The question for the Celtics 25 percent into the season is whether they will be forced to rely too much on their front-end talent. They possess one of the best top six groups in the NBA, able to compete and flourish against any team in the league.
President of basketball operations Brad Stevens has put together a skilled first unit after the acquisition of Jrue Holiday, who became more offensively assertive in Friday’s win over the New York Knicks, an encouraging sign for the ability to win without standout nights from Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
Derrick White has already emerged as a third scoring option, even with Kristaps Porzingis, and White appears to be improving as the season progresses.
To shore up the roster and ensure the team is equipped for a deep playoff run that will end with a championship, the Celtics will have to continue to assess and examine their players beyond the first six or seven that include Al Horford and Sam Hauser.
Hauser has proven to be the shooter the Celtics have sought for years, and the club spent two years developing him into a reliable option. He’s shooting 43.6 percent from the 3-point line and he’ll get plenty of open looks as long as he’s on the floor with Tatum, Brown, and White.
Horford isn’t scoring as he did in the past because of fewer opportunities but he remains a capable 3-point shooter (36 percent) and is showing more desire to score in the paint.
Coach Joe Mazzulla has maintained confidence in Payton Pritchard as a bench option and it’s been an uneven experiment so far. Pritchard has proven to be an effective player at TD Garden — 41 percent from the 3-point line, 147 offensive rating.
On the road, however, Pritchard is shooting 21.1 percent from the 3-point line (8 for 38) with a 90 offensive rating. In the Celtics’ quarterfinal loss to the Indiana Pacers in the In-Season Tournament, Pritchard missed all five of his shot attempts and went scoreless in 15 minutes. The Celtics bench was battered by their Indiana counterparts.
What is evident about the quality teams in the NBA is they contain bench depth. Stevens said during the preseason he wanted to nab players such as Hauser and Dalano Banton to develop because he’s traded so many first-round picks over the past few years.
Former first-round pick Aaron Nesmith was dealt to the Indiana Pacers for Malcolm Brogdon, who was flipped after one season for Holiday. Nesmith struggled in his two years in Boston, shooting 27 percent from the 3-point line in his final year and losing the faith of Ime Udoka.
This season, Nesmith has emerged as a valuable reserve for the Pacers, shooting 44.3 percent from the 3-point line and turning into a plus defender. The Celtics understandably would do that trade 10 times out of 10 if it meant getting Holiday in return.
But trading first-round picks means the Celtics have to find their depth elsewhere. Stevens signed Banton, Oshae Brissett, and Lamar Stevens, but only Banton appears to be a rotation consideration for Mazzulla.
The Celtics could use a shooter off the bench, a bucket getter, a player who may not be staunch defensively but can provide offense when Tatum and/or Brown are sitting. Boston is limited because it’s in the second apron, which prevents signing a buyout player whose salary is above $12.2 million.
The best option is the $6.2 million trade exception created by the Grant Williams trade. The Celtics could include some of their slew of second-round picks to acquire a bargain shooter who may be available or in the final year of his contract.
There are players such as Saddiq Bey of the Atlanta Hawks and Justin Holiday (Jrue’s brother), shooters who could be available in addition to Bulls backup center Andre Drummond.
The Celtics have never hesitated to upgrade the roster at the trade deadline. Mazzulla has roughly two months to determine which players on the roster can contribute positively to a championship this season.
Boston is 29th in the NBA in bench scoring, partly because it’s 29th in shot attempts from the bench. The Celtics are a team that relies heavily on its starters and Mazzulla keeps those starters in the game continuously with reserves.
But there’s nothing wrong with more depth and more scoring in a league where four teams average more than 120 points per game.
The Celtics will take the next several weeks to assess their options but the disappearance of Brissett as an option is concerning. He was originally signed to fill the Williams role but has not played in 12 of the Celtics’ 21 games. Stevens, a tough defender and rebounder, has played fewer minutes than Brissett.
This team could use another reliable scorer, rebounder, and defender as an option, and we’ll see if that player emerges from those on the roster or outside the organization. The Celtics will have options as the trade deadline approaches.