It’s easy to under-appreciate Daniel Theis and his impact on the success of the Boston Celtics offense through great screens, seals, and all-around detail.
The narrative at the front-end of the season regarding the Boston Celtics was that they had a major deficiency in the center position. So far this year, sporting the third-best record in the Eastern Conference, that hasn’t proven to be a big enough issue to stifle success.
Losing Al Horford, a superb defender, and replacing him with Enes Kanter, a below-average defender, stings. Horford, per ESPN’s DRPM stat, was the 18th best defender in the NBA last year, Kanter 318th.
The loss of Horford has not proven to be monumentally impactful, in part because the Celtics also added Kemba Walker, one of the best guards in the Eastern Conference. Kanter has held his own, but one of the biggest reasons the Celtics are seeing so much success is the altruistic, artful play of Daniel Theis.
This is different than Horford, and the proof is in the Celtics team numbers.
- Last season, they posted up on 6.1 percent of their offensive possessions, this season 4.1 percent.
- Last season they went to a roll man out of the pick and roll 6.7 percent of the time, this year 5.0 percent.
- The number of times a ball-handler has taken the ball out of a pick and roll has shot up from 16.3 to 23.6 times per game (in large part to Walker joining the team) from last year to this year.
Theis doesn’t need the ball in his hands to do his work. He also doesn’t need to make his living in the paint. This spaces things and leaves the lane open for Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Kemba Walker to do their work, cutting and slashing into the lane.
Theis logs the seventh most ball touches per game, atypical for a starting center. Joel Embiid is second in touches in Philly, Rudy Gobert is third in Utah, Andre Drummond is first in Detroit, for example. A ball-dominant center just isn’t needed with all the other talent the Celtics have.
A cursory glance at a box score won’t tell you what Theis does and the impact he has on the game. He opens things up for his teammates and sets them up for better looks.
On a roster packed with scoring threats (three players are scoring over 20 points per game), those little things that get the scorers those looks are often missed.
Tatum and Brown are averaging a combined 12.2 points more per game this year than last year. If Kemba Walker is the flathead screwdriver that picked the lock on the treasure chest that is the Boston Celtics offense, Theis is the tension wrench.
Setting screens is a thankless job, and one that Theis has really leaned into. He is relentless, particularly along the perimeter, setting multiple screens per possession to get as many possible openings for his teammates.
Theis logs 4.1 screen assists per game, leading to 9.0 points per game for Boston, both leading the team.
Some of his screens start a chain reaction of events that don’t get logged to his credit, though.
Here’s an example:
This dribble handoff and then two attempts at a screen gets Tatum open. E’Twaun Moore gets caught ball watching as a result. The assist goes to Tatum here, but if this were a chemical reaction, Theis is the oxidizing agent.
The art of the seal
As mentioned earlier, the Boston Celtics don’t run pick and roll plays for a roll man nearly as much this season as they did last year. Theis rolls and gets the ball twice per game, nothing too intense.
What he does at a high level is roling and sealing.
Here, he sets a screen and rolls. He instantly sees that the pass option isn’t there, and instead of fading into oblivion in this play, he seals Hayes away and positions himself for a rebound if Tatum misses.
Here it is again with Tatum against Al Horford in their loss to Philadelphia on Thursday. A nice screen on Furkan Korkmaz to get him on Tatum’s back, something Horford is ready for.
Noticing that, Theis moves to the next part of his responsibility, sealing off Horford. With Korkmaz already on Tatum’s back because of the screen, he has a nice open look. Theis, combined with Tatum’s athletic ability to quickly drive to the rim, and he’s directly responsible for two defenders being behind Tatum rather than in front of him.
Is this the best offensive setup for this cluster?
A traditional big man at this point might be an incongruous addition to the Celtics roster. The bailiwick Theis has on this roster serves a distinct purpose.
It remains to be seen how the Boston Celtics will hold up in a seven-game series against some of the greatest big men in the league, but the same concern was expressed by many for the season at large, and it has not proven to be an issue for Boston. The Celtics have smart and quick players who can more than hold their own on the defensive end. Theis is listed as a forward for the purposes of RPM on ESPN, but his DRPM would be 10th best among listed centers this season so far.
While a trade for Andre Drummond might help on the defensive end, it likely doesn’t happen without throwing Theis in as a part of the outgoing salaries. Losing the small windows of space he provides for his teammates to do what they need to do isn’t worth it.