The Boston Celtics will begin their journey for banner 18 on Tuesday night in Cleveland against the Cavaliers. With only four returning players and the departure of notable starters Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder, the team doesn’t have a clear-cut identity to start the season.
Gone is the lockdown defense from Bradley, the versatility of Crowder, and the toughness of Thomas. Here now is the immediate scoring of Kyrie Irving and team-first mentality of Gordon Hayward. What the team is getting from individual players is set, but what they are as a cohesive unit is a question mark.
During the pre-season, the main players didn’t play much, but did showcase a willingness to share the ball when they were on the court, as the team averaged 22.8 assists per game through four games. Last season the team had the fourth best assist average in the league with 25.2 per game.
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From the small sample size in preseason, it looks like Al Horford may have a bigger role in the offense this season as a playmaker. Last season he averaged a career-high five assists per game. This season that number could increase, as he’s showcased the ability to bring the ball up the court and create more opportunities for others. Last season he averaged 67.3 touches and 51 passes per game, according to NBA.com/stats.
The team was second just a season ago in passes made (325.3) and received (323.8) per game, per NBA.com/stats. This was along with making the extra pass, where they were second to the Golden State Warriors in secondary assists with 6.8 per game.
With Irving likely being the main ball-handler, his 79 touches per game are expected to increase. The only question is by how much? Thomas, for comparison sake, averaged 84.7 touches per game last season. Irving’s tally could be around that margin, as the primary handler, with Hayward and Horford being two and three in that category.
The trio of Irving, Hayward and Horford will be the main lineup for the Celtics this season. After that troika, it looks like Jaylen Brown will start at shooting guard after doing so for all of the pre-season games. Brown being at the two-guard position gives the team a bigger, more versatile and athletic presence over Bradley from last season. The only downfall with Brown starting is his three-point shot.
Brown went 2-for-11 (18.2%) from deep during the pre-season. In his rookie year he averaged 1.7 three-point attempts per game, in comparison to Bradley’s five per outing. Despite his current lack of a consistent shot, Brown’s relentlessness to the basket is a desire for possible playmaking and free-throw opportunities.
With the back-court being solidified with Irving and Brown to start the season, who joins Hayward and Horford in the front-court becomes an intriguing question. The team ended their pre-season with Jayson Tatum in the starting lineup, and head coach Brad Stevens recently suggested the rookie could possibly remain in that role to at least start the season. As the team announced on Sunday they’ll be without Marcus Morris for “at least a week or so” due to knee soreness.
Morris’ ability to space the floor has been a hallmark for his career, with last season with the Detroit Pistons being an anomaly for him as he posted the second worst shooting percentages of his career – 41.8% from the floor, and 33.1% from the three-point line.
A lineup including Morris seems imminent upon his return, and dependent on how Tatum produces through the season. The rookie starting or at least ending games at the four spot could become a possibility throughout the season. As Tatum being alongside Irving, Brown, Hayward and Horford brings added versatility, length, athleticism and scoring to that unit. Something that has become a trend in the league the past view seasons in wing heavy lineups.
The league itself currently has penchant for forwards that fit the pace and space mold. Tatum, during the preseason, has shown his ability to fit the description, along with scoring in a multitude of ways. Whether it be isolation, post-up or off a screen. One way or another, he’ll find a way to produce. His 6-foot-11 wingspan adds to the fascination of what he could become on not only the offensive side of the court, but also on the defensive end.
Another big question for the team will be their reliance on screens. Last season the team averaged 7.1 possessions off a screen, which was 6.6% of their plays, according to NBA.com/stats. The screens were mainly set for Thomas and Bradley, who combined for a 21.8% frequency off those type of plays. With both players being small guards, the screens played a role in helping them get the ball.
The only Celtic who might be screen heavy this season is Hayward, as he was more effective coming off a pick for his shot. In his final season in Utah, he had an 11.2% screen frequency which led to him scoring on 48.8% of those type of plays and shooting 48.2% from the floor when doing so.
Irving, who only came off screens 4.1% of the time last season, will likely have to adjust to a more set offense. Instead of his 5.1 isolation plays per night. In his limited playing time during the preseason, he showed an openness to coming off screens, which mainly involved Horford in pick-and-pop situations.
Boston’s offense has a lot of potential, and it’s just a matter of when they’ll be able to capitalize off of each other to become one of the more efficient teams in the league. If the team is able to gel accordingly, along with both Irving and Hayward making a seamless transition, then Brad Stevens receiving some attention as a Coach of the Year candidate shouldn’t come as a surprise. Especially if the team has another 50-win season.
Time will tell as to how the team will develop through the good and bad of another optimistic season in Boston.