Will the Boston Celtics eventually need a second-unit upgrade to emerge as a true contender in the Eastern Conference?
The bench’s lack of scoring punch has been a pretty common topic in the ‘bag despite all of Boston’s success. And understandably so. The Celtics’ reserves are averaging a mere 27.8 points per game, the second-lowest number in the NBA, sitting in front of only the Houston Rockets (who barely have any scoring left to share once James Harden is done).
Even when you adjust to per-100 possession production, the Celtics don’t budge from 29th in scoring output. In fact, the difference between Boston (36.6 points per 100 possessions) and the rest of the league is only accentuated when you compare it to a team like the top-ranked Los Angeles Clippers (65.3 bench points per 100 possessions).
Given the shooting woes of the rookies that fill Boston’s bench, it’s understandable some might crave a more reliable veteran scoring presence. It’s prudent to remember a few things:
1) Boston has rarely had all five of its preferred starters available this season, meaning that at least one bench player has been pulled up to the starting lineup on most nights. Eventually, that second unit should have someone like Marcus Smart as an anchor for that group.
2) Bench scoring is not a particularly accurate measure of team success. The bottom four teams in per-100 scoring average are Houston, Boston, Utah, and Philadelphia — or a quartet with a combined .675 winning percentage (54-26). It’s worth noting, too, that Boston’s bench players are plus-22 overall for the season, a somewhat surprising number considering how poorly Boston’s second unit has shot the ball.
3) It seems impossible that Boston’s rookies can continue to shoot as poorly as they have. Developing those young players will be key to maintaining depth this season and beyond, especially when you consider the price tag of their core pieces. Grant Williams may be 0-for-22 from beyond the 3-point arc but he’s also played key crunch-time minutes because he can set a mean screen and his basketball IQ makes good things happen. Carsen Edwards is shooting 30.7 percent overall but could eventually blossom into a consistent microwave scorer if he’s allowed to play through these struggles.
If the second unit isn’t costing this team games, there’s no reason to force changes. A healthier Enes Kanter has given the second unit a boost and Robert Williams has potential to be a real difference-maker off the bench.
In fact, let’s stay with RW3 to start the ‘bag:
Will Robert Williams ever be able to grasp his full potential as a well-rounded defender? He dazzles and then, moments later, he inexplicably becomes unready, unset to defend. — @wickershamjohna
Consistency is typically the biggest challenge for any young player. For every pretty feed that leaves us screaming, “Dimelord!” there’s a head-slapping no-look pass directly to an opposing player in the backcourt that forces Brad Stevens to pull Williams out of the game. Eventually it should all click for Williams. He’ll take care of the ball better, eliminate the occasional lapse in focus on defense, show more discipline in chasing blocks, and then Stevens will be able to lean on him more frequently. We’re talking about a player with 520 career minutes to this point so it’s still very early for the 22-year-old.
Do you think the Celtics would consider letting Edwards get reps with the Red Claws so it will help him improve his shot and help his confidence? — @QueenLambright7
Edwards’ minutes have been up and down a bit but injuries have made him essential depth. If those minutes stay low while Boston is at full strength, or if there’s simply a long break in the action like the Celtics see in the middle of this month, we could absolutely see a scenario where some of this team's younger players get a chance to go log some hefty reps (and build some confidence) in Maine. At the end of the day, it’s about maximizing opportunities with the goal of development. It sure seems like Tremont Waters is benefiting from his time up north and others should embrace the experience, too, if the opportunity to venture north occurs.
With the way Jayson Tatum has played lately, do you think he’s turning into the Celtics' superstar player on the team? — @lovemyniners06
Do you feel JT is ascending into stardom before our very eyes? — @b.reis_15 (IG)
That we got two versions of this question this week sorta answers them both. Tatum is very much on the path to superstardom. That’s not to take away anything from Kemba Walker or anyone else on this roster. Tatum, with his size and natural scoring abilities, has the potential to make a 25-point night look easy. He’s shown flashes of craving the late-game spotlight, including his game-winner against the Knicks. Even if he’s more of a No. 2 or even just a 1B to Walker for a bit longer, it’s clear where this is headed. Tatum is going to be one of the faces of the league in due time.
What’s the story with Hayward’s contract? Player option? What are the chances he is a Celtic next year? What are the scenarios in which he is not on the team? — @ThethinkingJAR
This probably deserves its own ‘bag further down the road but here’s the nitty gritty: Hayward has a $34.2 million player option for the 2020-21 season. In the aftermath of his injury, it felt like a good bet he’d be picking up that hefty payday. But if Hayward builds off his strong start when he returns from a left hand fracture, he will have options to consider. Remember that, as a player with 10 years of NBA service after this season, Hayward will be eligible to earn a starting salary up to 35 percent of the 2020-21 cap — or a whopping $40.6 million.
Will some team be willing to give him that sort of money? An underwhelming crop of free agents this summer could at least entice Hayward to test the market. If he simply craves security, an opt out could leave him in position to add big-money years without jeopardizing that big payday. Boston’s commitment to Walker and Jaylen Brown, combined with Tatum’s looming max-contract extension, does leave Boston with plenty to ponder about how much and how long they want to pay Hayward.
Do you think Jaylen Brown should have a bigger role? It seems like when he is aggressive and utilized in the offense, good things happen. I feel like Walker and Tatum get their shots no matter but if people aren’t looking for Brown he can disappear on offense. — @Downtown13
Brown is third on the team in usage rate (22.5) behind only Walker (27.5) and Tatum (26.7). It seems likely he’ll slip behind Hayward upon his return. He’s still getting a lot of chances despite all of Boston’s mouths to feed but it’s undeniable that the Celtics have to keep Brown involved. Case in point: The Celtics are 10-2 when Brown’s usage rate is higher than 20 in a game. They’re 1-3 when it’s not. Sometimes it’s just going to be on Brown to pick his spots and show that aggressiveness going at the basket. If Boston’s other top options are drawing attention, Brown should have opportunities against favorable matchups.
Do you think the Celtics will make the Finals if healthy? — @junito78p
FiveThirtyEight has Boston with a 7 percent chance of making the Finals. That feels about right at the moment. I certainly feel like this team’s ceiling is higher but let’s see them at full strength before we start guessing if they’ll be in the championship round.
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