Malcolm Brogdon, Sam Hauser have helped make Celtics’ bench one of the NBA’s best units

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Malcolm Brogdon plays against the Chicago Bulls Friday, Nov 4, 2022, in Boston. AP Photo/Michael Dwyer

Entering the season, the Celtics were considered contenders largely because of their two ascendent superstars — Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown — as well as their league-best starting lineup in 2021-22.

The Celtics brought back their entire starting lineup from last year after making the NBA Finals (or at least, they will when Robert Williams returns from injury in the relatively near future). Brad Stevens made one big move, adding Malcolm Brogdon while giving up very little of value. Other than that, Stevens only tinkered around the edges — apparently content to see how far further growth and maturation could carry his young team.

The lack of action was a notable vote of confidence in a roster that ground its way through the Eastern Conference playoffs and took the Warriors to six games in the NBA Finals. Many Celtics fans appreciated the chance to see the Celtics run it back, but Stevens’ offseason wasn’t universally loved — one analyst noted the “lack in quality” of players outside of the team’s top seven.


Plenty of season remains for the analyst to be proven correct, of course — the Celtics have played just nine games so far. But in the early going, one pattern has emerged: The bench unit — which goes beyond seven players — is annihilating its opponents. 

An individual example of the Celtics’ bench dominance is Sam Hauser, who is quickly proving he deserves extended minutes (which, on this roster, aren’t exactly easy to cobble together). Hauser is shooting 54.8 percent from 3-point range on 3.4 attempts per game, with a comically high effective field-goal percentage of 81.4 percent. 

As a result, the Celtics have been essentially untouchable with Hauser on the floor. In 223 possessions (which filter out garbage time), the Celtics have outscored opponents by 31.9 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass. That puts Hauser’s lineups in the 100th percentile of all lineups league-wide (with at least 15 possessions played). 

Hauser is part of a dominant group made up of mostly bench players. Per Cleaning the Glass, the four-man combination of Hauser, Tatum, Brogdon and Grant Williams is also in the 100th percentile, outscoring opponents by 33.5 points per 100 possessions (with 90 total possessions played). The Celtics have tried a couple of different looks with the fifth player, but both Luke Kornet and Noah Vonleh have held up well in their time on the floor. 


Swap Brown for Tatum, and the results are similar — drubbing opponents by 20.4 points per 100 possessions, a 98th percentile total. 

Why does that lineup work so well? The simplest answer is a big piece of the puzzle: Surrounding Tatum or Brown with versatile shooting is an enormous weapon. In particular, Tatum — who is averaging 30.3 points per game so far this season — is shooting 75.9 percent inside five feet of the rim and 38.3 percent from 3-point range, while dishing out 4.2 assists per game. Add unicorn-like defense to his defense-warping offense, and you can see the beginnings of an MVP equation coming together. 

Grant Williams deserves mention as well. Last season, he gave opponents an eyeful of 3-point shooting to ponder when watching film. This year, he’s beating opponents off the dribble and scoring in a variety of ways that bring to mind his non-traditional offense at Tennessee … all while shooting 53.8 percent from behind the arc. That number can’t hold (right?), but Williams is getting a lot of open looks and his shooting from last season clearly isn’t a fluke. As Al Horford gets a little older, the Celtics have a natural successor to his slot in the starting lineup — especially as Williams plays himself closer and closer to starter money in restricted free agency next season. Celtics fans are fretting about the offer sheet Williams might receive from a team desperate for his two-way versatility, but the Celtics aren’t stupid and they can match whatever Williams signs.


But Brogdon might be as essential to the second unit as Tatum. Entrusted with the keys to the offense in a bench role, Brogdon is within shouting distance of the 50/40/90 club as a shooter with 3.8 assists per game, and he appears to delight in finding Hauser sprinting ahead of the pack. 

Meanwhile, he seems to have demanded — and gained — the deep respect of the bench as a leader. 

“Malcolm,” Hauser said instantly, when asked about the leader of the bench unit after the Celtics’ win over the Wizards.

Brogdon’s message to the group is simple — make sure there’s no drop off when the starters leave the game, especially after a high-profile failure against the Bulls earlier this season — but his expectations are appropriately demanding.

“I’ve been telling them we’ve got to be the best second team in the league,” Brogdon said after the Celtics faced the Bulls again (and beat them this time) on Friday. “We’ve got to embrace that. We are the second team. We’re going to be the best in the league and we’re going to take full ownership of that.”

The Celtics’ bench will get even more interesting soon. Robert Williams’ return will push a talented starter — likely Derrick White — to the bench. The Celtics could also try bringing Horford off the bench in favor of White or Brogdon, and Horford could replace Kornet or Vonleh with the deadly four-man group — providing even more floor spacing and ball movement, as well as an injection of versatile defense. 


Whenever Robert Williams returns, Mazzulla has a good problem to solve –the Second Unit Horsemen of the Apocalypse have been much too good to put on the shelf. Far from only having seven good players, the Celtics might soon find themselves struggling to sort through their embarrassment of riches.


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