The Celtics starting five of Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum and Al Horford was, on paper, one of the most intriguing groupings in the league to start the year. With five seemingly capable 3-point shooters mixed together, the spacing possibilities and offensive upside were tantalizing. Defensively, there was plenty of versatility on the wing, something Brad Stevens craves with all of his lineups in today’s downsized NBA.
Before the season started, we discussed the possibility of some alternative looks for Stevens at the start of games, depending on the type of opponent the C’s were facing that night. There was no doubt that the above five was going to be the preferred route Stevens took on most nights but the idea of mixing and matching appeared to be a possibility based on past seasons.
Through 13 games though, it’s evident that Stevens is (or was) committed to his starting five, going with them in every possible matchup (10 of 13 games) in which the entire group was healthy and active. They have played together for 105 total minutes over that stretch, the 15th-highest total of any lineup in the NBA and three times as much as Boston’s second-most played lineup (Irving/Brown/Tatum/Morris/Horford).
Amazingly, the starters' expected strength has been a debilitating weakness. Over those 105 minutes, the starting five has scored just 93 points per 100 possessions, the lowest mark in the league among the 15 lineups that have played 105 minutes or more. Only one other lineup (out of 30) who have shared the floor for over 75 minutes this year (the Memphis starting five) has played worse on the offensive end and that Grizzlies group features a rookie and two traditional bigs. For comparative purposes, Boston’s offensive rating with the starters is 10 points worse than Boston's season offensive rating (21st in NBA) and five points worse than the bottom offense in the league (Phoenix Suns).
While there was always going to be a learning curve expected for this group as Irving and Hayward returned, the problem hasn’t improved in recent weeks.
In fact, in the last five games the starters have played together, their offensive rating has dropped down even lower, to a paltry 89 points per 100 possessions over 45 minutes. The only saving grace of the entire group has been the fact that for as bad as they have been on offense, they have been nearly as good on the defensive end, allowing just 94.5 points per 100 possessions, the best mark in the league among teams playing 105 minutes or more. Bad offense and great defense though has only produced subpar results thus far (minus-1 net rating) for the group, far worse than Boston’s dominant starting unit last season that included Aron Baynes.
In the wake of playing three straight games with 19-plus point deficits, the team’s slow starts were addressed indirectly by Stevens following the team’s loss to the Blazers on Sunday night.
"Just thoroughly outplayed," Stevens said. "I don't know what else to say. When we're desperate and urgent, we're pretty good. We've got to do a better job, and I've got to do a better job of making sure that we start games that way."
Irving added his two cents after the game with a bizarre suggestion given the fact that the team has a 12-year veteran in Al Horford already on the roster.
"Looking at this locker room,” Irving said on Sunday night, “Me being in my eighth year and being a 'veteran' as well as Al and Baynes. Right now I think it would be nice if we had someone that was a 15-year vet, a 14-year vet that could kind of help us race along the regular season and understand it's a long marathon rather than just a full-on sprint, when you want to play, when you want to do what you want to do. It's all about attitude and effort. That's all it is."
Irving’s comments are a bit perplexing given the team’s issues. Having a seasoned end-of-the-bench vet to coach guys up is a fine thought but this is a full roster right now (pending the result of the Jabari Bird case). The C’s issues as a team start with some of their more experienced players (Horford, Hayward and Irving all being in the starting five) so admitting the team needs more leadership and guidance instead of looking in the mirror at yourself to help with that process does not look like a great look for someone looking for $190 million next offseason. Accountability is crucial here and it doesn’t seem like enough Celtics are taking ownership of the team’s woes early, Irving among them.
So what exactly do Irving and his fellow starters need to do to right the ship? Let’s look at the source of their offensive woes so far to figure out what needs attention:
Lots of missed shots: Pretty cut and dry situation here. The C’s starters are collectively shooting 40 percent from the field and 28 percent from 3-point range when they play together. Irving and Jayson Tatum are hitting 3s consistently in this group. Hayward (31 percent), Brown (27 percent) and Horford (27 percent) are not. When 40 percent of your shot attempts are coming from beyond the arc, that’s a pretty big issue. They’ve been getting a ton of open looks (rank 1st in wide open 3s in NBA) so patience could be the play here for Stevens. Still, the shot selection here feels a bit too one dimensional and that’s likely a result of personnel.
Non-existent offensive rebounding: This was a predictable problem given the lack of size up front and the team’s propensity to fire long jumpers. Still, it’s a more glaring issue when this unit is missing 60 percent of their shots. The starters are grabbing just 11 percent of all available offensive rebounds, easily the worst mark among the top-60 most used lineups in the NBA. That type of paltry output is producing just seven second-chance points per 48 minutes, limiting an important source of offense during a team’s shooting slump. Stevens has a pair of elite offensive rebounders in Aron Baynes and Daniel Theis sitting on the bench. These numbers would be helped by either of them.
Inability to get to the free throw line: This, yet again, is an issue that has festered since Isaiah Thomas left town. No one on the team has been above-average getting to the free throw line with Tatum being the sole Celtic averaging over three attempts per game. That puts him 57th overall in the NBA. Kyrie Irving is next at 98th overall. The starting unit has a whole has the lowest free throw rate among the 30 groups that have played 80 minutes or more together.
This is a pretty big mix of problems for Stevens to deal with. Patience should be helpful in some areas (i.e. shots falling) while other areas (offensive rebounding) would need a change in personnel to address. A few possibilities to consider approaching Wednesday’s game against the Bulls.
Start Marcus Smart for Jaylen Brown: Playing one of your worst offensive players (from a shooting standpoint) wouldn’t seem to solve the problem here but the fact remains that Boston’s offense has been eight points better with Smart on the floor this year. He’s not going to steal away shots from others (taking just five per game this year) and he’s a ball mover much more than Brown and will get his hands dirty on the offensive glass. There’s an upgrade defensively here as well, which comes as a bonus for this group. Stevens likes to have Smart come off the bench historically but for a group that lacks energy early so far, this is an obvious solution.
Start Baynes or Theis for Brown or Hayward: Having a better screen setter out there who can grab the offensive glass and finish at the rim may provide a nice boost to the rest of the starters in this group. The fact that Theis and Baynes are at least 3-point shooting threats shouldn’t hurt spacing too much either. Both of them deserve to play more so this is an easy way to do it while taking some defensive pressure off Horford. Starting Smart and one of these guys for Brown and Hayward seems extreme but could help the balance of scorers against role guys that do the dirty work.
Start Marcus Morris: He’s shooting the lights out from 3-point range so may as well give him some open looks right? I don’t think this is an ideal solution though since it would leave the C’s exposed defensively if he replaces Brown or Hayward.
Wild-card starter: The Celtics looked pretty good when Ojeleye took the place of Brown in the starting five against the Bucks. It feels like that was more matchup-based than anything else (along with a historic shooting night). Ojeleye isn’t going to help with the offense on a night-to-night basis, even if he deserved to play a bit more.
Wait it out: This was probably Stevens’ gameplan heading into this road trip but the level of inconsistency has to be somewhat alarming to him. Whether or not this group has guys who can adequately complement each other is a fair question after seeing 100-plus minutes together. That could change when Hayward gets closer to full strength and Brown/Horford snap out of shooting slumps. Still, as the team offense has improved in recent weeks, this group (barring a strong start in Denver last Monday) has been lackluster. They could be given a chance to right the ship at home, but the guess here is that it’s going to be a very short leash if that’s the case.
My gut says Smart gets a chance, starting Wednesday night against the Bulls.