Will the Celtics’ Abysmal Bench Play Be Their Undoing Come Postseason?

It’s no secret that in terms of raw production, the Boston Celtics had one of the weakest bench units in the NBA over the course of the 2019-20 season. The Celtics rank 29th in the league in terms of bench scoring – a number not exactly synonymous with “postseason success”. With an important  stretch of seeding games ahead and playoff basketball looming on the horizon, does Boston have the necessary depth to make a deep postseason run?

In all likelihood, Brad Stevens will deploy a tight rotation that consists of eight or nine of the team’s best players. However, considering the injuries Kemba Walker, Gordon Hayward, and Marcus Smart have dealt with this season (and the team’s respective caution with each situation), it’s not unreasonable to expect said stars to miss games over the next two months. Stevens knows what he’s working with, and his method of staggering minutes to keep at least one or two of the Celtics’ “Big Four” on the floor at all times should alleviate some bench production issues. Despite this admittedly effective technique, Boston’s roster has several legitimate question marks and concerns – if the starters are forced to miss any time, said concerns carry a lot more weight.

Of the many issues surrounding the Celtics’ second unit, three stand out above the rest:

1.) Consistency (In Terms of Playmaking) From the Guards

Boston knows what it’s getting with Marcus Smart on the offensive end of the floor – a player with great passing instincts and the ability to find open teammates within the flow of the system. The fact that the team can utilize this aspect of his skill set off the bench has been a saving grace in a relatively bleak situation. The same cannot be said, however, for Brad Wanamaker, Tremont Waters, and Carsen Edwards.

Wanamaker has become a scapegoat for Boston’s weak bench play over the course of the season. While this isn’t necessarily fair (statistically speaking, he’s actually on-par with Smart offensively per-36 minutes), Celtics’ fans’ frustration comes from his momentum-killing turnovers, failure to find open-shooters, and over-aggression when attacking the basket at times. As of right now, Wanamaker will likely be Stevens’ 7th or 8th rotation player for this upcoming playoff run. If he’s going to help Boston compete for a championship, he’ll need to put even more focus on getting others (especially the team’s top scoring options) involved. Staying aggressive enough to make opposing defenses respect his scoring ability without pushing too hard and taking too many field goal attempts away from Boston’s more talented offensive players will be a key storyline to watch for Wanamaker personally.

Of course, Boston could elect to give Waters or Edwards a chance to direct the offense in short stretches. After his impressive play yet again in the team’s first two scrimmage games, there has been a lot of buzz surrounding Waters over the past few days, while Edwards has played well enough to justify his presence on the floor. Although both rookies could offer some effective playmaking in short bursts, don’t expect to see Stevens’ utilize either very much once the playoffs begin (barring injury). Both are undersized and could be taken advantage of defensively, and it’s unlikely that either player competed in enough games to earn Stevens’ trust once the win-or-go-home moments emerge.

Boston clearly needs a player capable of effectively managing the offense if Walker and Smart aren’t on the floor. In a perfect scenario, Wanamaker can be that player, so long as he can focus on making the most intelligent basketball play every time down the floor. If not, the Celtics need to start praying that Walker and Smart are able to handle the entirety of the playmaking duties for 48 minutes per game during a seven-game playoff series.

2.) Perimeter Shooting and Defense From the Wing Players

The Celtics have a top-heavy roster, and although at least one of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Kemba Walker and Gordon Hayward will remain on the floor at all times during the postseason, having extra wing players to exert defensive effort and space the floor is never a bad thing for a basketball team. Stevens’ has alluded to his plans to utilize Romeo Langford as a wing defender during the final stretch of the season in an interview following Sunday’s win over the Phoenix Suns, while it’s not unreasonable to expect Semi Ojeleye to pick up a few minutes here and there in an attempt to keep the starters as fresh as possible.

Langford and Ojeleye won’t be asked to do very much on the offensive end, but being able to knock down open three-pointers and mid-range jumpers when called upon could add an entirely new dimension to Boston’s offense when the star players need rest. Ojeleye, shooting a career-high 36.7% from behind the three point line this season, has already shown that he can hit the occasional jump shot. For Ojeleye, it’s about remaining consistent despite the low amount of field goal attempts he’ll be receiving. Langford, on the other hand, has struggled mightily from the perimeter during his injury-plagued rookie season, knocking down just 5 of his 23 three-point attempts thus far. It’s a small sample size (especially after the three-point turnaround we witnessed fellow rookie Grant Williams experience midway through the season), but 21.7% from behind the three point line is obviously less than ideal from a player that will be playing the shooting guard or small forward position.

With multiple other shot creators sharing the court at once, Boston doesn’t necessarily need Ojeleye or Langford to be able to put the ball on the floor and beat defenders off the dribble to create offense. The team is better off with the ball in the hands of Tatum, Brown, or any of the Celtics other elite offensive threats. However, if defenses don’t treat Ojeleye and Langford like legitimate perimeter threats, it can compromise the spacing essential to Boston’s offensive attack. If said players earn playing time for their defensive contributions, converting open looks must be their main priority on the other side of the ball.

3.) Interior Defense From the Bigs

One of the more popular conversations surrounding Boston’s roster as a whole this season has revolved around their need for more help at the center position. In terms of the starting lineup, this thought process is clearly misguided – as most proponents of said argument have clearly failed to look into just how fantastic Daniel Theis has performed within his role. Although Theis has done a great job of anchoring the interior defense during his time on the floor, the inconsistency of Enes Kanter, Grant Williams and Robert Williams on that side of the ball could have a catastrophic impact on team success when Boston needs to limit players like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid or Bam Adebayo.

Kanter, the Celtics’ most offensively talented big, is capable of solid defensive stretches simply due to the physical tools at his disposal. His struggles with lateral quickness and pick-and-roll situations cannot be understated, however, and his blatant lapses in effort have been justification enough for Stevens’ to keep him on the bench for entire games. Both Grant and Robert Williams have better defensive instincts, but neither is particularly reliable. Grant Williams is capable of defending perimeter players as well as holding down the interior, but his relatively small frame makes him exploitable at the hands of much bigger centers. Robert Williams is an athletic phenom with fantastic shot-blocking skills, but his over-reliance on said shot-blocking abilities make him an easy target for quick dump-off passes and ball movement that results in quick defensive rotations.

The answer to this issue isn’t as clear cut as the coaching staff would likely prefer. Each player offers positives and negatives on the offensive and defensive side of the floor. Currently, Grant Williams may be in a position to secure the most minutes of the three bench bigs, due to the fact that he can space the floor somewhat effectively on offense while moving his feet and acting as the most versatile interior defensive option available to the team. Unfortunately, no matter what decision Stevens ultimately makes, he’ll need to sacrifice valuable aspects of certain players’ skill sets. It’s a tough scenario, and one of the three bench options needs to step up and hold their own to a reasonable degree if Boston wants to advance deep into the postseason.

The Celtics’ bench play likely isn’t where the coaching staff or front office was hoping it would be going into the season. Luckily, the options the team has available are very young and full of promise. Moving forward, we may see a few of the rookie or sophomore players turn heads with personal growth and intelligent decision making. If the Celtics are serious about earning the franchise’s 18th title, they’ll need all the help they can get from the second unit.

Statistics obtained via basketball-reference.com and nba.com

Photo: (Marcio Jose Sanchez – AP Photo)

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