The Brad Stevens tenure has been kind to point guards with shot creation and playmaking abilities. Jordan Crawford thrived like never before (or since), Isaiah Thomas brought his game to a new level, and Terry Rozier seized the opportunity created by Kyrie Irving’s absence to display NBA starter-level talent. The offensive system is motion-based with a heavy dose of dribble handoffs. Ball handlers come off high ball screens (top of key for point guard or on the extended wing for player rotating out of the corner opposite of dribble handoff action). The free moving offense gives players a lot of freedom for shot creation. One problem you can run into, though, is certain players should be shooting less, and others more, than the democratic offensive system allows for. A primary comparison would be Jayson Tatum (needs more shots) versus Marcus Smart (needs to shoot less).
The Celtics roster, categorized by position, can be seen below. These same color assignments are used throughout.
From 2014-2017, Point Guard total shot percentage grew from 11% to 27% of all field goals taken (and remained flat in 2018). As Isaiah Thomas grew into an offensive superstar and the Celtics acquired another in Kyrie Irving, this isn’t the most surprising development. However, with Irving only playing 60 games, and averaging fewer shots per game than Thomas did in 2017, you would think the percentage would be lower in 2018. This indicates other point guards increasing their shot totals from 2017 to 2018. The primary increase comes from Rozier as Smart’s attempts were roughly flat from 2017. Further below, we’ll see if these increased shots were efficient.
Free throw distribution helps to show why the 2018 Celtics offense would have trouble scoring at times. The Point Guard position’s share of total free throws fell from around 34% in 2017 to nearly 21% in 2018. In 2017, when the Celtics were struggling to score, one of the best free throw shooters in basketball in Isaiah Thomas could get to the line. In 2018, the Celtics best shooter (Irving) did not get to the line as often as Thomas. In 2019, a key development to watch will be to see if Tatum’s free throw appearances increases substantially. More attempts from him (and from Hayward as he returns from injury) will help the Celtics offense not to through as many dry spells.
The two charts below display all Celtics players the past five years with at least 10 games. Total field goal attempts are plotted against field goal percentage (and the same for 3-point attempts and percentage). Shot attempt average is the vertical line in each chart, and shot percentage average is the horizonal color boundary. Above team average is shaded green and below is grey. “Inside” players (PF/C) are blue dots and “outside” players (PG/SG/SF) are orange dots. Generally speaking, you’d want to see your best players somewhere in the upper right green quadrant. Also, guards would be expected to have lower percentages than inside players.
In the 3-point chart, a few things immediately stand out. Marcus Smart shoots far too many 3s, and Tatum needs to shoot many more. Brown’s name doesn’t show in the chart, but in 2018, he came in at roughly 40% and 4.5 attempts per game. He should also shoot more 3s, but it is unlikely that he will with the return of Hayward and Irving.
The leading scorer on the last four Celtics teams has been a Point Guard (Isaiah Thomas 2015-2017; Kyrie Irving 2018). These scorers have also been the most efficient on a points per game versus field goal attempts comparison. This is partly due to their 3-point shooting and partially due to high free throw percentages from each player. Looking at this final chart, you can see that replacement players aren’t as efficient as Thomas, or more importantly, Irving. With the return of Hayward and continued improvement of Brown and Tatum, it will be key for Stevens to shift their offensive system to feed the elite scorers when needed, rather than simply relying on Point Guard creation and scoring. A great example of this need was game 7 versus the Cavs in the ECF. Tatum, late in the game after dunking on LeBron and hitting a three on the next position, went minutes without shooting. The offensive system, coach, and players, need to recognize at times like this that ball dominance might be the better choice. Run a simple Tatum-Horford pick and roll play after play, rather than relying on Rozier/the system for shot creation at times like that.