It's obvious that Brad Stevens wants his Boston Celtics roster to be like Gregg Popovich's San Antonio Spurs, no differently than I want to be a general manager like Danny Ainge, or maybe Jimi Hendrix if this sports thing doesn't work out.
Time and time again Stevens has rightfully praised the Spurs for playing perfect basketball, so much so that the Celtics might be basing their personnel decisions off of San Antonio's blueprint. This became more apparent on media day when Stevens outlined his plan for the season.
"We need to have our whole team play with freedom, but it has to be led by our point guard," explained Stevens. "Probably every team will refer to the beauty of the Spurs playing basketball last year. As you look at what makes them so good, they run great actions, but there's so many reads and looks that they make off of those and they're playing basketball."
Stevens added, "I think if you look at them and the best teams throughout the years here, there's a fine line. You can't always script everything as a coach. This is a game that's played fast and the more options you can give on the fly, the better. I just want to not be as scripted, grind it out, call a set every time down the floor; I want us to be a read and react, there are five options on every action and let's go."
Stevens might sound like he's just dreaming of greener pastures, but he isn't crazy; you can salivate at the thought of a Spurs-like philosophy, if you'd like. Almost every single transaction this summer has been for a player that could, on paper, fit into San Antonio's system.
One of the chief "Spursian" attributes is having the ability handle the ball and pass it well, regardless of position. Playing unselfish basketball at all positions is key.
Throughout the preseason, Stevens has tried to find the perfect mix of players that fit that philosophy by performing well, not as individuals, but as a collective group. He now says he now has a clear idea of who those 10 players will be.
"Sometimes when you have a lot of evenness, or you can't figure out who's going to play what roles, what minutes, you have to play differently from your first unit to your second unit. And you hope that's not altered too drastically where you just have to make tweaks and changes to it," Stevens said, as transcribed by MassLive.com. "Now I think we can play pretty fluid unit to unit, and just kind of play one way on both ends of the floor. And I think that's helpful."
Finding continuity between the first and second units should help Boston, since they often had to change stylistically last season, especially with constantly changing personnel.
After the preseason, Boston's rotation now looks quite clear. Here is what their lineup will probably look like on a typical night:
|Player/Projected Minutes (*** = Probable Starters / # = Potential Inactive)
(C & PF)
|Jared Sullinger ***
|Vitor Faverani #
|Kelly Olynyk ***
|Dwight Powell #
(SF & SG)
|Jeff Green ***
|Gerald Wallace #
|James Young #
(SG & PG)
|Rajon Rondo ***
|Phil Pressey #
|Avery Bradley ***
After Jared Sullinger, Kelly Olynyk, Jeff Green, Avery Bradley, and Rajon Rondo played a grand total of just 14 minutes together last season, they are expected to start Wednesday night in Brooklyn. Rondo will get a chance to rack up assists, as he'll be surrounded by four three-point threats.
On Monday, Stevens said that if Rondo plays this week he'll likely use him in "four or five minute stints at a time and then shorter rests.''
This aligns with his preseason substitution method, since he almost always used one or two early subs around the midpoint of the first quarter.
He'd typically substitute in Brandon Bass for either Olynyk or Sullinger, and a backup guard for the starting point guard. In this case, either Evan Turner or Marcus Smart would come off the bench for Rondo. Usually after the second mandatory timeout, with less than three minutes to go, Stevens would then put in the rest of the bench.
Once the second quarter begins, Stevens has generally brought his starters back before the first mandatory timeout, around the six-minute mark, but it has varied night-to-night.
However, Stevens may not stick to this exact formula, especially since the starters will play more minutes than they did in the preseason, the "evenness" of the roster provides for a lot of consistency when it comes to the routines and roles of each player.
If a player like Thornton catches fire shooting the ball, or if a rim protector like Zeller is needed, naturally they'll earn themselves more minutes in an individual game, but the chart above serves as a template for your "typical" game.
Which players are on the outside looking in?
Rolling with a 10-man rotation means that some players won't play every night. The first name that pops off the chart is Gerald Wallace. After surgery on his left knee and left ankle, Wallace looked like a complete shell of his former self this season, even more so than he did pre-injury. If he plays heavy minutes, it's because Boston is going with a versatile "switching" defense, or someone is in foul trouble.
Because of Boston's depth at the small forward and shooting guard position, it's likely James Young will be assigned to the Maine Red Claws before their season begins on November 14. Young will not be able to play consistently in Boston, and that is counterproductive for his development. It's not a guarantee Young goes to the D-League, but it makes sense for it to happen.
And Dwight Powell is not close to making an impact in an NBA game, so he'll likely spend his entire winter in Maine, where he'll get to enjoy steady playing time, beautiful hipster girls, and the subjectively gorgeous Portland snow.
Despite playing in 75 games last season, 2014 doesn't bode well for Phil Pressey. Unless an injury occurs or someone's play declines, Pressey will probably be used only in a change-of-pace role. For his own good, a D-League assignment may be beneficial, but that would probably only happen if Boston felt it was in their best interest to keep Young in Boston.
One of the variables is Vitor Faverani. If he manages to return from his knee surgery and stay healthy, he will almost certainly be active, but playing time is not guaranteed. He'll have to work his way up the depth chart, but his size and stretch shooting abilities should give him a situational role.
What are some potential changes?
If Sullinger and Olynyk struggle as a defensive pairing it wouldn't be too surprising if Zeller gets a chance to start at some point before the New Year. Zeller is easily the team's most talented rim protector and there will be nights when his impact is desperately needed. For now, it appears that Stevens prefers to use his versatile offensive-oriented pairing in the frontcourt, but don't rule Zeller out.
Behind Rondo and Bradley, playing time could fluctuate between Smart, Thornton, and Turner. Smart is a top rookie and will play, but if he becomes a major liability on the offensive end, Stevens might have no other choice than to cut his playing time in favor of the veterans, Thornton and Turner.
On the other hand, Thornton's defense could also regress to the mean -- he expounded more energy on the defensive end in the preseason than he did in each of the past two seasons combined -- and he could become the inconvenience. If the Celtics want to have a top 10 defense, he could play himself out of the rotation, which would only increase the playing time for Smart and Turner.
There is always a possibility of a transaction, too. If Jeff Green were traded, James Young would benefit with a chance at a bench role. And if Brandon Bass was shipped away, Vitor Faverani would see his role increase, though it's also possible the starters would just see increased minutes. And if Rajon Rondo was dealt, which is unlikely, then Marcus Smart would be thrust into the starting role.
No matter what happens with the rotation throughout the season, Brad Stevens appears to have a versatile set of players to work with. The Boston Celtics may not even win half of their games, but it looks like this could be the year a Spurs-like system is introduced and instilled into each one of these players.