Continuing our series of 2018 NBA Playoffs first round previews here at GiveMeSport.
READ: Part 1 - After a franchise-best season, the Toronto Raptors should not be threatened by the Washington Wizards
READ: Part 2 - The Golden State Warriors struggled down the stretch, but so did the San Antonio Spurs, and only one could afford to
READ: Part 3 - The Miami Heat play relentless defence, but the Philadelphia 76ers might have just too many stars
READ: Part 4 - Portland Trail Blazers and New Orleans Pelicans to face off in a battle of guards, threes and Anthony Davis
In slowly dismantling their title-winning team, the Boston Celtics embarked on a multi-year 'reload' specifically to be able to acquire multiple star talents via a plethora of shrewdly acquired assets without having to tank. It worked at pretty much every stage, and none more so than this past offseason. Via the signing of Gordon Hayward and the trade for Kyrie Irving, the Celtics did precisely that this past offseason, moving from Very Good Regular Season Team territory into what, it was assumed, was legitimate NBA Championship candidacy.
Unfortunately, it seems we will not now get to see quite how legitimate that candidacy is. Labouring down the stretch of the regular season, Irving was initially prescribed rest for his bad knee, but when that did not work, season-ending surgery was the only option. With Hayward missing all but three minutes of the season with his own season-ending surgery, the three star claim was moot, and it seems the recently opened title window was quickly closed again.
Kyrie in particular was hugely important to everything the Celtics did offensively. Even with him, and with head coach Brad Stevens's remarkable playbook nuance, the Celtics were still prone to coming up short offensively. Only Irving and 2018 NBA All-Star Al Horford could be classified as above average offensive creators, and yet while it is to Horford's individual credit that he has been able to develop his game in this way over his career, a roster necessitating him to have to do so much ball handling and on-the-move passing is one with a capped upside.
Without Irving, that cap is significantly lowered. And so without him, will the Celtics have any chance of making a deep run?
If they do, it will be the relative averageness of their first round opponent, the Milwaukee Bucks, that will be the reason why.
Despite having fellow All-Star and literally-no-one-has-been-quite-like-this-before superstar talent Giannis Anteotkounmpo to work with, the Bucks have never threatened to be competitive in this conference. Despite a mid-season trade for Eric Bledsoe to shore up the point guard position and a backcourt that lagged behind their depth of frontcourt talents, the Bucks never hit any great stride. And even after firing their head coach - a 23-22 record compiled under Jason Kidd's half of the season became only a 21-16 record under his interim replacement Joe Prunty, a small but not striking improvement - the Bucks never got out of the low seeds. The 10-3 start under Prunty did not sustain.
For a season long total body of work, they rank middle of the pack or worse in many key metrics. A decent 9th place in offensive efficiency was mitigated by a 19th place in defensive efficiency, and an overall -0.3 net rating. Despite all the length and athleticism, the Bucks ranked only 20th in pace, attempt the fourth-fewest three-pointers, and, somehow, rank dead last in rebounding. These personnel should not fit this conclusion, and yet here we are.
In his half-season, Prunty has improved the defence at the cost of the offence. Despite his early successes with a shot-denying defence, Kidd slowly lost the team buy-in and the scheme over the years, and by the time he was fired, the Bucks were a bottom five defensive team. Prunty shored that up, getting more buy-in and less sloppy defensive errors, but seemingly doing so at the expense of some of the offensive efficiency Kidd had built up.
Even though Kidd's offensive system was far too reliant upon giving the ball to Giannis and watching him figure it out, it did at least result in some sort of offensive efficiency. With Kidd, the Bucks struggled badly when Giannis was off the court, yet with Prunty, they still do. The difference lies in the efficiency even with him - under Prunty, the Bucks attempt even fewer threes, even more mid-range shots, share the ball even less (seventh last in passes per game in the league - the only teams below them have either multiple All-Star scorers, or are bad teams), and got even less creative. The offence is still reliant upon Antetokounmpo trying to do things off of the dribble. Yet somehow, it has gotten even more uninspiring.
Giving Giannis such ball dominance is rather at odds with pairing him alongside Bledsoe and Khris Middleton. Both are excellent offensive players in their own right - Bledsoe with the power, body control and the pull-up; Middleton with the floaters, post, prolific mid-range shots and corner spot-ups - yet neither is likely to do much work off the ball, run off screens, shoot off them, etc. Between that trio and Jabari Parker, the Bucks have four players who can get their own shot in the halfcourt. But between the four, there are not nearly enough good halfcourt looks for their talents.
A Wayne Ellington or Marco Belinelli type would perhaps help diversify the offence, and it is not for nothing that unfortunate ill health robbed the team of Mirza Teletovic, their best if not only true frontcourt floor spacer. Tony Snell and Sterling Brown are defenders and sometime-shooters, not players who can be featured, yet they represent the wing depth on offer. Missing the plucky and versatile Malcolm Brogdon for much of the season did not help, nor did having to rely on the post-Monroe-trade centre duo of Thon Maker (whose potential to stretch the floor far outstrips his current reality) and John Henson (whose bad hands and permanent lack of rhythm make his energy and hook shots an opportunistic benefit rather than an option), yet the personnel were flawed to begin with. If a team trades for Tyler Zeller as offensive help - trades for Tyler Zeller - then their centres must really not be providing much.
The balance within the offensive personnel, certainly, needs to change down the road to truly alleviate the burden on Giannis. But even with that which they have already got, why is everyone catching the ball standing still all the time?
This spluttering Bucks offence now runs into a Celtics defence which, notwithstanding their offensive shortcomings, has been good all year. The defence is strong as a unit, rather than as individuals, which has allowed them to overcome the loss of quality individual defensive players such as Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis. The Celtics do not have an Antetokounmpo stopper because no one does, but in Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Marcus Morris, they do have a trio of forwards who can body him on drives and make plays on the ball. And as far as switches go, there is perhaps no centre you would rather switch with than Al Horford.
Brown, Tatum and Morris's contributions must now close the gap to the field on the offensive end. We looked earlier in the year at Tatum's aleady-stellar offensive efficiency, and where that puts him in the Rookie of the Year race (the one that is now definitely going to Philadelphia's Ben Simmons). At the time, Tatum was more finisher than creator, and excelling as one. But as the season has gone, he has become a more featured and aggressive offensive player (a 22.9 usage rate post-All-Star game compared to 18.6 before it), without losing his efficiency (a .589% pre-ASG true shooting percentage is as-near-as-is identical to his .580% true shooting percentage after it). The advantage of Irving and Hayward not being around is that it gives the opportunities to step up and develop on the job to suddenly-senior players who would otherwise be more deferrential to the incumbent stars, and for Tatum and Brown (whose usage climbed for 20.7 pre-ASG to 24.4 post, and whose scoring efficiency has gone up from .547% to .609% at the same time due to a much improved three-point stroke), despite their youth, their time might be now.
Of no one is this more true, though, than Terry Rozier. We profiled Rozier earlier this season, at the time anointing him the title of the Most Important Celtics Player You Have Probably Never Heard Of. Through his energy, athleticism, transition and rebounding, Rozier was effective in a sort of free safety role for the then-only-missing-Hayward Celtics, a spark plug off the bench who could swing games through the liberal and committed implementation of a small pile of skills.
If you still have not heard of Terry Rozier, rest assured that is about to change.
Rozier will now be the lead guard for this playoff run. It will be he who initialises, in conjunction with Horford, the half-court offence, and it will particularly be he who creates the transition and semi-transition offensive opportunities that will be key to offset the limited halfcourt game. It will be he who the kick-outs go to, who drives the perimeter overplays, and who is to get in Bledsoe's grill for as long as possible. Danny Ainge has always loved Terry Rozier's potential, and now gets to see it realised as the main guy on the big stage. And with a triple-double already under his belt in this role, he brings some pedigree to the job.
The Bucks give up the three-point shot at a 37.2% clip, the sixth-worst mark in the league. The grab only 75.9% of defensive rebounds, the second-worst mark, and they struggle to get the ball meaningfully on the move inside the arc with anyone other than Giannis involved while also struggling to shoot over the very defenders denying them space. They probably then do not want to meet the second-ranked three-point shooting team in the league (37.7%) with the first-ranked league defensive rating (103.8). Unfortunately, that is exactly who they now face.
Irving's injury has ensured the door is open. But the Milwaukee Bucks have not done much to reassure their fans that they are capable of passing through it. The undermanned Celtics might only make it one round, or might not even make it that far if the Bucks can show enough creativity offensively and fight on the glass to counter the Celtics's defensive discipline. Yet who can say with confidence that that will happen?