History tells us Celtics need to prepare for the playoffs with a full rotation AND then some
Having a clear rotation and pecking order in the regular season tends to lead to a more harmonious locker room. Winning does even more for a team's morale, but in an 82 game season you will always have some down periods. As President of Basketball Operations Brad Stevens has prioritized not adding players to the end of the bench who have the potential to whine about playing time.
With all due respect to the end of our bench the past two season it's consisted mostly of scrubs, journeymen, vets on their last legs, and G-Leaguers. Due to that, there hasn't really been much complaining at all about playing time. Payton Pritchard after a solid rookie campaign has seen his playing time reduced in consecutive seasons, so he's understandably asked to be put in a spot where he can play more. With the trade of Marcus Smart this offseason, that spot might just remain Boston.
Problem with the model of 9 rotation players and 6 guys just content to be on an NBA roster is injuries ALWAYS happen in the playoffs. Whereas in the regular season when Ime Udoka or Joe Mazzulla can throw some minutes to the Luke Kornets, Blake Griffins, Sam Hausers, and Romeo Langfords of the world, when a rotation piece is out, in the playoffs we've seen both coaches just shorten their rotations. This leads to less optinmal performances from the regular rotation.
This problem isn't new for the Celtics. Ever since the KG/Pierce/Ray Big 3 era it's been the team's Achilles heel. The Celtics didn't want to give James Posey a long term deal, so they let him walk in the summer of 2008. They also picked Patrick O'Bryant over Chris "Birdman" Anderson to replace PJ Brown. Then when KG got hurt, they had to rely on Brian Scalabrine to play a big role off the becnh since they had no other options at the 4 beyond the starter Big Baby.
The Celtics would have beaten the Magic in Round 2 that year with just one more big, and Orlando advanced to the NBA Finals. The next season the Celtics made it back to the Finals, but then Kendrick Perkins got hurt and the only other capable center Rasheed Wallace wasn't in shape enough to play the minutes needed to cover for the loss of the team's other center. 'Sheed ran out of gas in the 2nd half of Game 7 and the Celtics consequently blew their lead and the Lakers went on to steal that series.
In 2011 the Celtics traded pending free agent center Kendrick Perkins and gambled on Shaq's health to return as the team's center in the playoffs and he played a total of 12 minutes the entire playoffs. The following season the Celtics again had a lead in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals to LeBron James and the Heat, but ran out of gas and blew it. They never replaced Jeff Green after he was ruled out for the season with a heart condition, and letting Tony Allen walk for nothing the offseason prior came back to bite them, especially when Ray Allen got injured which knocked him out of a couple games and limited him defensively.
Injuries always happen. Avery Bradley was able to step up and start for Ray that postseason, but then you lost your defensive game changer off the bench. And with no TA or a competent "next man up" to throw in there it's no surprise the team was good enough to take the Heatles to 7 games and a lead through 3 quarters but run out of steam.
In more recent seasons we've seen the Kemba Walker and Gordon Hayward injuries prevent the Celtics from making the NBA Finals in 2020. Brad Wanamaker did a valiant job stepping up as the team's 6th man in those last two rounds, but no championship team should ever have a player on the level of Brad Wanamaker as their 6th man.
Ime Udoka led the Celtics to the NBA Finals in 2020, but the team when through serious scoring droughts in the Eastern Conference Finals and especially the NBA Finals. While the Spurs made the Derrick White trade to obtain two Celtics first round picks, Boston insisted that San Antonio take back Josh Richardson and his contract, so they could stay under the luxury tax.
In a subsequent trade the team also insisted on including Dennis Schröder and his expiring contract in the Daniel Theis trade with Houston. The tanking Rockets had no desire to add Schröder, but again Boston did it to avoid the luxury tax.
Either Josh Richardson or Dennis Schröder could have been the little bit extra firepower Boston needed either to win the Eastern Conference Finals in less games, so they could go into the Finals as rested and healthy as Golden State. Or in the NBA Finals one could have provided a spark when things when poorly in let's say Game 4. Say what you will about Schröder, and fans went from calling Brad Stevens a genius after signing him to wanting him gone, but he does provide instant offense and he'd have worked as a quick fix when the team was resting Jaylen, Jayson, and/or Smart.
Anyone would have helped as in the playoffs it's not really about positions. It's about playable players. It's not a coincidence the Celtics have had two straight long playoff runs since Al Horford returned. But the more minutes Al has to play due to a shortened rotation, the less effective you can expect him later in games, in OT, or the NBA Finals.
It doesn't take a genius to plan that Robert Williams will miss some games, and Brad did well to swap Enes Kanter Freedom for Danie Theis, but the issue with that trade deadline is the team traded four players who were playing rotation minutes (Schröder, Richardson, Kanter, Langford) and replaced them with two. If Rob is healthy the Celtics once again likely win a title, but once again expecting your whole rotation to remain healthy is such a bad gamble.
That brings us to last season, when the Celtics once again had a rotation that if healthy could win the title, but if any of those rotation players got hurt, the rest of the team consisted of no one who could potentially step up. Once again Robert Williams got hurt and you couldn't count on him to start and play major minutes, but the team was good enough to withstand that for two rounds. Come the Eastern Conference Finals and a tougher foe, you had less wiggle room. Brogdon either sat out or played hurt (and thus badly that whole series). Jaylen played poorly that whole series. And when Tatum got hurt in Game 7 there was no one on the bench to step up.
If you recall the last time the Celtics did win a championship in 2008 they had multiple options in case something was needed Perk and KG were backed up by PJ and Posey, AND Powe, AND Big Baby. A guy like Scal was seventh big man option. At the guard spot Doc could use either Sam Cassell or Eddie House as the back-up point guard. Besides Posey, the Celtics had Tony Allen as another back-up wing option.
Porzingis says foot hurts after exercise, but feels confident he will be ready by start of regular season https://t.co/7m3osbD3jV
That team had more than 8 players worthy of playing time, but Doc made it work. And to win an NBA Finals, you need a team with a full rotation AND then some. Stevens kind of handles Mazzulla with kids gloves his first season, and that's fine, since Joe was put in a difficult spot. But going into this year's playoffs I don't want to see signings of players like Brodric Thomas, Nik Stauskas, Justin Champagnie, and other scrubs no playoff team would ever play.
The Celtics need more depth this coming season and so far they replaced two rotation players Marcus Smart and Grant Williams with one (and an oft-inured one at that) in Kristaps Porzingis.
So sure if Horford, Rob, Porzingis, Tatum, Jaylen, White, and Brogdon are all healthy you have a tight 7 man rotation to rival any team. But if just one guy gets hurt your down to only 6 players. And if two guys miss a game, you have zero bench.
Someone may counter with the names of Oshae Brissett, Dalano Banton, Svi Mykhailiuk, and rookie Jordan Walsh. And that's good and all, but have any of those journeymen ever played rotation playoff minutes? Is our 2nd round pick really expected to step up and be our 6th man if we're down a couple players? Yes he looked pretty good in the summer league, like many draft picks did, but he's a downgrade from the known commodity of Grant Williams, whose work against Giannis in 2022 needs to be credited when discussing reasons Boston advanced to the NBA Finals that campaign. You throwing Walsh at Giannis?
Most fans of every team always overreact to preseason prognostications, early season and regular season records, small losing streaks, and playoff seedings, but if you've followed NBA and specifically NBA basketball for any length of time, it's all about who you have for the playoffs. In my life I can go all the way back to 1987 when not only the death of Len Bias devastated the Celtics, but Los Angeles trading for Mychal Thompson and not Boston also had a huge impact.
Counting on Bill Walton to remain healthy another season was risky and then Kevin McHale got hurt, but with no Walton (or Bias) he had to play hurt and even more minutes. He was less effective, his injury worsened, and honestly it probably shortened his career. Put Mychal Thompson on the Celtics instead of the Lakers and Boston wins in 1987 (and 1988). Shoot put any capable backup forward or center on that team and Boston wins.
Just like teams don't win titles with Brad Wanamaker playing 6th man minutes, neither do they with Fred Roberts. And neither will they with Oshae Brissett. Injuries happen. Stevens needs to be prepared this time.