clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

It's all about that space: how Boston's big man rotation could affect the starting lineup

New, comments

At yesterday's practice, Brad Stevens addressed the issue of Boston's slow-starting offense and how improved spacing could help.

Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Here's the sobering quote from Brad Stevens about the Celtics 1-2 start:

"I'm going to spend a lot less time being committed to a plan that was preconceived and a lot more time evaluating what's going on," said Stevens. "Who is playing well, how they best complement each other, and everything else. If we can find some consistency in that, that'd be helpful."

Stevens tempered his frustration and didn't want to overreact too much, calling it a small sample size and crediting San Antonio and Toronto for being "two good teams."  Check out ESPN's Chris Forsberg's summary of just how much of a bust the starting lineup has been on offense compared to the booming success it was in the preseason.  The numbers are depressing, but Stevens will continue to tinker probably for the rest of November and it sounds like he might already have a few tweaks in mind:

Tyler Zeller echoed his coach's sentiments saying that they're "just trying to get everybody in the right places at the right times."  With Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley, and Jae Crowder seemingly cemented into the starting lineup, could it be an issue with Zeller and David Lee?  Jared Sullinger and Amir Johnson have found success off the bench, but little production from Zeller and Lee has caused the starting lineup to stall to start the season.

Last year, Sullinger played alongside Zeller in the starting five and if you've watched the last three games, you can see how Lee and Zeller's natural instincts may not exactly jive.  For better or for worse, Sully played a lot of stretch 4 in 2014-2015.  Much to the chagrin of many fans, he averaged over three 3PFGA's and shot just over 41% in the mid-range.  Those numbers aren't great, but that at least gave Zeller room to operate.

This season, the paint has been a little crowded.  Of Zeller's 14 FGA's, 8 have been contested.  For Lee, it's 17-out-of-20 are CFGA's.  Is it a spacing issue?  It could be.

This play is in transition, but you can see Lee forcing the issue and driving the ball into Tim Duncan who is Zeller's defender.  Sullinger might have settled for the long-2 here, so it's hard to fault Lee because you want to get as many lay up attempts in a game as possible, but taking it into traffic might not be the best option.

Here's a double pick from Zeller and Lee to free up Smart from Kawhi Leonard.  Both Lee and Zeller roll rather than one (Lee in this case) popping above the three point line.  Lee doesn't really have that shot in his repertoire, but with 15 seconds on the clock, the ball could have been rotated to Bradley for the corner 3.

Here's another example of a big driving towards the defender of the other big.  Because Lee rolls on the original PnR with Thomas, he and more importantly, his defender are there when Zeller tries to drive the ball.

This is how it should work.  The ball rotates beautifully after Thomas' penetration to Lee above the free throw line.  With Zeller on the opposite block, the lane is wide open for Lee to drive past TD for the easy layup.

At the start of the second half, Stevens opted to start Sully over Zeller just like he did against the Sixers.  That move paid immediate dividends.  This is that dribble hand off that Boston runs to get Bradley a jump shot at the top of the key, but you can see how Lee rolls and Sullinger pops for the open 3.  Zeller doesn't have that in his game and that's why at least on this one play, the spacing works better with Lee paired with Sullinger.

we usually see this kind of pick-and-roll with Thomas and Johnson surrounded by shooters, but here, it's Bradley and Lee.  AB uses a stagger dribble to drive by the slower Duncan, but notice where Sullinger is camped out.  That forces LaMarcus Aldridge out of the paint and making it difficult for LMA to recover on the drive.

Here's that dribble hand off action again with Sullinger as the roll man and Crowder as the pop man.  Sullinger misses the baseline jumper, but you notice the perfect spacing.  Lee's on the side of the key and when Sully rolls and realizes that he's not going to get a pass, he fades back and clears a driving lane for Crowder.  It's that kind of court awareness that Stevens has been preaching in the read-and-react.

At Media Day, Sully made comments about concentrating on "getting his big butt on the block," but Stevens challenged him to be effective everywhere on the floor.  So far, despite dropping down on the depth chart in training camp, he's responded.  That's why he's seen almost as many minutes as David Lee and almost double Zeller.  He's improved defensively and his off-season workouts haven't given him the ability to play with a higher motor in shorter spurts.

To make matters worse or better depending on how you look at things, we still haven't seen the best of Kelly Olynyk.  It could be like this all season: a guy goes cold in the starting lineup and Stevens calls for the next man up off the bench.  It could be a match up thing where Zeller plays against quicker centers and Sullinger grinds it out vs. bigger 5's.  There's this traditional thinking that a team should have a consistent starting lineup and rotation to be successful, but with the depth at Stevens' disposal, he may need to manage this roster more like a baseball team and just go with what's working.