Celtics

Celtics report card: Grading the NBA’s best team after 20 games

The Celtics have the best record in the NBA. Here's a closer look at how everyone is doing.

Celtics
Marcus Smart talks with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The Celtics are now nearly a quarter of the way through the season, which makes it a perfect time to take a big-picture look at the roster. Let’s hand out some grades.

A brief note before we start: The Celtics have been nearly universally excellent this season — so much so, that all of the Ime Udoka drama before the season has become a side story. At the risk of Green Teaming, there’s a very limited amount of criticism to offer when a team is a league-best 16-4 with a league-best point differential of 8.2. These grades — which are based on how players are performing in relation to their roles — will reflect that.

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Let’s get into it.

Jayson Tatum

Relevant stats: 30.5 points per game, 7.9 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.2 blocks, 8.8 free throw attempts per game.

The Celtics have been one of the more complete teams in the NBA — so much so, they can blow out an opponent with Tatum on the bench.

Still, Tatum has been singularly crucial. His 31.5 usage percentage (per Cleaning the Glass) is 96th percentile among forwards. He’s getting to the line more than ever before in his career. His turnover percentage is a career low despite his high usage. His passing has never been better. He’s great with the starters, and he’s a perfect fit with the Mostly Bench Lineup of Death. His deep bag of dribble tricks got deeper this offseason.

Meanwhile, his shot chart has never looked better. He’s getting to the rim constantly, shooting a lot of 3-pointers and forcing his way to the line — relying on his mid-range game only when the game dictates it.

There’s even room for improvement. Per Synergy Sports, Tatum is scoring a staggering 1.37 points per possession (PPP) on post-up opportunities and 1.07 in isolation — 98th percentile and 76th percentile in two of the most difficult actions to be efficient. Meanwhile, he’s putting together just 0.88 PPP as the pick-and-roll ball-handler (61st percentile) and 1.19 PPP in transition (64th percentile). He’s also shooting just 35.2 percent from 3-point range. As great as Tatum has been, he can be even better — transition in particular is generally an easy way to convert efficient points.

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Still, grading on the curve of perfection isn’t reasonable. If Tatum continues his current pace without improving his pick-and-roll numbers or his 3-point percentage at all, he’ll be a real MVP contender. Being a two-way superstar and a frontrunner for MVP on the best team in basketball necessitates the highest mark available.

Grade: A+

Jaylen Brown

Relevant stats: 26.1 points, 6.5 rebounds, 1.1 steals, 3.2 turnovers per game, 50.7 percent shooting, 34.4 percent from three.

Brown is in a weird spot this season. He’s a genuine star, and the Celtics see him that way — so much so, they didn’t want to trade him for a number of rumored stars which includes James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and now Kevin Durant (who, incidentally, has scored more total points than anyone in the NBA).

But Brown also has to fashion his game around how the Celtics use Tatum, which hasn’t always been easy for him. He expressed (gently, without causing drama) a desire to handle the ball more earlier this season, and the numbers suggest that’s reasonable. Per Synergy, 57.2 percent of Brown’s offense has come from transition, spot-up and off-screen opportunities — all of which are generally off-ball actions. Brown wants to handle the ball a little more, and he is playing pretty well with the ball in his hands — 0.98 PPP as the pick-and-roll ball-handler.

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Even out of his comfort zone, Brown has been great — lineups with him on the floor and Tatum off have pummeled opponents by nearly 15 points per 100 possessions. His grade is a touch lower than Tatum’s because his turnovers are still a little high (3.4 assists per game to 3.2 turnovers) and his 3-point shooting could improve a bit through the season, but many of Brown’s turnovers are a result of bold basketball, and few of his 3-point misses are a result of poor shot selection. The myriad good he brings to a basketball floor helps the Celtics enormously.

Grade: A

Marcus Smart

Relevant stats: 11.0 points, 9.2 field-goal attempts, 7.1 assists, 2.1 turnovers per game, 20.5 percent usage, 1.40 assists/usage

An initial look at the stats might cost Smart a few points, but dig deeper and you find how crucial he has been as a cog of the Celtics’ league-best offense. Smart has a very low usage for a point-guard (26th percentile). The Celtics have their stars initiate the offense often, and their stars are not point guards. They also allow bigs like Al Horford to handle the ball. They also have multiple combo guards, including Derrick White and Malcolm Brogdon. All of those factors take the ball out of Smart’s hands.

Still, adjusted for his usage, Smart has an 82nd percentile assist percentage among point guards, and he rarely turns the ball over. Per Synergy, he averages 1.33 points per possession in pick-and-roll opportunities as the ball-handler — 99th percentile league-wide. In other words, he is distributing like a very efficient primary ball-handler while ensuring that the team’s primary eaters get to dine every night.

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Smart gets docked a bit because his 3-point percentage remains low (although he shot 38.5 percent from deep in November after a slow start, so that seems to be righting itself) and because the Celtics’ defense is 18th in the NBA, allowing 113 points per 100 possessions. Defense is a team project, but when you’re the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, the expectations are high.

Still, overall, Smart is performing his role admirably and contributing at a high level.

Grade: B+

Al Horford

Relevant stats: 11.2 points, 2.6 assists per game, 48.7 percent from three, 1.47 points per possession

Horford’s grade here is pretty simple: He’s making an absurd number of 3-pointers, and that — combined with the defensive presence he brings, particularly against the likes of Joel Embiid — makes him invaluable to the Celtics. We mean that literally: It’s very difficult to properly value Al Horford.

Still, here’s a closer look in an attempt to do so: Horford is averaging 1.43 PPP in spot-up opportunities and 1.46 PPP in transition. He has an effective field-goal percentage of 60.9 as the roll man in the pick-and-roll (due to his 3-point shooting) and he’s scoring 1.36 PPP as a cutter. Those four actions make up 77 percent of his offense. That’s about as efficient as it gets, and one of the many reasons the 36-year-old remains deeply essential to a team driven by its young stars.

Grade: A

Derrick White

Relevant stats: 10.7 points, 3.1 assists, 0.8 turnovers per game, 47.7/43.9/88.9 percent shooting splits.

We’ll get to Brad Stevens a little later, but his grade is partly a reflection of the winning gamble he took on White — dealing future picks and useful assets to the Spurs in hopes that White would improve as a 3-point shooter playing alongside the Celtics’ stars while maintaining the versatile two-way game that stood out in San Antonio.

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Sure enough, White is getting most of his usage as a spot-up scorer this season, and he’s scoring a hyper-efficient 1.47 PPP. Meanwhile, his 1.04 PPP as a ball-handler is 97th percentile. White is also scoring efficiently in “Miscellaneous Plays” on Synergy, which feels like a nice summation of what White brings to the floor this year: Good shooting, efficient ball-handling, low turnovers, and a lot of good miscellaneous stuff.

Grade: A

Malcolm Brogdon

Relevant stats: 13.6 points, 3.7 assists, 1.8 turnovers per game, 44.3 percent from 3-point range

Most of these grades have been as stats-based as possible, but Brogdon is difficult to quantify. He’s overqualified for his role off the bench and his efficiency numbers aren’t particularly impressive.

But he’s shooting a high 3-point percentage, and he has been part of several bench lineups that are absolutely frying opponents. Maybe most importantly, he seems to have instilled a competitive mindset in the Celtics’ bench — telling them that they need to be the second-best lineup in the NBA (behind the starters, of course).

The Celtics wanted Brogdon to bring offense to the bench, while adding a winning, versatile veteran presence to the team. Check, check, check.

Grade: A

Grant Williams

Relevant stats: 9.1 points, 4.7 rebounds per game, 2.27 assist-to-turnover ratio, 43.7 percent 3-point shooting, 4 technical fouls.

Defensively, Williams remains a stalwart, highly intelligent rock wall of a player who moves his feet extremely well given that he is — again — a rock wall.

Meanwhile, Williams added a bunch of little tweaks to his game after proving himself as a shooter last season. He can now attack closeouts effectively, and he has shown glimpses of potential around the basket with nice touch on his floater and even a few post-ups.

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There is also a lot of unexpected value in Williams’s ability as a short-roll passer. He’s racking up solid assist numbers, partly because when the defense collapses on him as the roll man, he knows where his teammates should be.

Frankly, this should all come as little surprise — Williams has always been an obsessive worker, and as the Celtics improve, he fills in a lot of cracks in the wall.

Williams should probably try to get his technical fouls in check — he’s not doing his Celtics teammates any favors by testing the officials’ patience, and his pestering cost him a game earlier this season. He isn’t enough of a superstar for his complaining to be a nightly storyline on national broadcasts.

But Williams certainly appears to be playing himself into a significant payday this summer. His bet on himself should pay off handsomely.

Grade: B

Sam Hauser

Relevant stats: 48.9 percent from three, 4.4 attempts per game, 1.49 points/shot attempt (99th percentile).

Here’s how good Sam Hauser has been: His on/off numbers on Cleaning the Glass ruin the usefulness of the entire on/off tab for the team. In his 321 minutes, the Celtics have been so efficient, the numbers make players like Tatum and Brown look ineffective in comparison.

That’s absurd, of course — Sam Hauser is not the reason the Celtics are 16-4. But his lineups have been otherworldly. Having a player who simply doesn’t miss when given an open look is often a game breaker, especially paired with Tatum. Lineups with Tatum and Hauser are outscoring opponents by 29 points per 100 possessions, which puts them in the 100th percentile among two-man lineups on Cleaning the Glass.

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Making the Jays better is the job of every Celtics role player. No one has done it more effectively than Hauser so far.

Grade: A+

Luke Kornet

Relevant stats: 65/40/92.9 percent shooting splits, 3.1 blocks/36 minutes, 1.24 PPP (97th percentile), 0.97 assists-to-usage (88th percentile among bigs).

Whispers about Kornet’s performance in the G-League floated around the team last year, and it’s easy to see why. He’s enormous, he’s almost always in the right spot on both ends, he moves the ball well, he’s a lob threat simply because of his size, and he offers the Celtics a completely different look defensively.

Kornet may have played himself into some rotation minutes even when Robert Williams returns. If he hasn’t, he may have effectively put some of the Celtics’ back-up big concerns to bed.

Grade: A

Payton Pritchard

Relevant stats: 12 games played, 11 minutes, 5.3 points per game, 44.4 percent from 3-point range, 1.19 points/shot attempt.

Obviously, Pritchard has seen his role slashed this season — a tough blow for a player entering his third season (after which he is eligible for his rookie extension). Still, he deserves a lot of credit for how he has played this season given the circumstances. Lineups with Pritchard have outscored opponents by 17.5 points per 100 possessions in non-garbage time minutes. That number that is obviously affected by the game against the Kings in which Pritchard and Kornet completely turned the tide in the third quarter, but frankly, that game has an outsized impact on Pritchard’s grade. It was a perfect encapsulation of what he offers the Celtics: A burst of energy and offense simply waiting for a chance to fire up 3-pointers at an efficient clip.

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Pritchard might be ready for more minutes on a less loaded team. It’s also possible his best role in the NBA will be as a microwave scorer off the bench. In either case, he was essential in helping the Celtics beat a Western Conference playoff team and is constantly prepared, which earns him a high mark here as well.

Grade: A

Noah Vonleh

Relevant stats: 14 games played, 9.2 minutes per game, 10 rebounds/36 minutes, 7.3 fouls/36 minutes

Vonleh has shown some good and some bad — he gobbles up rebounds on both ends and he has shown some surprising flashes of 3-point range as a shooter, but he does have a tendency to commit moving screens which isn’t great given how much the Celtics love to use a screener to create mismatches for Tatum and Brown.

Vonleh played pretty well against Embiid in the opener, but he might have a hard time finding the floor going forward, especially after Williams returns.

Grade: C

Blake Griffin

Griffin has only played in seven games, but he certainly looks like he’s having a great time on the bench, and there’s something to be said for that.

Grade: C+

Justin Jackson

You simply can’t give out a grade for 36 minutes.

Grade: Incomplete

JD Davison

Davison scored his first field goal recently, and he’s shown some flashes as a passer, in part thanks to his explosive speed and his ability to get where he wants to go. Give him an A+!

Grade: Incomplete

Mfiondu Kabengele

Kabengele captured the hearts of Celtics fans during the preseason.

He is yet to see the floor in the regular season, however.

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Grade: Incomplete

Joe Mazzulla

Mazzulla was put in a brutal position, replacing the well-liked head coach of a team that went to the NBA Finals with very little explanation offered to the players from the front office about why the popular coach was sent packing.

All he has done in the interim is craft the best offense in the NBA (by a mile) and lead the Celtics to the NBA’s best record, while garnering universally positive reviews from his players for his democratic style of coaching.

In future grades, we will want to see the defense improve, but we can’t let perfect be the enemy of what Mazzulla has accomplished so far, especially given the circumstances.

Grade: A+

Brad Stevens

Danny Ainge built the backbone of this team, but nearly every move Brad Stevens made has since last year’s trade deadline — from acquiring Derrick White to making Joe Mazzulla the interim head coach — has been a success. He also seems to have found a perfect strategy for using your first-round picks as a contender — offload them to bad teams to pick off veterans who add to your team. Don’t be surprised if that strategy picks up steam around the league.

For now, we will defer judgment on how Stevens handled the Udoka situation since it remains unresolved. As the foreman in the construction of an NBA team, Stevens looks remarkably prescient.

Grade: A

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