If there’s one thing about the 2021-22 Boston Celtics that we can predict with confidence it’s that defense will be the team's calling card.
After a rare outlier season in which Boston slipped to 13th in the NBA in defensive rating, Brad Stevens seemingly made it a point to revamp that side of the ball in his first summer as president of basketball operations. Stevens hired a defensive-minded coach in Ime Udoka, splurged to re-sign defensive quarterback Marcus Smart, banked on Robert Williams staying healthy as a backline force, and acquired defensive-minded players including Josh Richardson and Al Horford.
The Celtics have the potential to roll out some incredibly stingy lineups, especially if Smart reverts back to his All-Defense form and Williams stays healthy. The Celtics should be the sort of gritty bunch that Stevens has always desired, and defense should give them a chance to compete most nights.
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The question as camp nears: Will the offense be good enough to make Boston a legitimate contender?
It feels somewhat odd to suggest that the biggest question mark about a team with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown as its pillars is the offense. But there are fair questions about the offensive consistency of the players around them. What’s more, Tatum and Brown need to make their own strides as playmakers who more consistently elevate the level of each other and their supporting cast.
The departures of Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier take away key scoring potential on this team, though there’s an argument to be made that neither was available enough last season to truly declare that Boston’s offense will slide back without them. Still, the Celtics are thin on shooting, as well as the sort of third option who can definitively take stress off the Jays.
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Here’s the encouraging news: The quartet of Smart, Tatum, Brown, and Williams played 411 possessions together last season and, while their net rating was a measly plus-0.2, they did average a robust 118 points per 100 possessions, which ranked in the 84th percentile among all high-volume lineups, according to Cleaning the Glass data.
The primary fifth man in those groups, however, was Walker. And if you want to blame him for the group allowing an unsightly 120.3 points per 100 possessions then you have to give him credit for helping the offense thrive (122.3 offensive rating in 220 possessions). It’s unclear if Boston can maintain that sort of offensive output without him, nor is it a guarantee the seesaw tips on the defensive end by simply subbing in another player.
Can Boston find a fifth starter that can consistently knock down jumpers and take advantage of the attention that the Jays will draw? Can Smart quarterback the first-unit offense and get the team to perform with more consistency than we saw last season? Who is able to elevate their scoring output on the nights that Tatum or Brown don’t have it?
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Udoka needled his new boss at his introductory press conference noting the team has to improve its assist rate after finishing 27th in assist percentage (55.6) last season. Boston was 26th at 55.7 the year before.
That reflects back on Tatum and Brown and their need to elevate their playmaking. They’ve both pledged to improve there. But it’s a two-way street. They can pass out of double teams all they want but others have to make shots.
Having Dennis Schroder fall into the team’s lap could provide a much-needed offensive jolt. Schroder will play big minutes and get every opportunity to quarterback reserve groups. Boston’s bench played with great efficiency last season but their output was often inconsistent. A second-unit overhaul should help with Boston now able to lean on more veteran players including Horford, Enes Kanter, and Juancho Hernangomez.
An elite defense could take pressure off the offense, too, all while creating more transition opportunities. But when you’re competing with teams like the Nets and Bucks, scoring is essential.
Here’s a rudimentary little exercise that we occasionally come back to: Can the Celtics consistently score above 110 points? Twenty-eight times last season they did not and Boston was 4-24 in those games. If you pencil in Tatum and Brown for 55 points (which would be 4 points north of their combined season average a year ago), can you confidently get 55 points from the rest of the group? Sometimes you can convince yourself it’s an easy task, other times we wonder if getting to 100 might be a chore.
Some officiating tweaks could benefit defensive-minded teams this season. Maybe these ballooning offensive ratings will come back to Earth a bit by not rewarding non-basketball moves in the hunt for offensive fouls, as well as allowing defenders to be a bit more physical.
But the Celtics absolutely have to find a way to re-embrace ball movement and creating for each other. The number of isolation plays has to come down. Tatum and Brown have to crank up their assist numbers and the supporting cast has to take advantage of the attention they draw.
The Celtics owned the 10th best offensive rating last season but it didn’t always feel like it. Sometimes the offense looked like a juggernaut and, too often, it came to a painful halt.
The defense should be there; can the offense live up to its end of the bargain?