The Boston Celtics have been a confusing and disappointing team in the first half of their 2021-22 season. They have a .500 record of 21-21, but no Celtics team in the Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown era have had a worse record through the first half of the season. It’s still early but many of their strategic offseason moves haven’t panned out.
Brad Stevens deserves more time to manage the roster in the coming years but it’s clear that his absence on the court has hurt the Celtics more than they thought.
Ime Udoka has established a solid defensive culture as they’ve reached a 106.8 DRTG which ranks 5th in the NBA. Dennis Schroder and Al Horford have contributed in some ways but failed to provide enough oomph to make a difference next to their stars.
While there are multiple issues with this squad, it comes down to how these issues affect each other to create the dilemma that is the Boston Celtics.
Jayson Tatum & Jaylen Brown dynamic:
Ever-changing is the dynamic duo of Tatum and Brown. When they’re hot they, look like a top duo in basketball, but when they’re cold, everyone wants to split them up.
We’ll start with the basics here. It’s problematic when your two best players have only played in half the team’s game with a new coach trying to implement a new system. The fact that they’ve played in 21 games together then puts a tough challenge on Ime Udoka’s shoulders. Build a system where two shot-creating wings can maximize their value together.
Additionally, both stars rely on a lot of “out of system” shot creation. Essentially, a play breaks down and both will go to an isolation move into a tough jump shot. Jayson Tatum ranks 6th in the NBA in isolation frequency while Jaylen Brown ranks in the 84th percentile in isolation scoring.
And while both are similar in some ways, they have their differences in approach. Tatum prefers to handle the ball in the pick and roll game. This is a foundational part of how he sets up portions of his scoring package and primarily where he makes most of his reads as a passer. Tatum also likes to have ghost screens (screener fakes the screen to confuse defenders) set for him at the top of the key so he can attack downhill.
Brown operates better in a more 5-out centric system where he can be a bit more off-ball and work the two-man game with a big. The Brown dribble handoff has been more of a staple of the Celtics offense than in years past.
One last gripe in this area would also be the lack of success they’ve had when screening for each other. For example, Tatum will screen for Brown but the defense will switch that action. No offensive advantage is created and now there’s less time on the shot clock.
So far we’ve established that the lack of reps together, high volume of “outside system” isolation shot creation, and different preferred schemes make it hard to build a system around Tatum and Brown. But there are also issues regarding both players’ results when they’ve been on the court together.
The bottom line is Tatum has been an inefficient scorer this season. His shooting at the rim has gone down 8% to 65%. He’s also shooting a doozy 39% on short mid-range shots, 28% on shots from 10-16 feet, and 32% from three.
On Brown’s side, he’s been a below-par passer and defender for his standards. Lapses off the ball on defense bleed some of the value he brings as an on-ball defender. Meanwhile, he’s struggled to make intermediate passing reads consistently.
Lack of offensive identity and flow:
Unlike the college or even high school levels of basketball, NBA teams don’t have to solely or even primarily rely on set plays to have a well-functioning offense. Not even the best set architects like Erik Spoelstra, Steve Kerr, or Rick Carlisle call a set on every offensive possession.
The majority of NBA teams have their base set of principles that result in some set plays but more importantly, player action. The coach will trust their team to perform a quality offensive possession without a called set by performing certain on-court actions that reflect their core principles. Such actions could be: cutting, screening, lifting, relocating, passing, shooting, etc. A team’s identity on offense is the core principles, and flow is how it all shakes out on the court.
As far as the Boston Celtics are concerned, they lack a true identity. The Celtics don’t run out in transition as evident by being 28th in transition frequency and PPP (points per possession). They don’t shoot much at the rim or cut off the ball. They rank 25th in shots 5 feet or less from the rim. They’re also 15th in cutting frequency but 4th in cutting PPP. They’re a high-frequency isolation team as they rank top 10 in both isolation frequency and PPP.
Perhaps that’s their identity, however, not every team is the Brooklyn Nets and can rely on high octane isolation scoring to sustain consistent offensive success.
As previously discussed “flow” is what we see on the court and the Celtics offensive flow isn’t pretty. And this is where the issues coalesce together. The fact that it’s been hard for Udoka to establish an offensive system and instill a base of principles leads to no strong identity which leads to poor flow.
When watching the Celtics, they run a lot of what I’ll label as “one action/set offense”. A standard P&R will be run on one side of the floor and if it stalls out, then the possession is usually a lost one. This is because the Celtics don’t do what it takes to establish good offensive flow. Players involved in the action are busy; meanwhile, the players on the weak side aren’t involved and are relegated to standing in their spots.
This could be on the scheme, players, or some of both. There aren’t cutters going to the rim to capitalize off the primary ball handlers scoring gravity. There aren’t enough high IQ relocations or lifts for a quality three-point shot. There aren’t intuitive screens being set inside or outside of the specific play design.
The overarching result is a lot of isolation shots and a lot of spot-up shots. The Celtics have the highest spot-up frequency in the NBA at 28%. These heavy doses of spot-up jumpers aren’t a recipe for success for this Celtics roster.
Oddly fitted role players:
Call it cliche all you want to but rim pressure and floor spacing are two of the pillars of offensive strategy in modern basketball. Floor spacing is the philosophy of spreading your personnel out on the court to open up driving lanes and quality shots. Rim pressure is the philosophy of attacking the basket to draw multiple defenders to the ball handler, thus creating quality scoring opportunities for others.
The Celtics don’t do either at a particularly high level. And when we look at who’s playing around Tatum and Brown, it starts to make sense why these are issues that result in a mediocre offensive product.
Let’s start with the floor spacing issue. Traditionally, the Celtics will play Williams, Horford, and Schroder/Smart as their role players around Tatum and Brown. None of which are good three-point shooting threats. The best of the bunch, Dennis Schroder shoots 34%, Smart shoots 30%, Horford 28%, and Williams hasn’t attempted a three all season.
When you look further down the depth chart, you’ll see the Celtics do have a few solid outside shooters in the form of Grant Williams and Josh Richardson. Williams is shooting 41% while Richardson is shooting 40%.
However, when watching the Celtics, it’s apparent that the numbers don’t reflect a true impact. Defenses don’t treat Williams or Richardson like the 40+% shooters they are.
On the rim pressure side, the Celtics just don’t have a suitable guard who can collapse the defense at a high enough rate. Smart will be put in this role sometimes but he’s not a natural playmaker. Schroder more often than not gets to the rim but doesn’t look to pass when he gets there. The pieces that surround the Celtics core don’t have the skillsets to form that perfect ecosystem mentioned earlier.
Are these issues fixable? Potentially; some of them could be. Issues like Tatum’s shooting struggles and the lack of reps with him and Brown could be fixed and make a major difference. It’s possible they make one or two good moves at the trade deadline or that some of the role players can find their shooting stroke.
However, a lot needs to happen in a short amount of time for the Celtics to truly turn their ship around. The Tatum and Brown duo has worked before. They reached two conference finals with them as the core, so it’s disingenuous to suggest they can’t play together.
But, there’s also truth in saying they have a limited ceiling as a duo when the surrounding piece and situation isn’t perfectly catered to their needs. Maybe time and patience are what’s needed for this group, but that’s not something they may end up getting for too much longer.