The Boston Celtics and Denver Nuggets both sit at the top of their respective NBA conferences in the first quarter of the season, but they also share a similar, potentially concerning issue – can they be great when their superstars sit?
Brian Scalabrine, a member of the Celtics’ last championship team and NBC Sports Boston color commentator, pointed out the extent to which each team’s production falls off when Jayson Tatum and Nikola Jokic leave the floor.
“They’re the best team in the NBA, everybody would co-sign that,” Scalabrine told “Jones and Mego with Arcand” on WEEI (listen to the full interview above). “But with Jayson Tatum off the floor, they’re minus-5? That’s not normal. It happened in Denver with Jokic.”
Clearly Denver survived the minutes Jokic sat in the playoffs last year. But through 10 games, the Celtics look much worse when Tatum takes a breather.
Head coach Joe Mazzulla has favored a lineup of Al Horford, Kristaps Porzingis, Jaylen Brown, Derrick White, and Sam Hauser for the most minutes when Tatum sits. That group has a 95 offensive rating, compared to an average 127 offensive rating posted by any of the seven most common lineups used that include Jayson Tatum (for reference, the Celtics’ starting lineup has a 128.2 offensive rating). True shooting and pace also drop, with the second stats being surprising because of Jaylen Brown’s own pace stats, which are routinely higher than Tatum’s.
That lineup is just one example of how Mazzulla has tried to tweak the chemistry when Tatum rests. He’s found something defensively when he subs Jrue Holiday into that group for Hauser – Hauser has grown into a capable defender, but Holiday pushes the pace and defensive rating to its highest levels with or without Tatum. So, situationally, advantages can be found.
Scalabrine says it comes down to finding a five-man unit with “an NBA identity” on its own.
Fans may wonder why it matters whether the Celtics’ numbers look, on average, worse without Tatum. He’s clearly the key to a Boston championship. But even 25-year-olds need a breather and this group has an inherited bad habit of letting leads slip in the playoffs.
The answer should come with Jaylen Brown on the floor, but it will take time to figure out which – and whether any - combination around him can supplement Tatum’s offensive contributions in a sustained way.