Dennis Schröder may have replaced Marcus Smart as the most polarizing Celtics on a roster full of players who draw varied opinions.
Schröder was expected to be a major bargain for Boston and he pretty much has been. For his $5.9 million salary, he averages 16.1 points, 4.5 assists and 3.3 rebounds, which is real value.
What can be infuriating about Schröder is his on-court decisions that can result in silly turnovers, his ability to freelance on offense and pass open shots on one night and then turn into a shot chucker the next.
But this is all part of the Schröder package. This is why he was coveted in Atlanta and then traded. This is why he flourished as a sixth man in Oklahoma City. This is why the Lakers thought he’d be the answer at point guard and decided he wasn’t.
Schröder takes chances. He allows the ball to roll down the floor after inbounds to save time, even when the Celtics want to burn clock. But he also has the ability to score in bunches, knock down 3-point shots and he’s the only Celtic besides Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown who can consistently beat defenders off the dribble.
And don’t look now, but Schröder has been at his best so far in January. In the past six games entering Friday’s clash with the Philadelphia 76ers, he is averaging 15 points, 3.8 assists, 1.5 turnovers (nearly one below his season average) and 42.9 percent 3-point shooting (his season average is 34.2).
The Celtics have been seeking a reliable third scoring option for years. Gordon Hayward got hurt. Kyrie Irving checked out mentally during his second season. Kemba Walker’s knee robbed him of his offensive efficiency.
This season, Schröder has tried to fill that role but he’s been wildly inconsistent and has missed seven games with injuries and COVID-19 protocol. When he can take over in stretches as he did Wednesday against the Indiana Pacers, the Celtics offense is so much better. Tatum and Brown don’t have to do the majority of the scoring and defenses have to respect Schröder’s shooting ability.
“When you have three guys in attack mode, it’s hard to stop,” coach Ime Udoka said. “Those two (Tatum and Brown) came out aggressive and took turns and then Dennis got going and put a ton of pressure in how they wanted to defend. I felt like we learned some things from the last game, came out with some sets that really worked for us.”
Perhaps one of the reasons Schröder flourished Wednesday is he replaced the injured Smart in the starting lineup. Schröder is averaging 19.7 points, 4.9 assists and shooting 48.3 percent as a starter compared with 11.3 points and 35.2 percent shooting as a reserve.
Udoka would prefer not to start Schröder when Smart returns because he wants to pair Al Horford with Robert Williams in the frontcourt and doesn’t want Brown or Tatum matched up with power forwards.
The lineup of Schröder, Smart, Tatum, Brown and Williams has had mixed results but the biggest detractor is the lack of 3-point shooting with Schröder and Smart on the floor together. Udoka has tried playing both together down the stretch of games but their struggles from the 3-point line have made it easier for opposing teams to guard Tatum and Brown.
It’s pretty simple. When Schröder is hitting shots and attacking the basket, the Celtics are tougher to guard because he has the potential for breakout games. Schröder has scored 26 points or more five times this season but not since Dec. 4.
Schröder has 13 games of 20 or more this season and the Celtics are 8-5 in those games. Those five losses are by a combined 24 points, meaning the Celtics are usually successful or are in close games when Schröder is effective offensively.
“We’ve got a lot of people on offense who can make plays,” Schröder said. “To pick and choose what offense, move the ball from side to side and then whoever got the ball, make a play for somebody or for yourself. I think we’ve made strides over the course of the season and we’ve got to keep getting better at that.”
The Celtics need Schröder to be more efficient, less careless and a sharper shooter if they are going to make a run in the Eastern Conference. They don’t want to rely on Smart, who has point guard duties and is also shooting a career-low from the 3-point line, to be a bigger offensive option. Josh Richardson has improved of late and he could help Schröder take the pressure off Tatum and Brown.
Udoka hasn’t seen enough or doesn’t yet trust Payton Pritchard or Aaron Nesmith enough for them to become reliable offensive options off the bench. And the Celtics have shown they have enough offense to win most games when those offensive options produce. Schröder is critical to the Celtics’ success unless his role changes or is reduced. But with the way he’s been playing lately, Udoka has to ride the wave to see if Schröder returns to that Sixth Man of the Year candidate he was in Oklahoma City.