One of the more publicized and influential changes around the NBA in recent seasons has been the increased usage of smaller lineups and the decline of the traditional positions that once dominated NBA rotations for decades. More nimble, offensively skilled big men who can knock down mid-range jumpers have begun to replace the plodding, heavy-footed centers of years past who rarely venture beyond the paint area. Once expected to form a vital partnership with the center around the basket, power forwards are now being asked to defend multiple positions and serve as an offensive threat from the perimeter.
Now, perhaps this shift to smaller, more fluid lineups has been slightly exaggerated. Many successful teams during the 2012-13 season, most notably the Indiana Pacers, still use big men in a more conventional manner. Yet with the ways in which teams can now directly measure the success of specific five-man units, traditional lineups are slowly being phased out for rotations that offer more versatility for coaches and NBA offenses as a whole.
All of which leads us to Boston’s new coach Brad Stevens, someone who is well versed in the innovative ways the Celtics will seek to measure and improve team performance. And one of the most noteworthy quotes from Stevens at Celtics Media Day a week ago was his discussion of "positionless" basketball:
"The nice thing about the Jeff Greens of the world and the Gerald Wallaces of the world is that you can’t pigeonhole them into one position," Stevens said. "You can play Jeff and Gerald at the 2 and the 3, or at the 3 and the 4. You can rotate them at the 3 and rotate them at the 4. The more versatile guys are, the more minutes you play."
A quick scan of the team’s roster shows numerous players who can rotate between multiple positions and who can’t be "pigeonholed" into one role or another. While this season’s Celtics may lack established talent, they do possess an intriguing mix of flexibility, skills, and athleticism that should, at the very least, make for some interesting experimentation on the offensive end.
As Stevens mentioned, Jeff Green and Gerald Wallace are two prime examples of this versatility, but Monday’s preseason game also showcased a few other players who will allow Boston to test out some unconventional five-man units. The most obvious is rookie Kelly Olynyk, the team’s tallest player at 7’0", but also one of its more offensively skilled. Olynyk looks quite comfortable with the ball in his hands already, demonstrating a passing ability generally reserved for guards and the ability to play on the perimeter.
Add in the trio of Jared Sullinger, Brandon Bass, and Kris Humphries, and Stevens already has a strong collection of big men who can rotate among different positions, rebound, score around the basket, and contribute in multiple ways. The performance of Wallace, Olynyk, and Sullinger together on Monday provided a brief preview of this, and our first look at a lineup that Stevens could lean on more and more as the season goes on.
What the versatility of Boston’s lineup gives the Celtics is a chance, at least initially, for Stevens, Danny Ainge, and the coaching staff to experiment with a young group of players. Testing out new ideas—and perhaps failing at times—will be par for the course this season. Watching how Stevens learns on the job and begins to mold a consistent offense out of this team will be fascinating to watch.
Though the Celtics brass has rightly derided the word "tanking" in regards to this season, there is little denying that Stevens and Ainge will be viewing this team with an eye toward the future. They will be searching for players, lineups, and ideas that can be part of the next Celtics contender.
Let’s hope, by season’s end, they will have found something along the way.