During the 2022 NBA Finals, the Boston Celtics’ recipe for offensive success was largely contingent on a strength-based, drive-and-kick ethos to collapse the Golden State Warriors’ defense and either finish inside or spray deliveries to outside shooters. Ultimately, their drive-and-kick personnel didn’t have the requisite legs to propel them to a title; the Warriors’ rangy, physical defense constantly cornered them into stagnant, sticky possessions.
While there were some calls for Boston to find a “true point guard” — whatever that really means — merely acquiring another ball-handler who could reliably generate paint touches and facilitate would probably suffice. That, along with some added floor-spacing on the wings, stood at the forefront of its offseason checklist.
As the reported leader for soon-to-be free agent Danilo Gallinari, the Celtics will accomplish the latter. And they’ll accomplish the former by sending out a smattering of players outside the top eight of their rotation, along with a 2023 first-round pick, to land Malcolm Brogdon. That skill-set was probably a much more pressing need to avoid their perils from Games 4, 5, and 6 of the Finals, so Brogdon projects to provide a gnarly injection of offensive gusto.
A season ago, the 29-year-old guard tallied 18.3 drives per game, which ranked fourth league-wide, and shot 54.1 percent on those drives (9.5 points per game), per NBA.com. The two years prior, he ranked among the top-20 at ~14 drives per game. According to Cleaning The Glass, his rim frequency has placed him in the 77th percentile or higher every year of his six-season career.
Contrast that to the Celtics — a good but not great offense typically reliant on arduous creation from Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown — and the stark divide is evident. In 2021-22, they finished 22nd in rim frequency (30.6 percent), were 13th in drives per game (45.8), and 13th in points generated from drives (25.7).
Although Boston populated the lane a tad more in the postseason (47.9 drives per game), it encountered significant problems converting those chances, especially against Golden State. During the Finals, it yielded just 137 points on 312 drives (22.8 per game). When the Warriors forced the Celtics’ ball-handlers left and applied pressure at the point of attack, they could not exploit that aggression into downhill forays.
Brogdon is instantly their best slasher. He excels at changes of pace, leverages the strength packaged in his 6’5 frame to burrow through contact and can convert with either hand. A herky-jerky, discordant cadence defines his style, where he’s comfortable attempting runners or finishes at an off-beat rhythm. He’ll utilize crafty off-arm maneuvers to extend or craft openings.
With the Indiana Pacers, many of Brogdon’s escapades inside came from him initiating. Yet he’s also adept driving off the catch from a previously constructed advantage, an important trait as he will now cede considerable on-ball touches to Tatum, Brown, and Marcus Smart. He understands how to succeed with brevity.
Despite drilling just 35.2 percent of his long balls since 2019-20, Brogdon’s a stellar off-ball shooter. Much of that downturn stems from him shifting into a primary role, whereas he functioned with ancillary responsibilities as a member of the Milwaukee Bucks. Throughout his career, he’s canned 41.7 percent of his 779 catch-and-shoot triples. That’s quite the boost for a Boston club whose best off-ball shooters tended to double as its best creators the last couple seasons, a dynamic that caused floor-spacing warts. Golden State (and other high-level defenses) felt comfortable sagging off many shooters to clog driving lanes because most of the shooters weren’t exceptional as spot-up players and preferred to drive. Brogdon does both at a threatening level.
Part of what should accelerate this transition for Brogdon is his experience with off-ball usage from his time in Milwaukee. This is not an instance of a veteran on-ball scorer needing to assimilate to a foreign gig. Sure, he’s generally adhered to a different deployment than that of the last three seasons, but he knows how to thrive in a varied manner. He earned a four-year, $85 million contract playing it.
The hope, too, would be that less burdensome offensive duties could help Brogdon stay on the court more often. His trade market was surely dampened by the lengthy injury history, given he hasn’t played more than 56 games since 2018-19. He did, however, play 75, 48, and 64 games as a Buck, compared to 54 (of 73), 56 (of 72), and 36 as a Pacer. Perhaps an alteration within the offensive hierarchy proves fruitful for his health.
Brogdon also adds another dimension as a passer. He is sometimes too conservative in his reads, though knows how to parlay his dribble-drive game into table-setting for teammates. He’s pretty good as a kickout and interior playmaker. His timid nature hamstrings him as a lead decision-maker, but he protects the ball — he’s 59th percentile or better in turnover rate every year since 2017-18. Boston’s turnover problems prevailed throughout its Finals demise, so a ball-handler who can factor prominently into the offense without worries of erratic passing alleviates some of the aspects that prevented a title-winning 2021-22.
The Celtics love running flare screens into step-up pick-and-rolls from the wings. It’s quite easy to envision Brogdon feasting in those scenarios playing alongside Tatum, Smart, and Brown. Derrick White’s connectivity invigorated their offense last year, but his limitations as a scorer ultimately caused a few issues on the grandest stage. Brogdon and White are different archetypes and players, yet Brogdon holds a comfortable scoring edge and could capitalize more consistently on the opportunities his touches present.
He’s an astoundingly logical fit for Boston, a complementary ball-handler with the duality to drive or shoot who is also reliable as a passer. White’s arrival this past February brought sought-after wrinkles to spark a Finals berth. Brogdon’s arrival might just help the Celtics be in a better position should they make it back to the Finals next June.