With the trade deadline just two days away, Danny Ainge is performing a balancing act between the present and the future. The Celtics have developed into a great team in the present, winning their fourth straight contest on Monday night despite playing without Kemba Walker (knee) and Marcus Smart (thigh) in the lineup. Boston has now won seven of eight games, has a top-5 defense and offense and has put together the second-best point differential across the NBA. Needless to say, things are pretty good in the present despite their being some obvious weaknesses that could be addressed in the bottom half of the roster.
Yet, as the front office plans for the future building around a young core of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown leading the way, the biggest long-term question this group faced entering the season was whether those two wings along with Gordon Hayward could turn into an offensive powerhouse while on the floor together. That was the hope last season for the trio amid a star-studded starting five with Kyrie Irving and Al Horford but the plug was pulled on that experiment just one month into the season amid a 10-10 start that featured horrific offensive numbers from that group. There was no clear offensive chemistry within that trio (when they played with the starters) and all in all, Brad Stevens turned to them for just 385 total minutes together in 49 games out of 82. That comes out to an average of just 7.9 minutes per game, the 22nd most used 3-man lineup on the roster.
The group had positive results together (+7.1 net rating) in the regular season but an underwhelming offensive rating of 105.9 points per 100 possessions. There just wasn’t a lot of apparent chemistry despite the versatile firepower all three players brought to the table. The playoffs (-22.2 net rating over 61 minutes) was a disaster for the trio together as well.
With Hayward entering a possible contract year in 2019-20 and a potentially big decision needed to be made on his long-term future in the summer, the Celtics’ brass really needed to figure out whether Hayward/Tatum/Brown was a group of wings that just didn’t mix together (aka last season) or if a fresh start with a new All-Star point guard in Walker and a clean bill of health for Hayward would be enough to lead to better results.
Nearly 50 games into the season, despite a multitude of injuries for everyone involved, it’s looking like this Tatum/Hayward/Brown grouping has sorted out their offensive chemistry issues together. The group played together for 19 minutes in Atlanta on Monday night and the Celtics put up 160.5 points per 100 possessions against a woeful Hawks defense. While it’s not exactly impressive to put up great numbers against one of the worst defenses in the NBA, great team production from the C’s with that trio on the floor has been the rule rather than the exception all year long.
How good has Hayward/Tatum/Brown been together this season? Let’s dive into the numbers a bit further.
Injuries have kept the sample size fairly low as the trio has been healthy together for just 22 of the team’s 49 games on the year. However, they have managed to play 364 minutes on the floor thus far, nearly matching their entire total from last year’s 82-game regular season. The results have looked quite a bit stronger.
Celtics Offensive rating when Tatum/Hayward/Brown are on the floor
2019-20: 119.1 (best on team among 3-man lineups that have played 300+ minutes)
Celtics Net rating when Tatum/Hayward/Brown are on the floor
2019-20: +13.6 (third-best on team among high volume 3-man lineups)
Currently, Stevens is keeping the trio on the floor together for 16.5 minutes per game, which is his fifth-highest used 3-man lineup on the roster. The Celtics are shooting 51 percent from the field and 41 percent from 3-point range with that group on the floor, essentially extinguishing any chemistry concerns that have been left over from last season.
All three guys may not have it going together on every night as they did on Monday (combined 73 points from the trio) but the Celtics as a whole look like a contender whenever they are on the floor together. The results are actually just getting better in recent weeks as the group as a +42.7 net rating in the four games they have played together over the last two weeks. They have been elite on both ends of their floor thanks to steady rebounding, their versatility and playmaking for each other and teammates.
While it was likely a combination of a host of factors that kept them from succeeding together last season (the pieces just didn’t fit as Stevens would nicely put it), those concerns have fallen by the wayside now. While the common refrain from many would be eventually moving on from the excess wing depth to land a better big for the frontcourt, the numbers here say that would not be a good decision. The Celtics are at their best with these three on the floor together right now and they will have the next few months to prove that it is a wise plan to keep them all together for the long term as a contending core with Kemba Walker. It’s certainly doable for next season before Tatum’s likely max extension kicks in and perhaps beyond that if Hayward sacrifices some money for long-term security (and ownership is willing to pay a hefty tax bill).
Heading into the trade deadline, any hefty long-term salary (like Clint Capela) would threaten the cost feasibility of keeping these wings together and that’s where Ainge should proceed cautiously on a move like that. Adding some complementary pieces on the edges of the roster or a good player on a cheap contract for draft picks/expendable salary is the way that Ainge should proceed now. Giving this core the best possible chance of succeeding in the present and perhaps the future is the route to go. They have shown enough this season where keeping them together might the best path towards the top.