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A Case for the Small Ball Celtics


"Small ball" has been around for awhile, popularized by none other than former Celtic Don Nelson. Traditionally, this style of play has been associated with a plethora of threes, which is not a strength of this Celtics squad. Looking at the numbers, however, it seems that playing small ball could be a source of life for an offense that sputtered in it's two preseason games.

For the fore-knee-able future (looking at you, Kemba), Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, and Jayson Tatum are going to be the offensive focal points for your 20-21 C's. Nominally, Smart will play the 1 or 2, Brown the 2 or 3, and Tatum the 3 or 4. Across the board, all 3 of these players have a healthier offensive contribution when moved up one digit position-wise - Smart at the 2, Brown at the 3, and Tatum at the 4. First, let's look at Smart 

Marcus Smart Position Splits
ASTD % = Percentage of makes that were assisted upon
% Freq at Rim = Percentage of shots taken at rim
% Freq from 3 = Percentage of shots taken from 3
% Fouled = Percentage of shots that drew a foul

Looking at the numbers, it's elementary where I want Marcus to play. When running the 2 spot, he's finishing plays rather than creating them, with over half his buckets coming off assists. Likewise, his distribution is a little better, with a slight uptick in shots at the rim and fewer 3 point attempts. And finally, he's drawing more shooting fouls, which are the easiest points in basketball. A Marcus Smart who is attacking closeouts and shooting catch and shoot threes - rather than isolating or trying to create for others - is the best version of Smart, and what we see more of when he plays the shooting guard spot. 

Next, Brown

Again, these numbers show a healthier offensive contribution. Brown is finishing more off assists, and increasing his free throw attempts. While the distribution of his attempts does not change, it is important to note that his effective field goal percentage (eFG%) goes up, from 55.1% to 56.3%, when moving down a position. So, while JB is taking similar shots, he's much more efficient, likely due to easier catch and shoot/drive opportunities with the smaller lineup. 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Jayson Tatum

These are undoubtedly the most astonishing splits amongst the group. Look at the assisted percentage - that is like going from prime, post-Shaq, do-it-myself Kobe (04-05, 34%) to 34 year old Paul Pierce (11-12, 57%) during Rajon Rondo's All-NBA season, where Rondo averaged nearly 12 APG. I don't know how it's possible to oscillate this far, but here we are. Further down the line, Tatum's numbers look improved as well. More shots at the rim, less threes, and more free throws are music to frustrated fans' ears, and Tatum gives us exactly that from the 4 spot. 

As has been proven time and again, isolation is not a key to success at the NBA level. No matter your skill level, team basketball will always conquer. Even the "Hampton Five" Warriors, who had one of the greatest accumulations of talent the league has ever seen, were in the bottom half of isolation frequency during their last title run (per These numbers show that the potential of the small ball C's to generate more assists and shots at the basket - instead of the senseless threes we've grown accustomed to - should be taken advantage of. Ainge has spent a lot of resources on point guards, whether it be Kemba and Teague in free agency or Pritchard and Waters in the draft, and we should be utilizing those assets to turbocharge our best players, especially during Walker's absence.

*All stats from unless otherwise noted*


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