Have the Celtics been suffering from option paralysis?

Have the Celtics been suffering from option paralysis?

‘Option paralysis’ is a term that has been heavily used in recent years, due to the glut of ‘must-see’ media available at our fingertips as consumers. You know that feeling when you scroll endlessly through Netflix because you can’t convince yourself on the right movie, or when you are presented with a menu at a restaurant only to ask for an extra five minutes from the waiter when they come to take your order? That is option paralysis.

I know about this all too well, I spent up to an hour selecting a movie from the ‘suggested for you’ tab earlier this week, but that’s beside the point.

Heading into the 2018-2019 season, the Boston Celtics were lauded as the latest contenders to the Golden State Warriors throne. With LeBron leaving the Eastern Conference wide open, the idea was that Brad Stevens’ myriad offensive options, inconceivably deep bench and hard-nosed defensive identity would be too much for the rest – even the Kawhi-led Toronto Raptors.

It wasn’t an outlandish concept, considering that the Celtics were one win away from the NBA Finals back in May, while two All-Stars in Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward nursed injuries. After some rapid development from the likes of Jayson Tatum, Terry Rozier and Jaylen Brown, they were set to reintroduce two elite players and subsequently set the league alight.

Instead, after the first week, a tepid reality of two losses from the opening four games made it clear that it would be more of a slow burn for the team. Reintegration doesn’t happen overnight but even the most confident of Boston fans became worried that the pessimists were right to express concern about Stevens’ rotation issues. While every coach needs talent to win, the concern of potentially upsetting the apple cart is nothing to scoff at. Although the modern game has progressed a great deal, it remains that there is only one basketball on the court and almost every basketball player wants to touch it. For many other teams lacking in talent, it’s an enviable challenge, but it’s a challenge for the Celtics nonetheless.

So, hypothetically, you’re Brad Stevens and you are watching every single minute of Celtics practice, let alone game time. You’ve seen Jayson Tatum show signs that he is ready to play offense at an All-Star level for a number of years. You’ve watched Jaylen Brown come up big on postseason occasions while expanding his skillset at an impressive rate. You’ve witnessed bench contributor Terry Rozier fill the shoes of a five-time All-Star in crunch minutes to great effect. You’ve looked on as veteran forward Al Horford leads the team with his intelligent, multi-faceted approach to the game. You’ve seen Marcus Smart sway games with his unorthodox, uncanny way of burrowing himself into the right place at the right time, Aron Baynes develop an outside shot, Marcus Morris deliver from beyond the arc, Daniel Theis add valuable length from the bench, Guerschon Yabusele show flashes and Semi Ojeleye’s immovable frame occasionally deny elite wing talent. You now have to find minutes for Irving, Hayward and rookie Robert Williams. You’re tasked with avoiding the dreaded option paralysis, but where do you start?

The coaching staff began in the assumed fashion, with a win against a strong Philadelphia 76ers teams that saw all of Tatum, Horford, Irving, Brown, Hayward and Rozier log over 25 minutes. Tatum led the scoring with 23 points but the offensive load was shared in the way many expected for Boston’s version of the ‘death line-up’. The early rotation victims were to be expected, as Yabusele, Ojeleye and new recruits such as Brad Wanamaker sat most of the night.

When faced with their first monumental challenge in the second game of the season against Toronto, the Celtics rotation looked a little different. Stevens leant on a 20-year-old Tatum to lead the team with 37 minutes – one more minute than Kyrie Irving. Horford experienced a large increase of playing time while Rozier and Smart sat for longer. The Raptors came away with the win in what was always going to be a challenging fixture for Boston, which was left to ponder its approach.

The New York Knicks visited the TD Garden the next night. During an unconvincing win, Boston experimented further. German big Daniel Theis featured significantly with 14 minutes, while Aron Baynes’ minutes dipped. Jaylen Brown had found himself benched during crucial periods in previous games and he continued to struggle from the field – even he spent 38 minutes on the court.

Brown looked to be on his way to becoming the odd man out in the Boston offense, despite being a mainstay on the parquet, in playing-time terms. He wasn’t getting his looks, he was struggling to put a distinguishable stamp on the games. This was brought to fans’ attention when he logged 31 minutes in an alarming loss against the Orlando Magic, putting together a stat line of 5 points, 3 assists and 5 rebounds. He then experienced a similarly difficult evening against Oklahoma, before reaffirming Boston’s faith by leading the team in scoring against the Detroit Piston’s last week. His 18-19 usage has dropped to 19% from last year’s 21.4% and it was affecting Brown’s contribution early on. This is no real concern for the organization though, as they’re high on Brown’s future.

Al Horford has enjoyed an uplift in usage so far this season, affirming his importance to the team. He has gone from being used in 18.4% to 18.8% of Boston’s offenses in comparison to last year, as he continues to facilitate and stretch at an elite level. While it’s still incredibly early, the 32-year-old is attempting a career high in three-point shots, which would explain is significant drop in efficiency from beyond the arc, at 29%. While playing fewer minutes to accommodate his teammates, Horford is still influencing his team in all the right ways.

Another interesting discussion since the beginning of the season is the performance of Irving. Kyrie is a household name due to the degree of difficulty to some of his more notable plays – his highlight plays are pretty much as good as it gets. That said, he is not and may never be the top five NBA player that his fanbase and IMDB page may believe he is.

He has off nights and despite his superhuman handle, he sometimes looks to be flawed, like, you know… a person. Before posting 31 points against the Pistons on Tuesday, Kyrie experienced a patchy start to the season. He has shot 30% from beyond the arc and 42% from the field – these are considerably lower than his career averages. Stevens’ faith in Irving hasn’t faded though, as the point guard has enjoyed 31.6 minutes per game as it stands. After an increase in usage last year following his move from LeBron and Cleveland, he has been involved in only 25% of the team’s plays when on the floor during this campaign. Following surgery, it’s clear that Irving will improve after the requisite amount of reps, especially with the threat of Rozier breathing down his neck, but it can’t happen overnight.

The injuries of Irving and Hayward certainly played a massive part in the development of Boston’s young core, as much as it hampered their ability to reach the promised land.

Hayward’s reintegration has been a lengthy process. Within the last six months, he’s gone from retiring from the picking-up-marbles-with-your-toes game, to serving as one of Boston’s secondary ball handlers. He is still missing the elevation, the explosion and some of the aggression that comes with feeling entirely comfortable back on the court. It’s very possible that he will become the versatile, explosive, dynamic wing player he once was – just ask Paul George how possible that is. Stevens has faced the challenge of reintroducing Hayward to line-up at a pace that fits into Hayward’s final stages of on-court rehabilitation, while not sacrificing the touches of his supremely talented teammates – most of which can play Hayward’s position.

“Cry me a river,” would be a justifiable response to this article from fans of lottery teams. The poor Boston Celtics experienced minor growing pains because of their wealth of ability, versatility and potential. However, this doesn’t make it less of a headache for coaching staff. The unfortunate reality is that the rise of some players will spell the decline of others, through sheer mathematical limitations.

The most significant challenge for Boston’s coaching staff so far has been battling through option paralysis and establishing their most effective rotation. Once roles are defined, this Celtics team can move on and begin to properly stamp their identity on the 2018-2019 season.

I eventually watched ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ by the way; it hasn’t aged particularly well.


Featured photo – via Associated Press / Double Clutch illustration