Dissecting the interesting lineup possibilities facing Brad Stevens

Brad Stevens
and the Boston Celtics will deploy multiple starting lineups throughout their upcoming season. There will be some bumps and bruises that require load management during a long 82 game season, so it’s inevitable that we’ll see different variations of lineups and rotations. More importantly than who plays at the start of the game, though, is often who is on the floor to close games.

Closing game lineups are a little more difficult to predict because individual game situations will dictate end-of-game lineups. If the Celtics are up by a ton, one could expect to see some rookies (Tacko time?) or other end of the bench players. But if the C’s find themselves up by a possession or two, who does Brad look to down the stretch to make important stops? What about the other end of the spectrum? Who is asked to make a comeback while they are chasing someone else’s lead?

No game is created equal. That is why we watch. Brad has [sometimes frustratingly] gone deeper into his bench than other coaches. I prefer not to use the 11th or 12th man on some nights, but it is difficult to dispute the approach. Again, it is a long season so any good team will end up using everyone at one time or another. Come playoff time, you’d hope you know who your top 8-9 players are in the rotation, though.

Without watching a minute of this new version of the Celtics play together, it is as good a time as any to take a peek at how Brad will manage his rotation this year. That was a bit of a joke, but there is never a bad time to go through this exercise. First, I want to look at a couple locks to start every game they’re healthy.

Locks to start

Kemba Walker, the Celtics newest max-contract player, will start every game when he’s healthy. He’s an elite pick-and-roll player that is going to score in bunches for the C’s after averaging 25.6 points per game for the Charlotte Hornets last year. He has also been an iron man the past four years, starting in no less than 79 games in a season.

The second lock to start every game if he is healthy is Jayson Tatum. He has started every one of his 159 regular season games over two seasons. Although his efficiency dipped some after a stellar rookie campaign, he saw his points, rebounds, and assists increase in year two. Tatum expects to be the future of the franchise, so he will be force-fed minutes and opportunities until proven otherwise.

Although the former 40% of the expected starters are not labeled as elite defenders, it is difficult to take their offense off the floor. They are a threat every time they touch the ball on the offensive end, and as a result, will see 65-70 minutes combined on most nights.

This elite duo has the potential to be a top-ten pair in the league due to their offense alone. Kemba is limited on the defensive end due to his size, but he is stout, quick and not immune to the effort it takes to bother opposing teams’ guards. Tatum has the length to slow other forwards, but his strength and awareness needs to improve. If they both prove to play solid team defense, Brad will have no choice but to leave them on the floor in any situation.

Locks for significant minutes

Speaking of defense, let’s discuss 2018-19 All-Defensive team member, Marcus Smart. Smart has been a reserve player more than he’s started throughout his five-year career, but he did start in 75% percent of his regular season contests last season.

After starting last season on the bench, it didn’t take Stevens long before realizing Smart’s value in the starting lineup. Playing alongside another offensive-first guard last year, Marcus was tasked with picking up the biggest offensive threat from the opposing team’s guard rotation. Noting the aforementioned All-Defensive hardware, it worked.

No one would be surprised to see Marcus start a ton of games for the Celtics this year, especially since his weakness is his offensive game and Kemba and Tatum will bring the offensive firepower. Brad does have some decisions to make, however. It’s tough to stick Marcus’ defensive prowess on the bench for extended periods of time, so regardless if he starts or comes off the bench, he is going to receive valuable minutes.

The player Marcus may looking to compete with for a starting spot is Jaylen Brown. Now seems like a good time to remind you that no matter who starts - Marcus, Jaylen or both - each game or situation will dictate who is on the floor at the closing buzzer. Both players will bring above average-to-elite defensive play as Jaylen took a leap as a two-way player last year.

Brown gives you more on the offensive end than Smart. Although both players have gotten better from deep, Smart actually shot better from the three-point line last season (36.4% > 34.4%). Jaylen showed amazing strides in his game as he was one of the players that took to his role on last year’s team. To close the regular season in March and April, Jaylen was a scorching 42.4% from three.

If Jaylen can consistently knock down the long ball to go along with his ability to run the floor, cut without the ball and drive to the basket at a high level, then it’ll be impossible to keep him off the floor. It’d be nice to see him be better from the free throw stripe (career 65.8%), which may allow him to earn starts but give Brad pause in the closing moments. Jaylen is going to see significant minutes regardless, and I’m excited to see him with another year of development with a chip on his shoulder in a contract year.

So far, we’ve discussed two locks to start and two other locks to see significant minutes. Any of the four will see themselves on the floor at crucial times for the Celtics this upcoming year.

Where does Gordon Hayward fit into this mix?

For my money, he is easily a top-five player on this Celtics squad. You can make an argument that he is the Celtics’ most important player and could be part of their new big three. But should he start?

I’m leaning towards leaving Gordon on the bench at this point, where he saw most of his action last season (18 starts; 72 games). It won’t be long before Tommy Heinsohn tells us that the Celtics have a long history of stellar sixth men, and that maybe Hayward would be best served in that role.

Folks around the team, and fans alike, are expecting Hayward to bounce back to what he was as a Utah Jazz player. If he can approach that production, he certainly needs to be considered for 30+ starter minutes. He is a player on a max contract that comes with high expectations, and to this point, has a had a full/healthy off-season. The reason why I prefer to use Hayward off the bench is not necessarily his fault. I love his versatility off the bench. He can practically sub-in for any position depending who is on the floor. There is big-time value there.

I may be in the minority here, but I don’t want Hayward or Tatum both starting and guarding opposing power forwards. Defending some of the four’s in this league is a difficult task. It can work to your benefit when closing out games offensively, if conversely the team defense is on point. But for either of those guys to bang down low with heavier players every night is something I would like to avoid as much as possible.

The NBA2K lineup of Kemba, Jaylen/Marcus, Jayson, Gordon, and a big is fun for video games, and although video games have come a long way, they don’t consider everything. Using Hayward off the bench may be the best bet for a lethal sixth man, at least to start to start the season. He is a multi-dimensional player that can score efficiently from anywhere on the court, while chipping in with rebounds and making the correct basketball play by moving the ball and assisting his teammates to easy buckets.

Before we get into dissecting how the big man rotation may shake out, let’s reset:

  • Kemba Walker is your starting point guard. No brainer. 
  • I’m giving the nod to Marcus Smart to start alongside Kemba due to his elite defense. You may argue that paring Marcus with Kyrie Irving for most of last year didn’t work because of the disappointing ending, but both Marcus and Jaylen Brown (who Marcus edges out in this scenario), are familiar in their respective roles. 
  • Jayson Tatum is your starting small forward. Again, he has started every game in his NBA career and will hopefully be a starting forward on the Celtics until he retires. 

And as mentioned above, I like Hayward’s versatility off the bench. With a bunch of rookies and inexperienced players expected to earn minutes, I love the idea of having Brown and Hayward coming in to stabilize the second unit.

Brown and Hayward should expect to see 30 minutes per night, and will play a lot of minutes with the starters. Brad will be tasked with staggering the rotations so there is always an experienced starting-caliber player on the floor at all times. This is how I would handle it and would like to see it play out.

What does Brad to with the bigs?

So, we still have two big spots left. If I'm Brad, I’m going to give Enes Kanter the first shot at starting at the center position. He has NBA experience serving a bench role or as a starting center, but his 216 NBA starts give him loads of experience over the other bigs expected to be vying for center minutes. Daniel Theis, Robert Williams and Vincent Poirier have a combined seven NBA starts between them.

The book on Kanter is that he is an elite offensive rebounder that can score from the inside. Those attributes serve as major pluses for a team that has had difficulty in those areas in recent years. It looks like Kanter will be looking to add to his repertoire, as Brad is seemingly encouraging him to take more three pointers. This has not been part of his game, but as we’ve seen with the likes of Aron Baynes and Al Horford, the Celtics will be encouraging more threes from their big guys. Enes has taken just 143 of these attempts (just 29.4% in career makes) in 583 NBA contents. If he can become respectable from deep, it will go a long way for the Celtics offense. It will stretch the defense and open up lanes for drivers and cutters.

Where Celtics fans may become frustrated with Kanter is on the defensive end. He is not fleet of foot, which does not allow him to be an effective player to switch onto guards in the pick-and-roll like we became accustomed to with Horford. Truth is, there are not many bigs that can do what Al does, so the defense will look different regardless. Boston fans expect effort, and if Kanter is elite in other areas, then he will earn his 24-30 minutes per night.

So, right now we’re looking at Kemba, Marcus, Tatum and Kanter in the starting lineup, with Jaylen and Hayward serving equally as important reserve roles. If you haven’t gotten the hint yet, I’d prefer the Celtics start with a traditional four-man. If you look across the Eastern Conference, the Celtics could be facing front lines with traditional bigs, and although I love to zig when everyone else is zagging, it makes sense to at least start games more traditionally to align with the opposition. Brad may deploy a traditional lineup for just ten minutes a night before mixing up the rotation, but do you want Tatum or Hayward using up defensive energy on some of these front line pairs that they’ll be jockeying for playoff positioning?

  • Milwaukee: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez
  • Toronto: Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol 
  • Philadelphia: Horford, Joel Embiid 
  • Indiana: Domantas Sabonis, Myles Turner 
  • Brooklyn: Jarrett Allen, DeAndre Jordan 
  • Detroit: Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond 

Today’s NBA features more small lineups than ever before, but that isn’t to say the big man is dead. What would be ideal for the development of the Celtics is an emergence from someone like rookie Grant Williams. He is shorter than Tatum and Hayward, but he plays a bigger man’s game. He is strong and will be able to bother other team’s big forwards.

If he proves he is ready in the early stages, his development may be sped up by playing most of his minutes with experienced NBA starters. This is a big “if” but if he gains trust early on, then his insertion into the starting lineup would lengthen the bench as well. Grant may not be ready for closing minutes, but it could be a way to spare other smaller players playing against bigs for stretches of each game.

If Grant is not ready, then Brad could look to Daniel Theis in a starting role alongside Kanter. Theis has battled some injuries, but he has shown flashes in his time with the Celtics. He commits way too many fouls (over 6 fouls per 36 minutes in his career), but he has also been asked to guard opposing centers a lot in his early career. By now I think it is evident that Theis just isn’t big enough to take on that role.

I view Robert Williams and Vincent Poirier as centers, so I don’t see their fit playing alongside Kanter. At the beginning of the season it’d be nice to see one or both of these guys pop and earn respectable minutes, but I’m keeping them as reserves for now.

So, where does that leave us?

However the starting lineup shakes out, there will be five Celtics players earning 30-or-more minutes per contest - Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Gordon Hayward. Enes Kanter may not eclipse 30 minutes per game, but he will be another key player that will likely receive the most minutes out of the front court players.

Due to the unbalanced talent between the ball handlers/wings and the bigs, we can expect some variation of Williams III, Williams, Theis, and Poirier get every opportunity to earn minutes. A guy like Carsen Edwards seemingly fits in as the microwave scorer off the bench if the Celtics find themselves in need of a scoring punch. And if they need to send out a defensive presence, Semi Ojeleye is another great option for Brad to have in his back pocket.

It’ll be interesting to see how it shakes out, and what it looks like in camp/preseason may not be what we see in the regular season. And as Brad figures out his best lineups during the regular season, Celtics fans may be looking at something different come playoff time.

Photo courtesy of Matt Stone - 2019 Boston Herald/Media News