When the Boston Celtics acquired center Brandan Wright, forward Jae Crowder, and point guard Jameer Nelson from the Dallas Mavericks one of my first thoughts was, "How in the world is Brad Stevens going to find playing time for all of these guys?"
During Sunday's 100-84 loss to the Miami Heat "B Team," we got a glimpse of how Stevens is going to use his deep bench throughout this upcoming stretch of the season.
In short, it's going to be very difficult for him to manage everyone.
Boston is very, very deep. Despite their underwhelming 10-15 record, the Celtics have a lot of good, quality players, and that point really can't be stressed enough, but right now they don't have enough "great" players that can make a winning impact on a consistent basis.
Because Boston has so many equally-talented players, some guys aren't going to get the minutes they'd likely receive on a team with a more top-heavy roster.
Here is a projected look at their depth chart, based on the playing time on Sunday:
(C & PF)
|Kelly Olynyk||28||Tyler Zeller||24|
|Jared Sullinger||25||Brandan Wright||15||Brandon Bass||4|
(SF & SG)
|Jeff Green||32||Gerald Wallace||2||James Young||0|
|Jae Crowder||12||Marcus Thornton||0|
(SG & PG)
|Avery Bradley||30||Evan Turner||25||Phil Pressey||3|
|Marcus Smart||25||Jameer Nelson||15|
There is a minutes shortage for the veterans
Brandon Bass sticks out like a sore thumb, since he logged a season-low 4:58 last night, seemingly booted out of the rotation by newcomer Brandan Wright in the second half. The last time Bass played less than five minutes was when was on March 28, 2010, when he was still with the Orlando Magic.
Effective and reliable veterans like Bass aren't supposed to play so few minutes, which is why his name has been on the trade block going back to last season. You've got to wonder if he'll be traded sooner rather than later if this trend continues, because it's hard to foresee things changing enough to keep an upcoming free agent like him happy with his role.
Marcus Thornton is injured at least for another two weeks, but where is the playing time for him once he returns? Will James Young be forced to spend more time in the D-League? Will the Celtics platoon Jameer Nelson and Thornton -- Stevens goes with the "hot hand" or plays matchups on a night-to-night basis? That seems plausible, but will it be enough to keep Thornton happy, since he is also playing for a contract?
Before the season Thornton's agent Tony Dutt told Comcast SportsNet's A. Sherrod Blakeley that he was concerned his client wouldn't receive the opportunity to "showcase his talents" in Boston. Coincidently, Dutt also represents Bass, another veteran not seeing their expected minutes.
With the rising salary cap, it wouldn't be out of the question for Dutt to make an informal trade request at some point during the season, unless other transactions are made or injuries occur to open up consistent playing time for Bass and/or Thornton.
Olynyk, Zeller are ascending up the depth chart
Despite being fixated in the starting lineup, Jared Sullinger has played only 24.4 minutes per in the last seven games. His drop in playing time has correlated with his decreasing performance, and both Kelly Olynyk and Tyler Zeller are taking advantage.
Stevens has not hinted at removing Sullinger from the starting lineup, but if his lackadaisical performance continues, then a change might be imminent. In the last five games, Zeller and Olynyk have played 24 total minutes together and the team has a Net Rating of plus-9.4. It's a super small sample size, but one I'd like to see more frequently, especially since the Celtics have a net of minus-21.1 when Zeller is paired with Sullinger.
Pairing Brandan Wright with Sullinger could also be more beneficial for the team. Olynyk has a much quicker shot release from three, whereas Sullinger has a somewhat slow gather. Both are tearing it up from beyond the arc when open (Olynyk is hitting 42.3 percent of his open or wide open threes, to 37.3 percent for Sullinger, per SportVU), but Sullinger could probably benefit slightly more from the increased spacing that Wright could provide.
Wright will spend nearly all of his time hovering around the paint and diving to the rim off pick-and-rolls, but the spacing he can create for perimeter shooters is extraordinary. As Stevens learns how to properly use Wright, it'll be interesting to see the impact he makes on the rest of the team.
How can Stevens establish a consistent rotation?
Way back in training camp Brad Stevens preached that he wanted to have a consistent rotation this season, but it has been anything but consistent through 25 games.
"I've really made a commitment to myself, as much as anything, that I was going to make those decisions earlier than I did last year, just because I thought, fair or unfair, mixing and matching just doesn't help the team," Stevens said before a practice in mid-October, as transcribed by MassLive's Jay King. "Whether that means a guy's starting or he's the sixth or seventh guy, those are harder calls right now. But as far as getting an idea of who the 10 or 11 guys are that have got the best chance of being in the rotation, I have that idea."
A lot has changed then -- Thornton and Smart got hurt, Rondo was traded, and new players were acquired -- so no one can blame Stevens for having inconsistent rotations so far this year, but there is no doubt he hasn't been able to execute his preferred plan.
Stevens on setting his rotation: "We've gone with 10 guys since I've been here. The question is, is it the same 10 guys? Probably not."— Boston Celtics (@celtics) December 23, 2014
Even putting aside team chemistry, as outlined above when discussing Bass and Thornton's contract situation, I have concerns about players not being able to develop a rhythm when they don't know when they'll play and when they won't. I don't think playing Nelson or Bass really helps the team in the long-term if it hinders the development of players "on the bus" beyond this season.
With that said, here is what I'd like a 10-man rotation to look like, assuming everyone is healthy:
|C||Tyler Zeller||22||Brandan Wright||20||Brandon Bass||0|
|PF||Kelly Olynyk||28||Jared Sullinger||26||Gerald Wallace||0|
|SF||Jeff Green||32||Jae Crowder||18||James Young||0|
|SG||Avery Bradley||28||Marcus Thornton||16||Jameer Nelson||0|
|PG||Evan Turner||25||Marcus Smart||25||Phil Pressey||0|
Bigs: I'd love to see Stevens stick with four bigs, playing them all for more than 20 minutes per game. If someone is hot, then ride them for over 30, but on average each player would be around 25 minutes per game. And I think it's also time to move Olynyk into the starting lineup, as I suggested in the section above. I have Bass listed with a goose egg for minutes, simply because I think the team should trade him as soon they get the opportunity. He should not be taking away minutes from any of the four bigs ahead of him on the depth chart.
Wings: Jae Crowder needs to play, period. He began to make huge strides in his game last season before Chandler Parsons blocked him this year, and I want to see the Celtics feed him time immediately. Boston could use a corner three-point shooter, which is an area Crowder excels, and he makes a Gerald Wallace type of impact on the defensive end, due to his ability to switch and defend multiple positions. But he's not a geezer, has fresh legs, and is certainly more capable of making a higher impact like Wallace is. Another factor is that Crowder is a restricted free agent in 2015, so now is the time for the Celtics to find out if he's a keeper or not.
Guards: Thornton and/or Nelson should be traded, but I'd rather they keep Thornton, at least into the New Year. Playing Nelson takes point guard time away from Smart, which is counterproductive to his development. At the same time, I don't think Smart should be starting, and I was very disappointed when Stevens gave him the nod on Sunday night. I don't buy the rational Stevens gave, claiming that he prefers Turner off the bench for his versatility. No doubt, it's certainly a plus, but if the goal is to win games, then Turner's ability to run the point effectively and Smart's defensive impact off the bench gives them a better chance to accomplish that.
In a nutshell, I believe Brad Stevens should slice his rotation down to 10 or 11 guys, just like he planned to. Because of potential team chemistry issues, some guys will need to be dealt, much like the Jordan Crawford and Courtney Lee transactions from last season. But as far as I'm concerned, the sooner that happens the better for the Boston Celtics, both in the short-term and the long-term.