Nine games into the 2023-2024 season, and it is already clear that the Boston Celtics are a good team, but as the rest of the league has started to settle in, the teams’ 5-0 start didn’t wash away all of their flaws. In the last week, the Celtics have gone 2-2 after a Saturday night victory against the Toronto Raptors at home to salvage a spilt after what revealed itself as their first hard stretch of the season.
When the Celtics have played well, they have looked really, really good. With the added talent in their starting lineup, there have been fewer times this season when Boston has looked disorganized. That’s not to say that stretches against the Minnesota Timberwolves and Philadelphia 76ers didn’t inspire flashbacks of their predictable stalling offense.
The Jrue Holiday and Kristaps Porzingis trades have done what they were designed to – make Boston a more diverse offensive and defensive unit. However, that also seems to have left some blemishes, namely their bench production. When they took in the contracts of Holiday and Porzingis, they sacrificed a deep and sturdy second unit. What once was a staple of the Brad Stevens teams in the mid-2010s has been left to develop into a championship-level group on the fly.
Does the current bench need more time to settle in as the one-month mark approaches? Or should the Celtics be scanning the league to see who they can potentially add?
The Right Bench Fit?
During training camp, Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla mentioned how he could manipulate the starting lineup on a night-to-night basis. With the talent at his disposal and the Celtics having six players who could be starters, Mazzulla warned that everyone will have to sacrifice at times. So far, that really hasn’t been the case. Boston has stuck with the starting lineup of Holiday, Derrick White, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Porzingis, with Al Horford serving as the de facto sixth man. That has left bench duties to the trio of Sam Hauser, Payton Pritchard, and Luke Kornet.
Overall, the raw and advanced metrics would hint at an overreaction. For example, according to lineup data from NBA.com, the three-man bench lineup of Pritchard, Hauser, and Kornet has a plus-13.8 net rating when on the court. Now, context matters in those numbers. The Celtics are playing with a relatively thin bench, and those three primary bench players get to play in lineups with Tatum, Porzingis, and Holiday. Because of that, they have the luxury of playing with three of the top plus-minus players in the NBA.
NBA plus/minus leaders:
1. Jayson Tatum: +166
2. Jrue Holiday: +111
3. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope: +108
4. Anthony Edwards: +106
5. Nikola Jokic: +105
6. Aaron Gordon: +99
7. Derrick White: +95
Kristaps Porzingis: +95 pic.twitter.com/uki0zw3Wru
— Taylor Snow (@taylorcsnow) November 12, 2023
Maybe the bigger concern is that the Celtics have been a bad team without Tatum on the floor. With Tatum sitting, the Celtics drop to a mediocre offensive team and a putrid defensive team (net rating: +24.6 on/-16.1 off). A big reason for that disparity is the makeup of their bench. The Celtics invested in Pritchard to be a multi-level scorer who could improve his playmaking. So far, with shakey confidence, he looks a lot like the player from last season. Similarly, Kornet has not been consistent in his increased role.
Hauser, A Serious Contributor
Out of the entire bench group, Hauser has impressed the most. That has resulted in more confidence not only within himself as a player, but it’s been noticeable with the coaches, too. In his career’s most extended playing time to date, the former Virginia Cavalier has continued to advance his outside shooting ability. Through nine games, he holds career-high marks in minutes (19.1) and three-point shooting percentage (45.3%).
— The Celtics Files (@CelticsFiles) November 12, 2023
The most notable improvement for Hauser has been his work on the boards. Losing Robert Williams in the Holiday trade pushed rebounding responsibilities down to the forwards and guards. The Celtics have been able to carve out a top-five rebounding team, much to the credit of undersized rebounders. Hauser’s 3.2 rebounds per game are a sign that he is willing to work hard in other areas to earn time. Hard work or “dirty work” was the thing that was sacrificed by not having the likes of Grant Williams and Blake Griffin return. While those qualities can be overrated at times, having players who are willing to do it can help swing games and earn, more importantly, trust.
Who Deserves More Run?
A possible hindrance in Boston’s bench production could be the lack of patience Mazzulla has had with his unit so far. The crop of offseason additions, Dalano Banton, Oshae Brissett, Lamar Stevens, and Svi Mykhailiuk, have accounted for 6% of the Celtic’s total minutes this season. The fact of the matter is they haven’t played enough to be evaluated. Some things have looked promising, like Brissett’s energy on the offensive glass or Mykhailiuk’s willingness to move off the ball. What is puzzling about not testing the bench more is that if there was any time of the year to do it, now would it.
A player that should see the court more often is Stevens. The fourth-year pro started 25 games for a Cleveland Cavaliers team that won 51 games last season. What Stevens would bring to the Celtics is some physicality and toughness. His outside shooting is the unknown, and with the Celtics’ infatuation with threes, Stevens might not fit with that style. Although, he has enough of an offensive bag, particularly carving out space in the mid-range to survive 10-plus minutes a game.
Ultimately, the Celtics don’t need to have the best bench in the league. The firepower they have in their starting lineup is enough to brunt any blow that a weaker bench would cause. On the other hand, it would be smart to examine what contributions players like Stevens, Mykhailiuk, and Banton have to offer. Hope isn’t lost on its non-guaranteed and two-way players, either. Neemias Queta has been out with a foot injury, while Jordan Walsh and JD Davidson are gaining reps in the G-League. While they are a longshot for legitimate playing time, it’s encouraging that they are being used elsewhere because if a worst-case scenario or injury pops up, they will be elevated.
Matt Strout is an Editor for Back Sports Page. Matt studied Journalism and Sociology at Temple University for four years and graduated in May of 2022. While there, Matt wrote for multiple student and professional publications covering sports and the City of Philadelphia. Matt is originally from Maine and now resides in California. He has written content primarily for the NBA and PGA Tour. You can catch Matt frequently as a guest on the “Cut The Nets” podcast featured on the Back Sports Page network. When Matt is not writing, he enjoys cooking and playing golf. Follow Matt’s social media on Twitter @TheRealStrout or Instagram @matt_strout96.
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