Chris Forsberg's Celtics Mailbag: Do the Celtics need a bench upgrade?

Chris Forsberg's Celtics Mailbag: Do the Celtics need a bench upgrade?

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.

Blakely: What we know about the C's at this point in the season>>>

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Healthy Celtics offer glimpse of what's possible in dominant win over Lakers

Healthy Celtics offer glimpse of what's possible in dominant win over Lakers

BOSTON — When his night was complete, the Celtics having built a comfortable 30-point cushion over the visiting Los Angeles Lakers with five minutes to play in Monday’s tilt at TD Garden, Kemba Walker slowly made his way down the Boston sideline dapping every person along the way.

He started at Brad Stevens, visited with each assistant coach, then all of his teammates, and kept right on going when he reached the training staff. At one point it felt like he might head straight into the crowd and start shaking hands.

For the duration of the impromptu receiving line, Walker wore his trademark smile. It's something that hadn't been quite as present in the new calendar year (truth be told, he’s always smiling but not as much as Monday night).

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Walker had missed time with the flu, then knee soreness kept him out of a game. The Celtics had lost six of eight entering Monday’s visit from the rival Lakers and it was fair to wonder if much of Boston’s early-season success had been a bit of a mirage.

Then Boston went out and produced maybe its finest effort of the season. And Walker very much reveled in the 139-107 triumph on a big stage.

"This is what we should be on a nightly basis, and what we would like to be,” said Walker. "Hopefully the way we played tonight and this win will help us build in the future.”

In the same way that there’s a danger in overreacting to a short stretch of poor play, it’d be haphazard to put too much stock into a single victory — even if it involved handing one of the best teams in basketball their most lopsided loss of the year.

Still, here’s the notion that will be hard to resist: Monday’s game offered a glimpse of what a full-strength Celtics team can be.

Boston has so rarely had all of its horses this year that it’s been hard to draw firm conclusions about the team’s potential. The injury woes made their early-season success all the more startling and, while the team never really used it as a crutch during the recent rough patch, it was fair to wonder how much injuries were conspiring against Boston when it did struggle.

Walker and Brown had been questionable leading up to Monday’s game but the team got a double shot of good news. Stevens was able to trot out his preferred starting 5 for only the 13th time in 42 games and also tightened his rotation to essentially eight players, leaning heavier on the top-sub combo of Enes Kanter and Marcus Smart instead of the batch of rookies he’s had to throw darts with lately.

The results? Boston averaged 139 points per 100 possessions, according to stats site Cleaning the Glass. That’s a mark that ranked in the 99th percentile among all games this season and was Boston’s best mark of the year. Not too shabby for a team with the sixth-ranked offense in the league.

Boston’s effective field goal percentage of 65.2 was also its best of the year, as was its offensive rebound percentage after Kanter and Co. vacuumed up 14 of the team’s 41 total misses.

Even against a Lakers team gushing with length, Boston wasn’t bashful. Thirty of its 52 makes came near the rim. Some of that was Kanter’s putback but everybody attacked the rim. No one more notably than Jaylen Brown, whose early third quarter dunk on top of James left members of Boston’s bench wobbling around the parquet like clipped bowling pins.

“It’s a great reminder [of what this team is capable of],” said Brown. "We have to hold ourselves accountable to play with this type of energy and this type of effort every night. It just can’t be against the Lakers, we got to get up and play like that against Memphis in a few days. We got to be able to be resilient, humble, poised, and continue to move forward.”

What’s different about this team when they are near full health?

"Just much more dynamic,” said Tatum, who scored a game-high 27 points in 29 minutes, then declared that his dunk over James in Game 7 of the 2018 Eastern Conference finals was still better than Brown’s jam.

"I feel like we’re tougher to guard when myself, JB, Kemba, Smart, when everybody’s out there. It makes it tougher for the other teams to guard and it makes it easier for all of us with so many guys that can do so many different things out there. Hopefully we can continue to stay healthy. Obviously, we’d love to have Rob [Williams] back, but we’ll keep it rolling until he gets back.”

For a Celtics team that sometimes let inconsistent offense affect an already slippage-filled defense, Monday was a nice reminder to stay the course. The Lakers scored the first eight points of Monday’s tilt, James tossing an alley-oop from Springfield off the opening tip, and things could have gotten out of hand in a hurry if Gordon Hayward didn’t knock down a long 3-pointer to settle the Celtics.

Hayward, whose own inconsistencies had left him in the crosshairs of frustrated fans, finished with 16 points on 6-of-12 shooting with six rebounds and five assists. He was vital in stretches, even if he won't make a highlight reel that will be dominated by Brown’s dunk, Tatum’s smooth scoring, and Walker’s tough-finish wizardry.

It’s prudent to remember that Davis was still shaking rust after missing time with a bruised backside. The Lakers certainly didn’t put their best foot forward. And, yet, the Celtics needed a game and beggars can’t be choosers.

"We needed it. We needed it. This is a really important game for us, and we treated it like it,” said Walker. "We executed. It was just one of those games to help us realize how talented we are and how good we can be and pretty much how bad we’ve really been playing.”

The Celtics learned that, when healthy, they can counteract some size issues against elite competition. That’s important considering their season-long struggles against Philadelphia. It sure feels like Monday was the best win of the season but only if the Celtics harness the positives.

"Good to be as close to full as we’ve been from a health standpoint. I’m hoping we can maintain that and build off of it,” said Stevens.

Later he added, “I want to see if we can play well with a sustained period with more bodies available and then we can gauge where we are, how good we are and all that stuff. But there’s still a lot of unknown. This is one game. Just like I think we didn’t overreact to losing the Phoenix game, we’re not going to overreact to winning this one.”

Stevens won’t overreact. The rest of us can. Like Walker, the Celtics needed something to smile about and, unlike some of the team's early-season wins, this doesn’t feel like fool’s gold.

This was a reminder of what the Celtics can do when healthy and engaged. It’s another indication that this team can hang with the NBA’s elite. Yes, a playoff series is a lot different than a random Monday night in January, but the Celtics can sweat that further down the road.

The Celtics needed something to smile about. But it won’t mean much unless they build off it.

Enes Kanter a primary source of Lakers' frustration in Celtics' rout

Enes Kanter a primary source of Lakers' frustration in Celtics' rout

BOSTON -- We're not sure how many people still call Enes Kanter "Enes the Menace."

But he certainly lived up to that nickname Monday night.

The Celtics big man tallied a double-double (18 points, 11 rebounds) off the bench with a game-high six offensive boards, out-working the Los Angeles Lakers on the glass to help Boston cruise to a 139-107 win.

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The C's were able to rout the best team in the Western Conference by capitalizing on second chances, racking up 24 second-chance points to the Lakers' 14.

Kanter set the tone in that category, snagging all six of his offensive rebounds in the first half and converting them into 12 second-chance points.

Simply put, Kanter wanted it more than the Lakers' frontcourt of Anthony Davis and JaVale McGee, which led to plenty of frustration on L.A.'s side after the game.

"That was one of the most disappointing things for me, because I feel like that's a controllable thing: boxing out and hitting people," Lakers coach Frank Vogel said when asked about Boston's second-chance points. 

"We didn't really do it all in the first half, so I'm very disappointed in that really from the total performance."

Davis, in his first game back after missing five contests with an injured backside, agreed with his head coach.

"Offensive rebounds killed us," Davis said. "They were more physical. They basically did whatever they wanted the whole night. ... We didn't do a good job of keeping Kanter off the glass."

Lakers star LeBron James put it more succinctly.

"It was a good old-fashioned butt-whooping. That's all," James said. "They beat us in all facets of the game: from the outside, the interior, points from offensive rebounds. (Those) were the main ingredients of this L."

Kanter's work in the paint also seems to be a recipe for Boston's success: The Celtics now are 7-0 this season when the 27-year-old big man records a double-double.

"He's a monster down there," Celtics forward Jayson Tatum said of Kanter. "He gets every offensive rebound and he finishes around the rim. He definitely gives us a spark off the bench that we need."

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