After Gordon Hayward’s gruesome injury, the Celtics will lean heavily on two players who can’t even legally drink.
It’s a good thing we didn’t end up posting a Boston Celtics season preview. Almost every preseason article about the team was rendered obsolete on Tuesday night, when Gordon Hayward’s shin snapped just five minutes into his Celtics debut. The first few months of the season were supposed to be exciting, as Boston integrated 11 new players, including two bona fide stars in Hayward and Kyrie Irving. Now, instead of dealing with growing pains, the Celtics are just trying to stay afloat.
Hayward’s injury sucks. It sucks for Hayward. It sucks for the Celtics. Frankly, it sucks for the league. But soon, the initial shock of the injury will wear off and reality will set in for Boston. Without Hayward – who is likely lost for the season, according to his agent Mark Bartelstein – the Celtics face a host of challenges, and the biggest may be the simplest: Replacing Hayward.
Among Boston’s wings, Hayward is the best shooter, best creator, and best defender. His primary replacements? Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum – two number three overall picks aged 20 and 19, respectively. Through three games, the pair has played an average of more than 70 combined minutes. That number will drop once Marcus Morris returns, but not by much; Boston is light on bigs with NBA experience, meaning Morris will need to log heavy minutes at power forward.
The instinctual response to Hayward going down is to simplify the offense around the Irving-Al Horford pick-and-roll. That response isn’t a foolproof option for Brad Stevens, however, considering the spacing Hayward’s shooting unlocked. Morris is only a so-so shooter, having canned 35.5 percent of his career tries from beyond the arc. Marcus Smart is one of the worst high-volume three-point shooters ever. Tatum and Brown both hit 34 percent of their threes last season – the former doing so at Duke – and neither will command much attention from defenses.
Those looks will be available for Brown and Tatum; it’s up to them to convert. So far, the results have been less than ideal, with the duo shooting a combined 6-of-21 from distance and Boston managing just 97.3 points per 100 possessions, which would’ve ranked bottom of the league last year. If that shooting percentage doesn’t creep up, the Celtics won’t be able to rely on Irving’s magic to bail them out. There simply won’t be enough room in the lane.
If anything, the fact Brown and Tatum don’t provide ideal spacing puts more pressure on their young shoulders. Instead of running an Irving-centric pick-and-roll attack, Stevens will just plug Tatum and Brown into the regular offense and say “go.” That tactic isn’t unreasonable. Aside from running in transition, Tatum’s greatest strength on offense may be his ability to come off down screens or hand-offs with a head of steam. This set isn’t dissimilar from Avery Bradley’s old pet play:
Brown’s role is a bit more difficult to pin down, even though he’s averaging 17.3 points per game. He’s a menace in transition, where his athleticism shines. In the halfcourt, however, Brown’s offense has consisted primarily of cuts, spot-ups, and put-backs. The Cal product is a clever player who works the baseline well and relocates along the perimeter for open shots, but he’ll need to rapidly improve his handle and jumper to become a consistent secondary option.
Some nights, Brown and Tatum will replicate Hayward and look like the most promising wing duo in basketball. Other nights, their inexperience will mean turnovers, forced shots, and mental errors.
Already, the Celtics have looked out of sync getting into their sets and moving the ball. As a result, Stevens has occasionally scrapped his free-flowing offense and opted for bully-ball. Going into yesterday’s game, the team had scored 25 points on 21 possessions finished with post-ups. Horford can facilitate from the post. Smart is a known bruiser at guard who terrorized Kyle Korver on opening night. Tatum and Brown, meanwhile, are both big wings comfortable operating out of the mid-post:
Make no mistake, the Celtics will be much worse offensively without Hayward. What was once a clear top-10 attack may struggle to break into the league’s top half in efficiency. That said, with incremental improvements from the youngsters and the requisite adjustments by Stevens – or a Westbrookian season from Irving – Boston can stay functional on that end.
So far, the defensive adjustment has been much more encouraging. The Celtics have allowed just 99.9 points per 100 possessions, a stingy mark that would’ve paced the league last season. That number will increase with a greater sample size, but it’s still surprising given the inexperience of the team’s wing pairing. Here, Brown and Tatum miscommunicate on a simple switch and Tatum stumbles into a laughable closeout on Robert Covington:
Those types of mistakes have been rare, though. Brown has the length and athleticism to envelop guards or bang with bigger players. Tatum, meanwhile, has used his long arms to wreak havoc as a help defender and snag nine rebounds per game. It helps playing with intelligent, sturdy defenders like Horford, Smart, and Terry Rozier, but Brown and Tatum’s individual performances will continue to dictate Boston’s defensive success. Covering for Irving’s abysmal defense isn’t easy. It’s especially difficult when you’re still getting used to the NBA.
Maybe this is all too much to ask of a rookie and a sophomore. Young players usually lead teams to the lottery, yet the Celtics are still gunning for a decent playoff seed. Tatum and Brown are getting a baptism of fire on a team ready to win now.
So, can the kids help the Celtics to 40 wins? 45? 50? Any of those predictions may end up being accurate. Generally speaking, we know what to expect from Boston’s veterans, including the younger guys like Rozier and Smart who still have room to improve. Tatum and Brown, however, are enigmas. And without Hayward, they’re the enigmas who might just salvage Boston’s season.
Edited by Jeremy Losak.
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