These 2 fixes might turn around the Celtics

Both involve frontcourt players.

Charles Krupa
Al Horford has entered the NBA's health and safety protocols.

In Boston, we have always had outsized expectations for our sports teams. That has only become heightened in the past 20 years, when the city has seen its four largest men’s pro sports teams win 12 championships. And it hasn’t just been them. The New England Revolution reached the MLS Cup Final in 2014. Further out of the spotlight, the women’s ice hockey team the Boston Pride have won their championship, the Isobel Cup, twice in its five-year history – the first Cup, in 2016, and the most recent Cup earlier in 2021. We demand greatness here, bottom line.


So the fits and starts of the Boston Celtics the past season and a half have been incredibly frustrating. As such, the finger pointing has been rampant. Danny Ainge stepped down as lead executive at the end of last season, and while ownership never wavered in their support of Ainge, it’s clear that his choices the past few seasons had not worked out as well as the team and its fans would have hoped. And Brad Stevens hasn’t exactly been batting 1.000 since taking that chair, but for today, let’s look at the present.

The team’s problems from last season have inversed. After finishing the 2020-21 season 16th in defensive rating, and allowing 111.2 points per game, the Celtics are ninth in defensive rating and are allowing 107.5 points per game. This is terrific, and certainly something to build on as the team rolls into the new year. But the offense has not been as productive. After finishing 10th in offensive rating last season and scoring 112.6 points per game, the team currently ranks 22nd in offensive rating this season and is scoring 107.8 points per game.

As most people diagnose the team’s issues, they point fingers at Marcus Smart. The region’s sports media has long hated Smart, and that feeling filtered down to the general population. The media wants someone who dishes out more assists per game – Smart is currently tied for 24th in assists per game, with 5.5. The only problem with that is that none of the players who rank higher are imminently acquirable, and most don’t play the defense that Smart does. They are all either superstars, on contending teams, or not really point guards (Tyrese Haliburton comes to mind here). If you squint, you can see a couple of guys who might be available – Damian Lillard, D’Angelo Russell, Haliburton, Malcolm Brogdon – but those players a) don’t have the same defensive reputation, b) will cost a significant amount of talent/assets and c) it’s not a slam dunk that Smart would even be part of said package. And obviously none of those players have been declared officially available yet. Only Indiana has said it is considering a rebuild, but Brogdon is not one of the names who has been mentioned as being on the trade block.


The Celtics should look to augment the roster. My favorite idea to date comes from Michael Pina of Sports Illustrated, who suggested trading Dennis Schroder, Juancho Hernangomez and one of Aaron Nesmith/Romeo Langford for Norman Powell. But we still have at least a month’s worth of games to play before most teams sort themselves into buyers and sellers, so before we look at external fixes, there are two very simple internal fixes the team can make.

First, they need to run more of the offense through Robert Williams III. When Williams shot .706, .727, and .721 from the field in his first three seasons, there was reason to be skeptical. Across those three seasons, he only played 113 games and averaged less than 15 minutes per game. Could he do it over a full season and with a larger workload? So far, the answer is yes. He’s averaging 28.2 minutes per game this season, and is shooting better than ever — .725 from the field. Of the 2,539 players who have played in at least 100 NBA games, Williams’s career .724 FG% ranks first overall. First, as in best. As in, no one has ever shot as good as Robert Williams III. And yet, Williams is only taking 6.0 shots per game, good for just seventh on the team. Why? You’ve got me.


It’s not just that Williams isn’t shooting, it’s also that he’s not very involved in the offense. Per Second Spectrum stats, the majority of quality starting NBA centers receive 35 or more passes per game. Many receive 40 or more. Williams though, receives only 18.6 passes per game, fewer than backups like New Orleans’ Willy Hernangomez and Toronto’s Khem Birch. What’s more, many of those passes are simply dribble hand-offs that he hands right back off to someone else. Williams has proven to be an adept passer, but the Celtics are not giving him the chance to show it.

Positioning Williams between the free throw line and top of the key and running more of the offense through him there would open up options for the offense and would help combat zone defenses like what Minnesota played on Monday. Certainly, there would be more opportunities for pick and rolls, and would give Williams more opportunities for spot-up mid-range jumpers. He hasn’t taken very many of them, but this season he is shooting .568 from 3-10 ft. from the hoop. Will those percentages drop if he takes more shots? Perhaps. But the Celtics need to give him the opportunity. Him being given the chance to show he’s a weapon from that distance will make it harder to sag on him during pick and rolls. If he can establish a presence in the middle of the floor and become a legitimate third option on offense, he will take a lot of pressure off Tatum, Brown and Smart.


The second thing the Celtics need to do is play Al Horford less. Horford is 35 years old, and for a player his age, he has certainly been productive. He has averaged 12.4 points and 7.9 rebounds per game, and his overall plus/minus is a scratch 0.0. Overall, he has 44.4/29.6/85.0 shooting percentages. But the fourth quarter has told a much different story. In the fourth quarter, his shooting percentages drop to 34.2/13.6/78.9. Yes, you read that correctly – in the fourth quarter, Horford is shooting just 13.6 percent from three-point land.

Horford’s fourth quarter plus/minus is also -1.8, worse than every regular on the team save Langford. It is clear both statistically and via the eye test that Horford simply runs out of gas in the fourth. So either he simply doesn’t play in the fourth, or he plays less in the first three quarters. Whether that means playing Williams more or playing small more frequently is a matter for debate, but the Celtics have to find a way to keep Horford fresh. If he is already tired in the fourth quarter in December, how is he going to fare in April or May?

The solution is simply to not start Horford. Starting Grant Williams alongside Tatum, Brown, Smart and Robert Williams III will not only keep Horford fresher, but will also help spread the floor. Grant Williams is shooting far better from downtown — .466 on three-point attempts compared to .310 for Horford. And if more of the offense flows through the center position in the middle of the floor, it will give Horford the chance to better impact the game when he does come in. Keeping him out by the three-point line isn’t as impactful when he isn’t hitting those shots as regularly (his .310 three-point percentage is easily his worst since he started regularly shooting threes in the 2015-2016 season), and anecdotally, defenders are sagging off of him, making it harder for the offense to function well.


The Celtics roster is definitely far from perfect, and it will be open season on all of their decisions until they can win four games in a row, something they haven’t done yet this season (they did three times last season). But between now and February’s trade deadline, there are fixes available. Running more of the offense through Robert Williams III and developing him as a third option, and playing Al Horford less to keep him fresh and give the team’s other young players more of an opportunity to shine are fixes that can have an immediate impact, and it’s time the Celtics made them.


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