The Celtics Have Unlimited Wing Depth and Versatility
In the modern era of positionless basketball, you can never roster too many multi-talented wings. The NBA is trending toward smaller lineups that can offer more playmaking, faster tempo, and increased spacing. Look no further than the NBA’s crème de la crème. The Warriors and their “death lineup” have built their success on exploiting auspicious matchups. The combination of Stephen Curry with four interchangeable wings in KD, Draymond, Klay, and Iguodala allows Golden State to feast on players who lack position flexibility (See: Kevin Love). The smartest players constantly isolate defenders into unnatural assignments, manipulating speed and size mismatches. In response, forward thinking roster builders value switchable forwards who can hover around the perimeter with quicker players and body up stronger players in the post. The hottest buzzword in today’s roster building is “versatility”, and the Celtics are quickly turning into one of the trendiest modernizers.
Celtics GM Danny Ainge has intentionally built a roster with an overabundance of 6’6 to 6’9 combo forwards, each offering beneficial length, athleticism, and multiple purpose utility. The rotational core of Jae Crowder, Gordon Hayward, Marcus Morris, and Jaylen Brown furnish resumes of playing manifold positions on both ends of the floor. Add in the young developing talents of Jayson Tatum, Abdel Nader, Semi Ojeleye, and Guerschon Yabusele, and it’s easy to see that the Celtics have no qualms heading into the 2017 season with an undisguised excess of wing depth. On the August 21 episode of the Vertical Podcast with Chris Mannix, Brad Stevens stated that defending small ball lineups requires flexibility and versatility. “There are so many players that we can mix and match with at what people generally call the 2, 3, 4 spots.” He added.
The Celtics utilize pace and space small ball lineups with as much efficiency as any team. Per NBA-Wowy, the Celtics shot 1.153 points per possession with Al Horford and Crowder move up a position, compared to 1.131 PPP with lineups featuring Horford as a traditional power forward with a conventional center. In addition with Crowder, Boston now accesses a collection of wings that they can throw out as small ball 4. Morris started 79 games at power forward for the Pistons last season, playing in Stan Van Gundy’s patented 4 around 1 offensive scheme. In Boston, he’ll have a more space friendly system, and Morris’s spot up shooting (1.025 PPP per Synergy) and switchy defensive skills should earn him plenty of minutes at the 4. The bigger question for Morris is whether he can improve on an uninspiring 8.9% career rebounding percentage, a statistic that could become magnified as he transitions away from glass dominant Andre Drummond to the less authoritative Horford.
With the departure of Avery Bradley, Brown and Hayward are candidates to start at shooting guard next to Isaiah Thomas. While Bradley is revered as one of the best backcourt defenders in the world, he stands only 6’2, which is undersized for the position in today’s age. Bradley was occasionally hindered by an inability to bother the shooting motions of longer taller guards. Now, with so many wings on the roster, Stevens can deploy added length at shooting guard to offset the undersized Isaiah Thomas. Brown ‘s nuclear athleticism and quick burst foot speed are prototype traits for a defensively minded two-guard. He has quickly developed a reliable spot up jumper from the corners. In Summer League, he appeared to have taken enormous strides to sharpen his overall offensive tools, tightening his handle, and improving his dribble pull-up. Brown shined as a defensive wizard when Bradley was sidelined by an achilles injury in January, but he’ll have to prove that he can translate it for 25+ minutes per game against high caliber NBA shooting guards over the course of a full season.
Bradley was heavily relied upon for his scoring off of screens, and Hayward is even more prolific offensively. Hayward is a dazzling decision making running around curl screens, and mightily improved his catch and shoot efficiency during his tenure in Utah. Stevens will undoubtedly tap into that skill set as the two rekindle their relationship. Hayward’s inexhaustible off ball scoring could have been part of the rationale for why Danny Ainge passed on the more ball dominant Jimmy Butler, whose low trade value could have been easily matched by the Celtics.
The Jazz used Hayward as a shooting guard through 2014, and his 7-foot wingspan would be a powerful weapon to hide Thomas’s lackluster defense and size. However, Hayward has added muscle as the full-time small forward in Utah. If Boston tries him at shooting guard, opposing guards will inevitably try to test Hayward’s foot speed, and the only way he can survive in the backcourt is if he shows that he can chase players like Brad Beal and JJ Redick around the perimeter. It may not be the best use of Hayward’s nightly gas tank.
Isolation scoring from the wing has been absent from the offense since trading Paul Pierce. Crowder had settled nicely into the starting small forward role, but has found most of his offense as a catch and shoot beneficiary. 36% of Crowder’s field goals came on spot ups, which was two times higher than any other kind of shot attempt, per Synergy Sports. Crowder is the prototypical 3 and D player, but his most notable shortcoming has been his incapability to generate his own shot. Moving forward, the sixth year man out of Marquette will have to compete for minutes with a slew of new talented wings.
The additions of Morris, Hayward, and Tatum will give Boston an added boost in one-on-one scoring from the wing, which will directly impact how Brad Stevens manages his offensive sets. Hayward is one of the most skilled scorers in the NBA, where he finished in the 90th percentile in both half court and transition offense. Hayward finds his best success coming off of screens,
Morris is one of the more underutilized combo forwards in the NBA. He finished in the 79th efficiency percentile in isolation scoring, and in the 85th percentile as a ball handler in the pick and roll. Unlike Crowder, Morris is a versatile offensive weapon, who is capable of using his 6’9 frame to overpower small defenders, paired with a tight handle that allows him to maneuver around bigger power forwards. Mystifyingly, Van Gundy undervalued Morris’s go-to scoring in Detroit, and Morris could quickly develop into an offensive catalyst for the Boston bench, a second unit that desperately lacked playmaking last season. Boston was 22nd in bench scoring last season.
Tatum was arguably the best offensive prospect in the 2017 draft, and provides the Celtics with developmental scoring talent that they bypassed when previously selecting Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, and Brown. Tatum is incredibly polished for a 19-year-old, and offers NBA ready footwork and mid-range skills. In his one season at Duke, he showcased a myriad of one-on-one moves from the elbow, including but not limited to shoulder shakes, step backs, jab steps, dribble pull ups, turnaround jumpers, crossovers, power throughs. Tatum’s game is incredibly smooth, and while he won’t be relied upon like he was with the Blue Devils, he’s the best go-to scoring prospect that Boston has had since Al Jefferson.
The remaining wings, namely Ojeleye, Yabusele, and Nader will initially struggle to find minutes, but each presents intriguing aptitude and upside. Ojeleye and Yabusele are built like NFL defensive ends, both possessing the brute strength to physically compete with burly post up centers. However, their true attractiveness is in their ability to maintain solid defensive agility despite carrying the additional muscle and weight. Yabusele, who was stashed in China after being drafted last summer, has already earned the nickname “dancing bear” for his remarkable nimbleness and swift foot speed. Ojeleye is an explosive athlete who was constantly asked to rotate defensively between 3s, 4s, and 5s in his one season at SMU. Celtics fans might be a little more familiar with Nader, who earned D-League Rookie of the Year and All-Star honors last season. Nader is a relentless driver of the basketball, and his knack for getting to the hoop made him too valuable of an attribute for the Celtics to let go. If injuries plague the Celtics wing depth, expect Brad Stevens to tab these three as reliable replacement depth.
It’s entirely feasible to see the Celtics play an all-wing lineup with Brown, Hayward, Crowder, Morris, and Ojeleye. They could even rotate Tatum and Marcus Smart into that group. Hayward would have the keys to run the show, essentially acting as a point forward type. With the Jazz, he ranked in the 87th percentile as a pick and roll ball handler last season, a role where 28.6% of his shot attempts occurred. Four capable shooters would surround Hayward, allowing him to get ample room to survey and breakdown the defense.
Defensively, the theoretical all wing lineup of that nature would have incredible switchability 1 through 5. There’s simply no way to viably defend a lineup with that kind of unique versatility unless the opposing team has equal wing depth. At this point, no Eastern Conference team could match up on paper with that lineup.
A large chunk of the critical minutes will likely feature a lineup of Thomas, Al Horford, and three interchangeable wings who can survive playing two or three positions on both ends of the floor. That kind of switchability will make it difficult for opposing teams to isolate the Celtics into bad matchups. It’s evident that Ainge and Stevens prioritized the idea of adding players with diverse and multiple skills, which indicates that the Celtics are becoming leaders of the wing heavy NBA movement.
UPDATE: The Boston Celtics have acquired All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving from the Cleveland Cavaliers for point guard Isaiah Thomas, forward Jae Crowder, center Ante Zizic and Brooklyn's 2018 unprotected first-round pick, the team announced Tuesday night. (VIA ESPN)
*All non-cited statistics are from basketball-reference
*All salary information is from realgm.com