Can the Celtics bench become… an asset?

Photo of Boston's bench-mates courtesy of Fox News via Getty Images

You may not know this about me, but I think depth is overrated. That does not mean that it should be dismissed or that I don’t get warm and fuzzies dissecting the bottom third of the roster, but championships are not won with depth. At least not when it matters most. Your best players will need to carry the load for a championship run.

We don’t have to look too far into the past to see how too much depth affected the Boston Celtics. Last year, the Celtics had about eight starting-caliber players. In theory, the more talent you have, the better off you’ll be. But when there is only one ball and if you have too many mouths to feed, depth can be a detriment. Especially if you have one dribble king taking the air out of the ball every trip and launching a bunch of shots.

Like I said before, we can’t dismiss the importance of depth though. Depth can be beneficial when the pieces fit, and that may have been more of the problem with last year’s team - too many players that wanted to get theirs. This year, the Celtics have young, hungry players that can fit into specific roles better.

When it comes to playoff time, we hope to see Big Rotation Brad Stevens shorten the rotation to about eight or nine players, but to get through a long season and win tough games on the road, you need the depth to win you some games that allow you to maintain your seeding.

I like to call the Celtics best players the Small Big Five. I know it doesn’t have a ring to it, and is quite the oxymoron, but Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward and Jayson Tatum form this group. They all can’t play on the court for long stretches at a time because they can be exposed with no big man, but they all need to be at 30 minutes or more per game. This group is going to carry the Celtics, and it is up to Brad to stagger the rotation to get the most out of these five players.

After the Small Big Five, there is a three-man center rotation with Daniel Theis anchoring the group. Theis has been a pleasant surprise this season. He isn’t asked to score, but he is averaging 7.2 boards on the season. He’s tallied 10 and 11 rebounds over the past two contests. His biggest asset, however, is his knowledge of the team defense. He is sometimes over-matched with the size of the opposition, but he is still effective due to staying true to the defensive concepts. He’s also blocking 1.7 shots per game, which is a solid number for him. More importantly, his defensive rating of 99 per 100 possessions is elite.

You clicked on the post to hear about the bench, but I wanted to paint a picture of the top-six in the playoff rotation when everyone is healthy. It may be obvious, but it helps us navigate to the narrative.

The best part about Brad Stevens’ bench is that he has multiple options for different scenarios. Focusing on the bigs for now, he can opt for Enes Kanter for scoring and offensive rebounding or Robert Williams for athleticism and shot blocking. Brad has a good feel, and a good culture, where his bigs understand that they may play 20+ minutes one night and hardly play the next night.

The aforementioned, Enes Kanter, will be used in certain spots. In his second game back after nursing a knee injury, he totaled 25 minutes. Last night, his fifth game back, he just played in five minutes. Brad will keep deploying the best big man rotation depending on the match-ups. The versatility of this group is a huge asset for the team.

Grant Williams, who should also be considered a big, did not play (coach’s decision) on Sunday. On Monday against the Phoenix Suns, Grant played a big role in his 18 minutes. He had four points and two rebounds, but his +/- of +18 was impressive. And he did things like this.

The depth is surely to be tested over the next month with Gordon Hayward out. His versatility to play as a ball handler in Brad’s offense is something that shouldn’t be overlooked. Initially, some were calling for Romeo Langford for wing depth, but it’s been Brad Wanamaker who has filled some of the void.

In the five games since Hayward went down, Wanamaker is averaging over 21 minutes per game. With Walker, Smart and Hayward all expected to log big minutes, the need for Wanamaker did not seem obvious. He has become a solid backup point guard for this team. This is a testament to roster building and how depth can help you get through certain stretches. In those five games, Wanamaker is averaging 9.4 points per game and dishing 3.8 assists. He is also a sturdy defender that can guard both guard spots.

Stevens also has two other players at his disposal that can play increased minutes or not play at all. Again, the coach is lucky to have different options that aren’t going to rock the boat from game to game. Semi Ojeleye and Carsen Edwards are ready when called upon and have been effective at times.

Ojeleye has been around the system and Stevens has used him as a defensive stopper at times. He is built like a bull and takes pride in his ability to guard positions one-through-four. So when the team needs some defense, Stevens trusts Semi to get the job done. And if he’s going to shoot 8/12 (75%) from three like he has over the past four games, he is not a liability on the offensive end of the floor either.

Last, but not least, I want to highlight Carsen Edwards. Like most of his bench counterparts, he has logged a DNP-CD (did not play - coach’s decision) while also contributing to victories in other games. In the second game of the season he didn’t get any minutes, but the next game he logged 22 minutes and put in 10 points. In the games prior to his 18 point outburst over 20 minutes against the Washington Wizards, he managed just 8 minutes over two contests. Edwards is a volume scorer that is going to be called up when Stevens needs instant scoring. We’re going to continue to see inconsistent stat lines from him, but don’t rule out Edwards winning a playoff game with his scoring off the bench when it’s least expected.

What does all this mean? It means that the Celtics have enough top-end talent to tote the best record (11-2) in the NBA alongside the Los Angeles Lakers. It also means that they have a Swiss army bench that can get them through different stretches of the season when their stars need rest or are nursing injuries. And when it matters most come playoff time, Brad Stevens will know exactly what he has in his arsenal from game-to-game or even from series-to-series. I like Brad’s odds in any chess match come playoff time.

The inexperienced bench is getting their shot to show what they can do. There isn’t much redundancy, so the situation will dictate who plays. As long as they keep producing in their individual roles, the Celtics will have good options in any circumstances. What once seemed like a weak link can be turned into an asset if used correctly.

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