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Kevin O'Connor's CelticsBlog Mailbag: Assessing lineup, player combinations

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This week's mailbag puts the focus on Boston Celtics lineup combinations.

Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

Q: What would be the best combination of Celtics to have out on the court at a time? -- Jeremy Morgan (Orlando, FL)

A: Jeremy, on paper my favorite Celtics lineup is a backcourt of Isaiah Thomas and Marcus Smart, with a frontcourt of Jae Crowder, Kelly Olynyk, and Amir Johnson. I think it brings a perfect blend of shooting, defense, rim protection, and versatility. All five players can stretch the floor, giving Thomas room to operate, and a Thomas-Johnson pick-and-roll space to flourish. Smart can also handle the ball and push Thomas off-ball, making him an even more diverse weapon. But the Celtics have only used it in one game for two minutes, against Toronto, and they outscored them 5-2. It's the smallest of sample sizes, but that's why I'd love to see it more one Smart is healthy.

Q: Let's assume that Isaiah Thomas stays in the starting group when Marcus Smart returns from injury; who starts next to him at shooting guard, Avery Bradley or Smart? -- Ianmello

A: Ian, if Thomas stays the starter I think Bradley would also start. Bradley has started 140 of 142 games with Brad Stevens as head coach, and I don't see why that would suddenly change. I'd love to see more of Thomas with Smart (lineups with that combo had a plus-12.3 Net Rating last season), but we still could, even one of them starting and the other coming off the bench.

Q: I read your top 10 prospects and can you explain a little more why you have Dragan Bender over Ben Simmons? -- Kyle (Ohio)

A: Kyle, I hope people don't read too much into that. It's early in the process and I wish I had just published "tiers" of players, because it's so close between Bender, Simmons, and even Skal Labissiere that they're really 1a, 1b, and 1c. Simmons is a worthy No. 1 player because of his blend of skills. Few 6-foot-10 players have the passing vision that Simmons has. His positional versatility is incredible. But Bender is also quite a unique player, and should be part of the conversation.

But the answer is simply because I worry about Simmons' jumper. The last time I watched him play his mechanics hadn't really changed for the better since the first time I saw him. Simmons could become a very, very good player without a jump shot, but not having one both limits his upside and makes his upside difficult to project. Simmons needs more than "more reps" or "more time in the gym" which is the conventional wisdom so many coaches preach for players who need to improve their jumpers. What Simmons needs is his mechanics to be overhauled, and I don't know if that'll happen at LSU. Simmons needs to get lucky with a trainer or coach that will make the necessary changes to his mechanics, and then he'll have to sustain those changes until they became his new, learned habits. It's a lot to hope for, but it's possible. Let's hope he does improve in this area, because then maybe Simmons makes the jump from "great" prospect to "elite" prospect.

Ironically, Bender also needs to improve his jump shot. That's another reason why it's so close between them. But Bender is one year, four months younger than Simmons, and he has better mechanics and touch to build on. Bender is also slightly ahead on the defensive end, though both of them are, in theory, similarly versatile. Put it this way, it's real close between these two, and with Labissiere.

Q: Hey Kevin, do you think the perceived logjam that many pointed out in the preseason was hindering the team? The team might have trouble finding chemistry with so many moving parts too. Thanks! -- Ryan Hathaway (Canton, MA)

A: Ryan, thank you for the question. I don't think it's hindering the team at all, it just has its pros and cons. On one hand, it gives Brad Stevens night-to-night flexibility; he can literally use these guys to play any style he wants (with small or traditional lineups). But it's also tough for guys to find continuity with one another, especially this early in the season. One other possible negative is that Stevens might feel obligated to use everyone, instead of just doing what he really wants -- which he's made pretty clear: to play small. We'll see how it shakes out.

Q: Would you say this is a strong or weak draft? -- Jeremy (Boston, MA)

A: Jeremy, I think it's above average. There's a chance you'll see people call it "weak," but that's only because there's a chance there are no "transcendent players." But what it does have is a lot of versatile players that can play different roles for their teams. I think that's a good thing for the Celtics, if they choose to keep some of their picks. But there are also players who fit into clearly defined roles, like Kansas big man Cheick Diallo as an energy guy, or Utah center Jakob Poeltl as a rim protector, or Anadolu Efes wing Furkan Korkmaz as a shooting specialist. It doesn't have the star power of the 2014 or 2015 drafts, but it has a lot of interesting players.

Q: What is the Celtics biggest weakness this year? What is their biggest strength? -- fligh (Pampa, TX)

A: Fligh, their greatest strength is their versatility. They can match-up against teams any single way they want to, either with traditional lineups or small-ball lineups. Their biggest weakness is their defensive rebounding -- they rank 29th in defensive rebound percentage (71.5 percent). Their defense has been spectacular, allowing just 95.2 points per 100 possessions, good for sixth in the NBA, but they need to stop allowing second chances opportunities.

Q: If Evan Turner continues to display his much improved level of defense, do you think it would be wise to insert him into the starting line up in place of Crowder? -- theheebs (Beijing)

A: Heebs, as you mentioned, Turner is performing well on defense. Opponents are shooting just 32.4 percent against him, according to SportVU, 10.1 percent better than the average NBA player. But I'd still prefer Turner off the bench. Turner's skills fit with David Lee, they're a promising pick-and-roll duo. And if Isaiah Thomas doesn't start (referencing the question above), then it's nice having another ball handler on the floor, which allows Thomas to work off-ball.

Q: It seemed like there was a little promise in the Turner-Lee pick and roll duo, is it something we could build on? Seems like that would be a great offensive tandem for one unit, then let Thomas and Johnson do their thing on the other unit. -- Jack (Winchester, MA)

A: Jack, here's a fun stat for you: David Lee is shooting 3-of-5 on passes received from Turner, but he's 7-of-25 on passes from everyone else. That's a tremendously small sample size, and very much circumstantial, but it does somewhat illustrate the Turner-Lee connection we've seen. It is something they can build on, and maybe we'll see more of it in these next two games against Milwaukee and Indiana.

Q: Does James Young have any trade value? -- Sweetfoot Ginger (Watertown, MA)

A: Ginger, Young does have trade value. He's only 20-years-old and he has the potential to be a knockdown shooter. Every team could use a guy that can drain threes. Plus, Young has improved defensively, though he still has a long way to go in that department. Young is raw, and I have never been particularly high on him, but he definitely has some trade value considering the premium the NBA puts on shooting.

Q: Hi Kevin, I love CelticsBlog, however, the "KO mailbag" is slightly deceiving; I was expecting answers to be provided from Kelly Olynyk. So my question is, whose mailbag answers are better, yours or Kelly Olynyk's? -- Kenny Dricklamar (Westford, MA)

A: Kenny, haha thank you. My answers are way better. Kelly Olynyk is too busy shoving burritos down his throat to give long, detailed responses. But in all seriousness you bring up a good point: does anyone have any recommendations for a new mailbag name?

Thank you, please submit more questions for next Tuesday's mailbag.