Evaluating the Celtics’ uneven first half of the 2021-22 season, starting with the team’s reserves
The NBA’s All-Star Weekend may still be weeks away, but the true midpoint of the NB A season has arrived. The Boston Celtics’ 101-98 win marked their 41st game of the season, exactly halfway through their schedule, and improved their record to a largely disappointing 20-21.
Forty-one games in the books means 41 games still to come. So before the Celtics officially kick off the second half of their season, let’s take a look through the roster and evaluate what we saw from the team. This part will cover the bench, and part two will follow with the starters, coach Ime Udoka and the front office work of Brad Stevens.
(Apologies to Juancho Hernangomez, Bruno Fernando and the Hardship Exception signings, who just haven’t played enough to really discuss.)
Dennis Schröder: C+
We kick off this list with arguably the single toughest player on the entire roster to grade. How do you value Schröder properly? The highlights are certainly there. He’s posted two 30-point performances (one of which came against the formidable Milwaukee Bucks), and played a huge role in keeping the offensive afloat while Jaylen Brown missed time due to injury. He’s the best rim pressure threat on the team, and that has certainly mattered at times throughout the season.
But the lowlights are there, as well. At times, Schröder’s playstyle has mixed with Tatum and Brown like oil and water. He’s a ball-dominant player who likes to call his own number and he doesn’t offer much as an off-ball threat, and that’s not the kind of player that necessarily thrives alongside two heliocentric offensive hubs. He’s also a poor backcourt pairing with Marcus Smart, as neither can shoot well enough to keep defenses honest. All these reasons are why we saw Ime Udoka keep him on the bench in crunch time against Indiana on Monday night.
It’s a conundrum that may ultimately be solved with a trade. Schröder remains a decent value for this team, given the incredibly low cost of acquiring him. However, that value has seemingly shifted beyond what he does on the court to what he might bring as a trade piece. He’s just an awkward fit amidst the present construction of the roster, and it may behoove Brad Stevens to seek out a mutually beneficial deal with a team in need of reinforcements in the guard room at the deadline.
Josh Richardson: C+
As someone who was relatively low on Richardson early this season, I’m pleasantly surprised to be grading him this high at the halfway point of the year. After a disastrous two-season stretch in Philadelphia and Dallas, Richardson is largely carrying his weight as this team’s seventh man and primary reserve wing. He’s enjoyed his best individual season since his third year in Miami, recording 45/40/84 shooting splits and generally acquitting himself well in Udoka’s defensive system. For such a buy-low acquisition, 26 minutes of solid bench play per night is hard to argue with.
He’s not without flaws, of course. He can be inconsistent on a game-to-game basis, especially as a shooter, and there’s reason to believe he hasn’t quite played as well as his surface-level stats might indicate. In particular, that shiny 40% three-point percentage has not been as impactful as you might expect. The volume (3.5 attempts per game) just isn’t particularly meaningful, and the percentage has been further propped up by a handful of clear outlier performances. On the year, 16 of his 41 three-point makes have come in just four games, and he’s shooting 32% from deep across the other 25.
Defenses are perfectly comfortable leaving guys like this open. Better to let Josh Richardson go 4-for-4 from three than let Jayson Tatum go 8-for-12, after all. And sure enough, the Celtics lost three of those four outlier shooting performances (Raptors on 10/22, Clippers on 12/8 and Warriors on 12/17). That’s not to say those scoring explosions were without value, but his average level of offensive play isn’t consistent enough to meaningfully take pressure off of Tatum or Brown, and there’s only so high this grade can go while that’s the case.
Grant Williams: A
The lone A-grade of the entire list, Williams to this point has completely locked down the “Most Improved Celtic” award. After a sophomore season that saw him caught in a sort of rotation purgatory, unable to find a rhythm due to a lack of consistent minutes, Williams has completely righted the ship in his third year. He’s cashing in on 42% of his three-pointers on respectable volume (3.4 per game, a higher rate than Richardson given the minutes disparity). Slimming down to a playing weight of about 220 pounds has also been a boon, allowing him to move more quickly and comfortably in Udoka’s switch-heavy scheme. He’s been an ideal role player on both ends of the court.
If anything, the only real complaint about Williams’ season is that he should likely be playing more. He’s been the most consistent shooter on the roster all year long, and his new, lean build has afforded him more flexibility as a defender. With Ime Udoka’s double-big starting lineup having generated dubious results (more on that in the next article), you could make the case that Williams deserves a chance in the starting lineup, where the complementary nature of his game might fit nicely alongside Tatum and Brown.
Enes Freedom: D+
It’s not a particularly good spot to be in when the occasional semi-effective five-minute shift generates “woah, even he showed up tonight!” reactions, but it seems that’s where we’re at with Enes Freedom. Obviously expectations need to be adjusted when discussing a third-string center that has a marginal role (at best) when the roster is healthy, but all the same, the 29-year-old simply hasn’t been very good this season. The poor defense has been as expected — teams attack him in the pick-and-roll seemingly every time he sets foot on the court — but he’s struggled even in the hyper-specific areas he typically excels. Even his touch as a scorer in the paint has regressed; his 55% field goal percentage inside the arc is the worst he’s recorded across a full season since 2014.
Freedom’s play has been a particularly hard pill to swallow as the league’s recent COVID outbreaks have made his roster spot significantly more valuable. In a vacuum, the Celtics would be able to rely on Robert Williams and Al Horford and utilize him as a situational piece when his paint-bound game might be a useful weapon. But with how much the team has needed another body in the absence of one or both of the starting duo, it’s hard to argue that this team wouldn’t have been better off with a more rounded reserve in his place.
Romeo Langford: C+
Langford started out the season on an exciting note, connecting on nine triples in his first 11 games while providing his customarily sharp presence as a defender. Since that point, though, Romeo: The Project has returned to the forefront. The flashes of potential are ever-present, but it’s been difficult to predict exactly what you’ll see from him on a consistent basis.
Langford hasn’t necessarily been ineffectual. He is, at worst, a steady and capable defender who plays with more awareness than you might expect of a player with such little consistent floor time under his belt. Offensively, though, it’s just unclear exactly what he does, especially now that the three-point shot has come back down to Earth (he’s shot just 18% from behind the arc in his last 14 games). The lack of a consistent role has certainly hurt him, much as it did Williams last season, but until we see more from the minutes he does get, it’s hard to push this rating much higher.
Aaron Nesmith: D-
It feels rather brutal to hand out such a low score to a 22-year-old, especially given the context of how chaotic the NBA has been over the past two years. There’s just been that little to like about Aaron Nesmith’s second NBA season. The shooting, touted as NBA-ready coming out of college, has been nonexistent, and he has no other offensive tools. The defense has been even worse. There’s only really been one game — a November win over Miami where he scored 13 on 5-of-8 shooting — where he looked particularly encouraging in meaningful minutes. It has been rough.
After he landed a number of DNP-CDs in first few games of the year, I was on the “play Nesmith” bandwagon, arguing that a small sample of poor play isn’t a worthy reason to tether a young first-rounder to the bench. Now, with the sample growing ever bigger, I’m of the mind that a trip to the G-League might be the best option for rebuilding his confidence. On a team desperate for three-point shooting, this has very likely been the worst way Nesmith’s season could have played out to this point.
Payton Pritchard: C+
Of all the players on this list, Pritchard might be the one whose grade was most out of his own control. For much of the season, the Celtics’ guard room has simply been too crowded for him to find consistent minutes, buried as he is behind Schröder and Marcus Smart. Then, once he finally landed an opportunity to string together some consistent court time due to the team’s COVID outbreak, he landed in the health and safety protocols himself, and has missed Boston’s last four games.
As a result, this grade feels like a placeholder until we see Pritchard back on the court again. Too much of Pritchard’s sophomore season has been lost to this point, and much of it has nothing to do with his actual play. Prior to landing in the protocols, he’d strung together a solid stretch of games — five double-digit scoring performances in eight games, 20 made threes on 40% shooting — for a deeply short-handed roster. If he can keep up that momentum coming off the bench when he returns, this grade will be due to rise.