Who’s the Boston Celtics’ third-most important player?

As the Celtics enter the All-Star Break with the NBA’s best record, it’s become abundantly clear that this is the by far deepest roster in the league.

How many teams can bring players of Malcolm Brogdon, Derrick White and Grant Williams’ caliber off the bench? How many can barely find room for a dynamic player like Payton Pritchard? How many can still battle the Bucks on the road down four starters? It’s quite impressive and shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Over the past few weeks, as various Celtics have gone down with injuries or illnesses, others have stepped up to fill the void over and over. In the playoffs, doing so will inevitably be tougher, and they’ll need to be at least close to full strength to win it all.

So, which player besides Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown is most critical to everything they’re hoping to accomplish? Who’s their third-most important player, and the one who they can least afford to play without late in the season?

NBC Sports Boston coincidentally ran a poll on this topic Friday morning (I swear, this Celtics Blog story was already in the works before that poll came out).

There’s no correct answer here, and this is opinion-based, so feel free to chime in below. Here’s a case for each player and why they deserve consideration as the third-most important player, then my two-cents at the end.

The case for Marcus Smart

The Celtics immediately lost three straight after Smart injured his ankle and ended up 6-5 in the 11 games he missed. Coincidence? Not at all.

Of course many other factors were at play, but the Celtics unquestionably missed the Defensive Player of the Year. Smart may not have the most eye-popping scoring numbers or shooting splits, but his effect on the game is tremendous.

When you’re playing a huge game, and you need someone to make hustle plays at key moments, there’s no one better in the NBA.

The case for Robert Williams

Every Celtic loves playing with Williams.

He makes their lives so much easier just by being out there, and when he’s locked in and playing to his potential, it’s scary how much he can do.

“I want to be on the floor with him, at the same time, as much as possible,” Tatum said.

When Williams is healthy, looking like himself and affecting the game every way imaginable, he takes the Celtics from great to nearly unbeatable. You might be able to get by without him, but it’s just not the same.

The case for Al Horford

Ahh, yes: the savvy veteran leader. Don’t sleep on his basketball contributions, though.

Horford is an elite floor spacer, and his ability to guard bigs and rebound on on end and hit timely shots on the other is instrumental in the Celtics’ success. Without him, a lot would fall on Luke Kornet and Mike Muscala’s shoulders defensively.

Grant Williams and Robert Williams are key pieces of course, but Horford is the glue among the big men – and really the whole team. It’s not as though everything would fall apart without him, but the foundation wouldn’t be quite as sturdy.

The case for Derrick White

Let’s be clear: If White keeps hooping like he has lately, this isn’t really a debate at all.

But, he can be streaky, and that’s a factor. So with the ups and the downs, does White affect winning more than any other Celtic besides those two? Well, he has the best real-plus minus (3.06) besides Tatum and Brown.

He’s probably their second-best passer after Smart, the second-best scorer on this list after Brogdon and one of the team’s best defenders. He can play point guard or shooting guard, blocks shots like a big and is a menace in transition (when he finishes bunnies).

This is a dude who’s in his prime, has found his home and is playing like a champion.

The case for Malcolm Brogdon

Brogdon is the missing piece. It felt that way when they signed him, it felt that way as the first half unfolded and it feels that way now.

He was exactly what this team was missing last year. Let’s say they face the Warriors in the Finals again. Who’s going to bail them out when Tatum and Brown are doubled? Brogdon. Who’s going to hit clutch shots when the Celtics really need a bucket? Brogdon. Who do you want taking that last shot, from this list, if Brown and Tatum are blanketed? You know the answer.

Don’t let his methodical style and even-keeled demeanor fool you. He’s relentless. Oh, and he’s leading the league in 3-point percentage (45.5). Not too shabby.

Honorable mention: Grant Williams, Payton Pritchard, Sam Hauser, Blake Griffin

Williams can guard just about anyone, including Joel Embiid, and is also a reliable shooter. Pritchard has an engine like no other. Hauser is an absolute sniper. Griffin is a great locker room guy who’s maximizing his role. But, they’re not No. 3. Sorry, Kornet and Muscala. You’re both great, but not quite No. 3.

The verdict

So, now you’ve seen the case for each player. Who is the third-most important player on the Celtics? Well, that’s up to you to decide, but in my opinion, it’s Brogdon. Let me explain why.

The way I see it: He’s the most consistent guard offensively on this list. Any disagreements there? He’s the best 3-point shooter, right? From a statistical standpoint, that’s a fact. He’s also the best all-around scorer, wouldn’t you say?

Smart is a better defender, but Brogdon is consistent on that end as well. How about the bigs? Horford and Williams are both crucial, but they don’t create much offense for themselves. They depend on others to get shots, whereas Brogdon can create for others and for himself.

For you numbers people out there, let’s make this quantitative. Stats among players not named Brown or Tatum:

Player 1: Points: 1st; Rebounds: 4th; Assists: 3rd; 3-point percentage: 1st; Field goal percentage: 6th.

Player 2: Points: 2nd; Rebounds: 7th; Assists: 2nd; 3-point percentage: 7th; Field goal percentage: 11th.

Player 3: Points: 3rd; Rebounds: 5th; Assists: 1st; 3-point percentage: 10th; Field goal percentage: 12th.

Player 4: Points: 4th; Rebounds: 2nd; Assists: 4th; 3-point percentage: 2nd; Field goal 7th.

Player 5: Points: 6th; Rebounds: 1st; Assists: 6th; 3 point percentage: N/A; Field goal percentage: 1st.

Player 1 is Brogdon, 2 is White, 3 is Smart, 4 is Horford and 5 is Williams. Add those all up, and Brogdon’s average is 3. White’s is 5.8, Smart’s 6.2, Horford’s 3.8, Williams’ 3.5. Brogdon has the highest usage rate (22.5) and the highest player impact estimate outside of Williams.

I’m not afraid to go against the majority here, and this is the main reason: Who’s the biggest threat to beat the Celtics in the playoffs? I still say the Warriors. Which player on this list would help the most against them? Brogdon.

The sum of the parts is what’s most important on this team. Every piece is critical, and that’s what makes it work so well, but as the Celtics pursue a championship, no player outside of Tatum and Brown is more important than Brogdon.

Just wait until the playoffs. He’ll be ready.

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