view it in stages. The first 20 or so games are about looking for trends to keep an eye on. The sample is so small nothing is definite, but you can use that group of games to make mental notes of certain things. Then comes the halfway point, which we're only a handful of games away from now. Once you get to this stage, there are certain aspects of a team that are what they are. The sample is large enough at least for me that you can start to form more substantial opinions on what you're watching. This is important since the trade deadline soon follows. Then you get to the offseason, where you obviously have the overall result of the year and how you should then adapt.

Things are a little weird in today's NBA considering how many teams are dealing with health and safety protocols, which can make things a little cloudy. For reference, here is how things stand as of January 2nd.

It's what makes this year's trade deadline so fascinating to me. How many teams are going to actually be sellers? How many are going to simply want to see their rosters play together for longer if they've been dealing with big time covid issues? That's all an unknown right now. 

But when we talk about the Celts, big picture is they haven't nearly been good enough. I'm not sure anyone could disagree there. What that doesn't mean is everything about them has been a disaster. It's a mix. So, given the stage of the season we are currently at, I think we have a large enough sample to see what might be working and what isn't as we approach the trade deadline. 

What is working so far

Lineups

Let's start here. The one thing we can't really put in this section due to sample size is the normal starting five. The numbers are fantastic, but they've played just 8 games and 87 minutes together. One bad quarter could drastically change how those numbers look. But that does not mean there aren't certain lineup combinations/situations that have a larger sample that show things do work. 

- Let's start with the three main guys of Smart/Tatum/Brown. That trio has shared the floor in 18 games (about half) and 371 minutes together putting up a 105 Ortg / 103 Drtg / +2 net rating. The offense I would say leaves more to be desired, but defensively that trio is nails. A big part of that is due to the fact that Marcus Smart has returned to his All NBA form. When you look closer at the impact stats, it tells you a positive story. When Smart is on the floor with Brown/Tatum, the Celts shoot 45/36%. If you boil things down to how each one of the Jays performs when Smart is on the floor, it looks like this

Brown: 45.8/38%

Tatum: 41/32%

Remember what Brad said in the offseason. Everything they do is about maximizing the Jays. Those Tatum splits aren't all that great, but here's how each performs when Smart is not on the floor

Brown: 45/28%

Tatum: 41/34%

It would appear that Jaylen really benefits from playing with Smart on the floor, which makes sense. It allows him to play more off ball which is partly why his 3P shooting is so much better with Smart on the floor. The reason I think Tatum's numbers are basically the same is that his usage does not change regardless of if Smart is on the floor or not. With Jaylen, we see his ball handling responsibilities increase, which we're noticing isn't all that great (more on that later)

Another area that seems to be working even though it makes no sense, is having Dennis on the floor for closing lineups. His rim pressure is so valuable in those moments. There are some issues with ball movement sure, but on the whole, it's not a bad option. Did you know Dennis Schroder is shooting 53.6% in clutch time situations this season? He's tied with Jayson Tatum at 3.3 points in the clutch and barely trails Jaylen at 3.6. He's 3rd on the team in clutch +/-. 

Seeing as how bad the team is overall in those situations, perhaps improving that means making sure Dennis is on the floor for those moments. 

Jaylen Brown Isolation

I know everyone hates isolation. It can be frustrating at times. My stance on it is there is a time and place for everything over the course of a basketball game. To put it simply, Jaylen Brown is having an elite isolation season. He currently ranks in the 89th percentile averaging 1.13 points per possession while shooting 48.6% in iso sets. His TOV frequency is about 4.4%, which isn't as high as you might think. For comparison, Steph runs iso 8% of the time and has a 5.3 TOV%. Jaylen runs it 8% of the time and is at 4.4%.

The beauty of this is Jaylen is a legit 3 level scorer and is pretty close to elite at all 3 levels. He shoots 75% in the restricted area, 45% in midrange, and 36% from three. 

Starting point guard Marcus Smart

This one might also be controversial, but the numbers and the eye test don't lie. When it comes to Smart, everyone screams and yells that if he would just be a pass first/defense first guard that he would be a perfect fit. Yet, I question if people even realize when that's happening in front of their faces, because that's exactly what he's doing and yet people are still not happy. His shot selection is MUCH improved. His defense is back to being All NBA caliber. When it comes to playmaking, I'd say he's filling in that role just fine

The on/off court splits tell the same story. The offense, net rating, and assist% are all better when Smart is on the floor compared to when he's off. Offensively it's a huge drop from a 110 Ortg with him to a 101 rating without. Their net rating goes from +3.6 to a -4.0. As a team their TS% goes from 56% to 52% when he leaves the floor. They play at a quicker pace as well. These are all things you should want from your starting guard in my opinion.

Grant at the 4

Pretty much everything about Grant's season has been a positive. He's trimmed down his frame which has really helped him defensively against quicker players which allows you to have him switch on 3s and athletic 4s. Then there's the shooting. We're nearly half way through the season and Grant is a few made FTs from a 50/40/90 season. He's basically turned into one of the best corner three point shooters in the entire NBA. Look at this shot chart!

At this point, I feel like you can trust Grant with legit minutes. That is not something we could say last season, and it's a credit to his offseason work. Some of their best offensive lineups have Grant at the 4, and you could make the argument we need even more of it given all the spacing help he provides. 

Using Robert Williams in P&R

You want easy offense? Simple. Run P&R with Rob. He ranks in the 80th percentile as a roll man, averages 1.32 points per possession and shoots 69.7%. This is something the Celts run about 18% of their offensive sets, and I would love that to be even higher. Like…double. He should be in the Vucevic/Ayton/Gobert/Capela group in terms of P&R frequency, and they all live over 24%.

Cutting

You'll never believe this but when the Celtics actually move without the ball and cut hard to the rim, they are actually pretty damn good! The Suns game was a great example of that, and the season long results tell a similar story. They rank in the 80th percentile in cutting offense, averaging 1.32 points per possession shooting 69%. The issue here is they don't do it nearly enough, just 6.6% of the time. It's pretty obvious the key to improving their offense is more P&R and more cutting. It's right there in front of them.

What's not working so far

The double bigs…offensively

This is something where the normal starting 5 tells one story but again due to that small sample, I wanted to look at the Rob/Al pairing in other ways. Defensively, the double bigs are legit. Both Rob and Al are having elite rim protection seasons. Together, they have a 102 Drtg when they share the floor. The issue is on the other end. They have just a 98 Ortg when sharing the floor together in 235 minutes. Part of this is Al's shooting regression, but also part of it is the lineups we usually see with those two don't have the best spacing. 

You could make the case that starting together is fine, but Al should probably get the first early sub so they could be staggered. That way he and Schroder can handle second unit duties. I also think because of how legit both are as passers, it gives both units a legit playmaking big man to help create easier looks for guys who may not be the most efficient offensively. 

Jayson Tatum isolation

As great as Jaylen is in iso, that is how bad Tatum has been. This has honestly been a trend for the last few years. It's something he over relies on at times and the production is pretty brutal. He ranks in the 51st percentile, scores just 0.89 points per possession and shoots 35.5% from the floor in iso sets. Considering it makes up 20% of his possessions, that's a problem. If you were curious, last year he ran iso 18% of the time, averaged 0.82 points per possession and shot 34%. Like I said, it's a large enough sample to say that shit doesn't really work.

Clutch time offense

That note above is partly why we see this team struggle so much in big moments. They don't really have a plan outside of give it to Tatum and Brown and hope it works out. The Celts have the 20th ranked clutch time offense and the 20th ranked clutch time AST%. It should then surprise no one that this is also one of the worst fourth quarter teams in the entire league. Going back to bad habits has been proven to get them in trouble, yet they can't stop doing it. That's not good.

Jaylen Brown as a ball handler/playmaker

Part of it is having to do this more with guys out, but so far this season it has not shown to be a successful approach. Doesn't mean Jaylen can't get better, but we are evaluating based off what we see. His turnovers are too much of an issue, and they usually come with him as a primary creator. We're currently watching Jaylen have the highest TOV% of his career at 13.0%.

In my opinion, he's much better served when he can simply focus on crushing an opponent offensively. Like you read, his iso stats are great. I think you can be OK when all you're asking Jaylen to do right now is to carry the scoring. It's taken him a while to develop as a playmaker, and that's fine. There are more than enough plus passers to handle it until Jaylen figures out his turnover issues. 

Dennis as the fill in starter

Here's where things get a little tricky. In closing moments, there is nothing wrong with having Dennis on the floor. The issue we're seeing though is when he's the fill in starter when someone might be out. The spacing issues there are real. When he plays with the normal starters in a game that Jaylen might be out, that lineup shoots 39/26%. When he's filling in as part of lineups without Al and the rest of the starters, that group shoots 41/33%. When he's the fill in guy with lineups that don't have Rob and are with the rest of the starters, that group is shooting 31/16%.

There are enough combinations/minutes of these lineups to see that the spacing issue when it comes to offense is a real problem. I don't really get why Ime hasn't seen this yet. There's nothing wrong with Dennis being the super sub and then also having him out there to close. I just don't see the obsession with defaulting him as a starter as soon as someone is missing from the starting five. It's not really working when it comes to their biggest issue (shooting).

You add all that up with their covid issues combined with the 4th hardest schedule to date in the league, that's how you get a team that's currently 18-19. Tomorrow will mark the first time since December 13th that the normal starting 5 will play in a game together. The hope is they can have some sort of stretch of consistent availability because their January schedule is very light compared to what they've lived through so far.