After a roster overhaul, a front office promotion, and a coaching staff upheaval, it felt like things would be better for the Celtics this season. So far, they haven’t been. Despite all the changes, this team looks a whole lot like last year’s disappointing group. Boston’s 2-3 start (including an 0-2 home record) has been frustrating, a word that’s become a staple of the Celtics in recent years.
There are many things to pick apart with the Celtics right now, but let’s just focus on one: Josh Richardson needs to play better. Richardson was, seemingly, Boston’s answer to not wanting to pay Evan Fournier in free agency. At the time, it didn’t seem like all that bad of a call by newly minted President of Basketball Operations Brad Stevens. Richardson’s contract was significantly cheaper, and what he lacked in Fournier’s scoring ability he made up for on defense. So far, Richardson hasn’t been the comparative value that he was thought to be. However, the onus for his shortcomings doesn’t fall on Richardson as much as it falls on the Celtics. Part of that blame is for misusing him. The other part is for trading for a player that they were going to be ostensibly forced to misuse.
Over the last two games, Richardson has a total of zero points. Not exactly ideal. His scoring average is down significantly less than half of what it was last year at this point in time. On the surface, fans may be quick to levy criticism against Richardson for his lack of offensive production. However, consider the fact that Richardson only had two shot attempts over the course of those two games, zero of which came last night. It’s incumbent on the Celtics to use Richardson effectively, not on Richardson to force the issue and demand more shots.
The Celtics aren’t getting Richardson the ball, adequately showcased by the fact that he has the second-lowest usage rate on the team. His usage rate is roughly the same as Semi Ojeleye’s was last year with Boston (and almost half of Ojeleye’s current usage rate in Milwaukee). Somehow, the Celtics are using Richardson even less than the 76ers and Mavericks did. Despite the fact that he was considered a “bad fit” in each of his last two stops, his average usage rate over that span was still higher than what Marcus Smart’s was last season. In fact, Smart has never had a single season where his usage rate has exceeded what Richardson’s was over the last two seasons. Don’t go thinking this is simply who Richardson has been since leaving Miami. This is different.
On top of not scoring, Richardson has hardly accumulated any counting stats over the last pair of games. Aside from a few rebounds, he has two total assists. Both assists were rather routine and unimpressive passes for spot-up threes to Jabari Parker and Al Horford. In other words, Richardson has done a whole lot of nothing on offense in his last 30 minutes of action.
They are simply sticking him in the corner and keeping him out of the way. It’s unfortunate, being that Richardson is a pretty solid ball-handler, but perhaps understandable given the fact that the team would rather give those ball-handling opportunities to their two stars in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown or to their two other major acquisitions this offseason in Al Horford and Dennis Schroder, both of whom have performed exceptionally to begin this season.
All of that is to say that the Celtics might actually be right to be limiting Richardson’s opportunities. They have better scorers, passers, and ball handlers. However, if this was the way the Celtics were planning on using him all season, they never should’ve acquired him in the first place.
Furthermore, his defensive performance hasn’t exactly been inspiring either. His lone steal over the last two contests probably should’ve been attributed to Marcus Smart, who appeared to knock the ball away first. The Celtics have mostly stuck him on the corner shooter, hiding him as if he were Isaiah Thomas. He spent most of the last two games defending the likes of Corey Kispert and Cody Martin, not exactly players Boston is prioritizing shutting down. Certainly the threat of Richardson’s ability to switch in and of itself is useful to have on the court. It makes it harder for defenses to hunt mismatches. However, if Boston wanted a switchable defender that wasn’t going to play a major role elsewhere, they could’ve found a cheaper one by bringing back Ojeleye or Javonte Green, who’s playing pretty well for Chicago so far this season while making roughly eight times less than Richardson.
When Richardson has been put in the middle of the action defensively, it hasn’t gone great for him. Beal easily drove past him in the first quarter of the Wizards game just after bringing the ball up over half court. Richardson appeared visibly frustrated, seemingly looking for help from Grant Williams, who instead chose to stick with Montrezl Harrell on the perimeter, or perhaps with Al Horford, who failed to contest the shot at the rim despite being in the general vicinity. Ime Udoka called a timeout immediately after.
In the second quarter, Richardson stumbled while guarding Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, allowing for a drive to the basket that forced Al Horford to rotate over and left Harrell open for a lob pass and a bucket. Another Ime Udoka timeout followed that basket, along with a notable observation from Brian Scalabrine: “The Celtics aren’t communicating on the defensive end at all.”
If the Celtics wanted to stick someone in the corner to space the floor, they should’ve gone after a better shooter. Richardson’s percentage from deep this season might not look all that bad (45.5%), but consider that he went 4-4 from outside in Boston’s blowout loss to Toronto. Since then, he’s shot 1-7 from deep. Add that context to him being a 33.5% shooter from long range over the last two seasons and it doesn’t seem like the role of floor spacer is a clean fit. Brad Stevens could’ve pursued Reggie Bullock in a sign-and-trade deal or Landry Shamet before he was traded to Phoenix. Both signed contracts last offseason that are similar to that of Richardson’s and both are vastly superior shooters (over 39% in their careers).
Richardson finished each of his last four seasons as a top five scoring option for his team. Last season with the Mavericks was the lowest he’s finished in that regard over that span. He’s currently 10th on the Celtics in points per game. That needs to change. If Udoka continues to use him as nothing more than a spot-up shooter instead of utilizing his talents elsewhere on offense, they’ll be trying to shove a square peg into a round hole all season long. Ultimately, that’s more Brad Stevens’ fault than it is Udoka’s. Boston needs to maximize its talent if they plan on winning at a high-level this season. They’re failing to do that with Josh Richardson.
Photo: (Jason Vinlove – USA Today Sports)