Playoffs!? Nah, not this year, but the nice thing about being eliminated from postseason contention is that well-run organizations like the Boston Celtics are able to play around with unique lineups and different techniques as they prepare in advance for next season.
With only eight games remaining on the schedule, Brad Stevens and the Celtics should make good use of their time and experiment, which could help player and chemistry development. Here are five ideas they should try:
Shake up the starting frontcourt
"I think about it every minute of every day," said coach Stevens when asked about potential changes to the starting lineup. "The most likely change, if there would be a change, would be in the frontcourt."
Brandon Bass and Kris Humphries have started 18 straight games together, and they have a dreadful 112.6 defensive rating since the All-Star Break, which can't sit too well with Stevens. If only one change is made, it should be to this combination.
The team defense has performed terribly with Bass and Hump on the floor together, in part because they face off against starting units, but also because neither of them can truly play center.
Other combinations, including Bass and Kelly Olynyk, Jared Sullinger and Olynyk, and Sullinger and Humphries, have performed significantly better during their time on the court.
For example, Olynyk and Sullinger have statistically been the best frontcourt combination, as the team scores the most (117.3) and allows the least (104.4) amount of points per 100 possessions when they're on the floor together. Bass and Olynyk have been almost as impressive, which is a sign that the team generally performs better when Olynyk is playing.
There is also a possibility that both Bass and Humphries are on different teams next season. Humphries will be an unrestricted free agent and Bass is a prime trading piece as a part of a large package or in a deal for a true center.
In a year about making progress, it makes the most sense to play the guys that are expected to be a part of the future. Even the face of the franchise wants this: "I like playing on the court with Sully," said point guard Rajon Rondo. "I told Brad I want to play with Sully as much as possible."
Coach Brad Stevens should listen to the captain's suggestion and start both Sullinger and Olynyk.
Start CJ if AB is out
Chris Johnson has only played 207 minutes and 388 possessions alongside Rajon Rondo, and during that time, the Celtics have an unbelievable 114.2 offensive rating. That statistic is so good, it would lead the league if it were their season average.
If Avery Bradley is shut down for the rest of the season with a sore right Achilles (which he should be), then Chris Johnson should get the starting nod, not Jerryd Bayless.
According to SportVU, Johnson averages 4.6 miles per hour when he's on the court, which is tied for third fastest in the NBA. The speed and energy he brings to the floor raises the intensity, which compliments Rondo's style. Even Johnson himself plays at his best with Rondo, scoring 1.2 points per shot with a 57.1 eFG percentage.
This would leave Jerryd Bayless on the bench, which isn't such a bad thing. Bayless and Phil Pressey have actually made for quite a formidable unit, since the team has a 113.9 offensive rating when they're the backcourt duo.
From a player development perspective, it would also be beneficial for Johnson to receive more minutes against starting units. Johnson needs to improve his on-ball defense, especially in the pick-and-roll, and being on the floor with more talented players will help him take that next step.
Empower the players
In previous years, Doc Rivers occasionally let his players design plays in the huddle, essentially giving them the ability to do whatever they want. At Butler, Brad Stevens was never really in a position to do that, but he should instill some extra confidence in his young team by handing them the keys to the car for a play here and there.
Let Rajon Rondo call an after-timeout play, tell Jared Sullinger to draw something up for himself, force Avery Bradley to make the decision in the huddle even if he isn't playing. These actions will give them the confidence required to run the team themselves, since coach Stevens won't always be able to control what goes on during the game.
And if you need any assurance that this is an effective technique, read what one of the greatest coaches of all-time said about this exact topic. Here's what San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich recently said about empowering his players:
Spurs Nation -- Pop talks offense
"I can’t make every decision for you. I don’t have 14 timeouts. You guys got to get together and talk. You guys might see a mismatch that I don’t see. You guys need to communicate constantly — talk, talk, talk to each other about what’s going on the court.
"I think that communication thing really helps them. It engenders a feeling that they can actually be in charge. I think competitive character people don’t want to be manipulated constantly to do what one individual wants them to do. It’s a great feeling when players get together and do things as a group. Whatever can be done to empower those people.
"Sometimes in timeouts I’ll say, ‘I’ve got nothing for you. What do you want me to do? We just turned it over six times. Everybody’s holding the ball. What else do you want me to do here? Figure it out.’ And I’ll get up and walk away. Because it’s true. There’s nothing else I can do for them. I can give them some 'bull,' and act like I’m a coach or something, but it’s on them."
Play Olynyk some at SF
Let's make this clear: Kelly Olynyk will never be a small forward in the NBA. Some fans and writers have floated around that idea, but he just doesn't have the speed on the defensive end of the floor to ever play the position full-time.
But that's exactly why he should play it in spurts for the rest of this season. Olynyk's prominent weakness is his lateral quickness on defense, and playing some small forward will give him experience against faster and more agile players.
KO has spent almost the entire season at power forward or center, so it's time for him to get a taste of just how quick some players can be. Chances are the results won't be pretty, but the lessons learned will be valuable.
On the offensive end of the floor, it will also give Olynyk the opportunity to read the defense from a new perspective. He spends most of his time on the wing anyway, so he may also get some additional opportunities in transition, which is an area he will excel.
Give Joel a chance
Brad Stevens recently said, "To be honest, the guy I'm trying to find some time for because I really want to see how he can impact others, is Joel [Anthony]." Stevens should go with his instinct and give the 6-foot-9 center a chance.
Anthony has already proven that he is only a journeyman in the NBA, but playing him as a "placeholder" as a rim protecting center (which is what the Celtics will have next season, in their ideal world), will give an idea of how the team functions with that type of player.
So far this year, Anthony has been on the court for only 65 minutes and 126 possessions. Even if Anthony isn't with Boston next season, every young player will benefit from playing alongside him since the guards and weakside defenders will get a taste of what it's like to have an enforcer in the paint.
Brad Stevens and the organization will also have more film to assess over the course of the offseason. They'll be able to see how the team responds with a defensive orientated center on the floor, which could influence personnel or philosophical changes heading into the 2014-15 season.