Basketball Bits Vol. 19: Rough Cs
Exploring the Celtics’ lost offensive identity, Trae Young tricks and more
If you’re new to the program, the idea of Basketball Bits is to provide short and quick but detailed analysis on NBA-related trends, sets, plays, concepts/strategies, players, sometimes larger thought points and basically just whatever comes to mind or catches my eye. Ideally, it will spotlight about 3–5 things that will offer a speedy but insightful read.
- The Celtics offensive foibles
Perhaps it was overzealous to expect Boston to be a borderline Top 5 offense, even with its collection of talent and depth; they were league average last year and have never ranked higher than 8th under Stevens, including just two seasons better than league average.
Those past versions, however, were “greater than the sum of their parts” offenses, bands of dudes whose ravenous cutting and hasty decision-making punctured defenses through indefatigable verve. Every cut oozed purpose. Every drive-and-kick sequence built to something bigger. This year’s group is the antipode. The production doesn’t align with the pieces. Everything feels disjointed.
There are no synergistic actions that erode a defense when sewed together, no weak side improv that can slash an opponent’s help principles. That was the Cs offensive trademark in past seasons. A double stagger screen into a pick-and-roll, a quick pass to an Al Horford short roll who transported into a DHO from the weak side corner — with the slot wing cutting through to clear out and maybe get a cheapo bucket if the defense relaxes — where the defense would collapse triggering snappy around-the-horn passing for an open 3 or closeout attack.
All of that has been bleached into a dreary my-turn, your-turn staleness this season. Advantage build ups and one more passing, once in Boston’s DNA, has been corrupted by soloist work, where JaysonTatum jacks a midranger instead of swinging or Kyrie Irving dances into a step back instead of a drive. Terry Rozier hunts shots at every turn. Gordon Hayward isn’t himself yet. Jaylen Brown’s been lost in the ether trying to conform to this unknown ethos. Even Horford, the beacon of collaboration and cooperation, has been left to search out gluttonous self-made looks; he’ll get a switch on a PNR and receive a post-up entry, but everything around him stops, no cutting, no screening, nothing. Only Marcus Morris, an isolation enabler through and through has thrived in the new environment, and good thing, because he’s saving Boston’s ass right now. Morris boasts a 61.9 effective field goal percentage and the Celtics’ offense has been 10.6 points per possession better with him on the court versus off in his 335 minutes.
As a whole, the Celtics are a middling 23rd in offense (not counting garbage time), per Cleaning the Glass. Their 3-point shooting has stabilized after a torrid start — with the Cs hovering around league average on a healthy number of attempts — but they’re still allergic to the rim, trading in drives for midrange jumpers. So many of Boston’s possessions end with a dud, a below average look after just one simple action or only a few passes with zero paint penetration in the process. They’ve been reticent to attack in search of something more, something better.
The Celtics will eventually find their footing offensively. Weak side movement, in terms of screening, cutting and spacing concepts will return and the shots at the rim are due for an uptick. But maybe this offense simply isn’t elite. Maybe it’s more in line with the league average units the Celtics have had the past two seasons.
2. Trae Young’s pace dribbles
Young, a 19-year-old pipsqueak at 6-foot-2, 180 pounds, will get bigger and stronger, but he’ll always have to be a bit of a trickster to thrive in the NBA. Little guys are dependent on guile as a way to level the playing field; slick maneuvers like deceptive ball pick-ups, unexpected launch angles on passes, one-handed Nash-style layups and off-foot finishes are necessary. Young has already flashed such gimmicks, including a feisty change in his dribble pace. Young doesn’t just toggle between speeds as a driver and prober, he packs a punch in suddenness with his actual handle to create separation. He’ll bide his time sizing up a defender, start a move and then boom, midway through he’ll stamp a hard dribble into a combination to separate.
Young’s been woefully inefficient — expected for any rookie point guard, especially with Young’s physical make up and sorry sack of a roster around him. He’s turning the ball over a ton and is shooting 28 percent on 3s, including an icky 19 percent on 3.6 pull-up triples a game, per nba.com. But Young’s gotten to the rim consistently and held up as a finisher and foul-drawer per Cleaning the Glass, and his passing vision has already sent NBA Twitter into a hissy on multiple occasions.
3. Grizzlies’ elbow funhouse
Throughout the Gasolian era, the Grizz have squeezed more offensive juice from the elbows than just about any team in the league. With Gasol operating as the fulcrum, cutters whiz through the lane and screeners stack picks on top of other picks to spring an opening. One set, in particular, which Twitter Xs and Os informant Ryan Nguyen noted is from the team’s “shuffle” series is this whirling bit of slashing and screening.
There’s a lot going on there — a reversal, a UCLA-style rub cut off the strong side elbow, a screen-the-screener flare into a rip followed by a dribble handoff (DHO). Piece all of that together in coordination and a defense has a lot to sift through as they pitter-patter back and forth covering for a screened teammate one moment and trying to recover to their own assignment the next. The Grizz don’t exactly zip through all of the synergistic action at light speed (the slogging Grizz don’t do anything at light speed), but stitch together so much optionality in such a short time span and a defense is bound to leave a crevice somewhere.