Celtic and NBA fans alike know how miserable last year’s season was for the Boston faithful. Sticking around until the end proved both my loyalty and sadomasochism. It has been rumored that Kyrie Irving was the root of the team’s on-court and off-court issues. He is gone now, replaced by Kemba Walker, the anti-Kyrie.
These two point guards share many commonalities. Both of them are adept off-ball shooters, despite Walker not receiving as much recognition. They snake through screens with ease. Scoring seems to be their primary goal, despite being underrated facilitators. On isolation opportunities they both make defenders quiver.
From that description, it would be rational to believe that Walker could play a similar brand to Irving; a style of play that limits ball-movement. After all, Walker was among league leaders in both time of possession and average dribbles per touch last year. In fact, he finished ahead of Irving in those categories.
So, what gives me confidence that Stevens and Walker will work in tandem to revive the old ball-movement ways of Celtics past? When assessing the film, Walker certainly has the skill set to work off of the ball while still capitalizing on his elite offensive prowess. Additionally, Walker’s demeanor towards teamwork and winning are well-noted, suggesting he can amend his game to whatever best serves the Celtics. Let’s look at some film.
For the first time since his rookie season as the Celtics coach, a Brad Stevens team averaged under 300 passes per game. During the two full years where Isaiah Thomas was the starting point guard, Boston averaged 320 passes per game. Despite the departure of facilitating big man Al Horford, look for Stevens to resurrect this style of play with Walker at the helm.
His flex offense schemes can do just so. Often times they begin with the point guard giving up the ball early to run through screens, set one of his own, and then run through another to get off a clean look. Watch Marcus Smart do so versus the Magic.
Last season Walker shot around league average when coming off screens. This was an outlier likely attributed to his underachieving Charlotte team. In 2017-18 Walker finished in the 64th percentile when shooting off screens and in 2016-17 he ranked in the 94th percentile. He is as slippery as they come and can be utilized well in these flex systems.
Hopefully the slew of bigs Boston brought in to replace Horford can also replace his excellent screen-setting ability. Stevens may lean more on flare screens to accomplish two specific goals. Firstly, it puts the ball in the hands of others. Secondly, it still allows the team’s best offensive talent to score in a number of ways.
This was a staple of the Stevens’ offense when Thomas ran the point. Stevens maximizes the spacing on the court by bringing the ball up with one of the wings. The play is initiated from there and a Celtic guard maneuvers by a flare screen. Next, he can catch and shoot, drive to the rim or create for a pull-up.
A. Catch and shoot
B. Drive to the rim
C. Create for a pull-up
Walker’s skill set can thrive in this setting. Each of the last three seasons he has averaged 2.8 catch and shoot triple attempts per game, roughly averaging 40.5 percent over that span. Charlotte initiated these screens from center court, but this adjustment will be a mindless one to make.
The All-NBA guard was also among the league leaders in drives per game. In fact, he attacked the hoop four more times per contest than Irving. It is no secret that Celtics brass wants their stars to draw more fouls. Walker’s shooting range demands attention and allows him to drive past defenders when they get too close. It encourages him to exploit his incredible live-dribble.
Lastly, Walker can create on the fly as well. He recognizes that the lane is clogged. His knack for keeping defenders on their toes to create shot-separation is well known. Watch Kemba sink a nifty baseline pull-up simply because it is his best option.
Double High Screen
This set became more prominent during this past Celtics season. Stevens attempted to cash in on Irving’s exceptional ballhandling. Double high screens opened the court enough for Irving to manipulate defenses in a variety of ways.
Irving is renowned for his hesitation and nimble footwork. Yet, he is not known for blazing speed. Walker is known for using all of these skills, however. His speed will bring back an element reminiscent of Thomas; one that was not seen often with Irving. Here he uses it against the Jazz defense.
This will be another method Stevens deploys to encourage both ball and player movement. Again, we look towards Thomas and his Celtics tenure. He often ran through stagger screens to receive a dribble handoff (DHO). From there he could shoot, attack, or create for others. Below, he drove then dished to Kelly Olynyk.
Typically, Walker dribbled through stagger screens. This will likely change in Stevens’ system but, it will be an easy transition. Kemba recognizes reads well. His on-ball gravity can open up lanes for rolling bigs. Expect some Walker to Kanter connections on players similar to the one below. Substitute Walker starting on the bounce for him catching a DHO.
Next year’s season should be the antithesis of the 2018-19 debacle. Management and players alike want to rejuvenate what was once a team bonded through ball-movement and togetherness. Walker’s combination of leadership and skill resuscitate a brand of Boston basketball we are all waiting to see once more.