Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart may have caused an uproar when he said teammates Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown “don’t want to pass the ball,” but statistically speaking, he’s got a point. Tatum leads all Celtics with 76 touches per game … yet he ranks third on the team by passing only 45.4 times per night. Jaylen Brown similarly ranks higher in touches (fourth, with 62.3 per night) than he does passes (fifth, at 33.7), and in the context of the roster Boston has constructed, that’s fairly problematic.
The Celtics have no traditional point guard. Nobody on the team has ever averaged seven assists per game at any point in their career, and it shows. Boston, as a team, is fairly pass-happy. It ranks seventh in the NBA by making 292.4 passes per game and sixth with 50.3 potential assists per night. As a group, the Celtics are eager passers, just not particularly effective ones. They rank 13th in both secondary assists (3.1) and percentage of passes that turn into assists (8.3). When you pair those relatively ineffective passers with two lead ball-handlers who aren’t especially willing playmakers, you get stagnant late-game offense. Boston ranked eighth in clutch offense during the 2019-20 season with a mostly healthy Kemba Walker keeping the trains running on time, but fell to 26th last season due in part to his health issues. The Celtics rank 16th so far this season, but given the tiny samples we’re dealing with, the more important figure is their 94.9 clutch offensive rating. Yes, it’s going to improve, but last season, that would have ranked dead-last in the NBA.
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Tatum and Brown might improve with time, as some scoring forwards do. Kawhi Leonard doubled his assist output from San Antonio and Toronto (2.4 per game) and Los Angeles (5.0) as he gradually learned how to deal with double-teams and dissect defenses in pick-and-roll situations. But the Celtics, after reaching the Eastern Conference finals three times in four years, fell to No. 7 in the Eastern Conference last season and are 2-5 through seven games now. Smart, widely considered Boston’s leader, just publicly called out his two best teammates. Things aren’t going well in Boston. How much longer the Celtics are willing to endure this is going to define how bold they’re willing to be in fixing it.
We’re dealing with a tiny sample here. Boston could easily be above .500, and teams improve throughout seasons regularly. There are modest trades on the table. Toronto doesn’t appear too attached to Goran Dragic, for example. But there’s a bold stroke worth addressing here, even if he comes with a contract that’s going to make Celtics fans cringe. If Boston needs to introduce more playmaking in the form of a traditional point guard, there’s a fairly accomplished one just sitting on the trade market begging for a move in John Wall.
The basketball implications here are relatively straightforward. Wall, for most of the past decade, was among the very best passers in all of basketball. From 2014 through 2019, Wall ranked in the top three in the NBA in points created by assists each season. Even last season, after returning from multiple major injuries and missing the entire 2019-20 campaign, ranked a respectable 12th despite playing on the worst team in the NBA. The John Wall Effect was so pronounced midway through last decade that he managed to get Otto Porter Jr. a max contract. For a meaningful period of time, no player in all of basketball was better at creating corner 3s for his teammates than Wall. The jolt he’d give a fairly mediocre transition offense would be the icing on the cake.
On balance, Wall’s scoring didn’t decline nearly as much last season as one might assume of a point guard reliant on athleticism coming off a torn Achilles. His 20.6 points per game beat his career average and his 45.8 effective field goal percentage hovered around his career level of 46.2 percent. He has never been an especially strong shooter, but he has always been better off the catch than he has off the dribble. That held true last season when he made 38.4 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s, more than enough to preserve spacing while Tatum and Brown work. Defensively, there are still questions to be answered. At his peak, Wall was rather effective on that end of the floor. Without having seen him play within a functional NBA defense since his injury, it’s not clear how much he has left to contribute there now. He’d also be joining a Celtics team capable of protecting him defensively. When you factor in Boston’s playmaking need and Wall’s likely desire to join a winning team, there might not be a better fit for him in all of basketball right now than the Celtics.
Of course, if this were purely about fit, Wall would’ve found a home by now. His contract, not his talent, is what’s keeping him in Houston. Wall will make $44.3 million this season and has a player option for $47.4 million next season. Spoiler alert: He’s taking it. Few teams in all of basketball are equipped to absorb such a salary. Doing so would all but assure the Celtics of paying the luxury tax this season and next. That’s a tough pill to swallow, but the basketball cost here could be fairly minimal. In all likelihood, we’re dealing with some combination of four players.
- Al Horford: Yes, this is where the fantasy starts to fall apart. If the Celtics wanted a point guard in Horford’s salary slot, they probably would’ve just kept Kemba Walker. Let’s suspend disbelief on that and assume that this ugly start might change their tune. Horford is making $27 million this season, but would appeal to Houston because of his partial guarantee for next season. The Rockets could waive him and save $12 million in salary.
- Josh Richardson: Boston extended him for $12.4 million next season, but would likely take a mulligan on that if offered based on his performance and fit thus far. Still, keeping him as salary ballast likely motivated that extension in part.
- Dennis Schroder: Wall would be absorbing most of his minutes, so there’s little reason to keep both. Schroder cannot be traded until Dec. 15 as he signed in Boston this offseason.
- Juancho Hernangomez: He’s making $7 million this season, but is fully non-guaranteed next season and isn’t playing for Boston right now. His salary cannot be aggregated with another player’s until Nov. 14, 60 days after he was acquired by Boston.
Houston’s motivation here is simple. It is currently slated to pay Wall $47 million next season. Breaking up his contract would mean paying multiple players less even if a deal doesn’t come with long-term basketball value. If the Rockets were going to get picks or young players back for Wall, it probably would’ve happened by now.
The sacrifice for Boston is more substantial. The Celtics acquired Horford for a reason. He’s largely been what they expected thus far this season, and trading him would place an enormous burden on Robert Williams and Grant Williams in the frontcourt. An injury to either would decimate Boston’s depth. Even healthy, Enes Kanter minutes might become a necessity.
The financial ramifications are even more serious. Boston has luxury tax escape hatches at the moment. Dumping Hernangomez into a trade exception right now could essentially get them back to the tax line. Delaying the repeater tax clock is going to be important for the Celtics moving forward if they plan to contend sustainably. Ownership might be willing to pay three near-max salaries if all three are guarantees. That might describe Wall’s former teammate Bradley Beal, but Wall himself is vastly riskier.
But it should be said that Wall’s deal, onerous as it once was, expires after next season. This isn’t a long-term albatross, and if Boston wants to make a sizable trade next offseason, having a $47 million expiring contract could hold some value. The Celtics punted away their chance at creating max cap space in 2022 when they extended Williams, Richardson and Smart, so beyond dollars and cents, adding Wall wouldn’t deprive the Celtics of any basketball flexibility.
But dollars and cents make the basketball world go ’round. The entire league is justifiably hesitant to take a $90 million risk on a 31-year-old point guard with a lengthy injury history. But the more desperate a team gets, the greater its risk profile tends to become. The Celtics aren’t there yet, but if this season continues to go south and short-term winning is a priority, the reward here is great enough to give Wall serious consideration. Unlike Brown and Tatum, he’s perfectly happy to pass.