The Boston Celtics current starting five has the worst offensive rating and the third-worst Net Rating of all 36 NBA lineups to play at least 200 minutes together. This group also ranks last in eFG, true shooting, and rebounding percentage. In plain terms, the Celtics are sporting one of the worst heavily utilized five-man lineups in the entire league.
After getting throttled by the Los Angeles Clippers, point guard Isaiah Thomas suggested the Celtics need to come out swinging right from the opening tip.
"We need to be the team that punches first," Thomas said after the game. "We have to hit first. I don't know what it is. We're waiting to get hit, and then it's tough for us to get back in it. We have to change that as soon as possible."
Thomas might be the smallest player on the team, but he certainly packs the hardest punch with his fiery zigzag scoring ability.
During his session with the media, Thomas was told that Brad Stevens recently said he thinks about changing the starting lineup every day before being asked if he's the player that could provide the punch necessary to get off to better starts.
"Well, I didn't say that," a smiling Thomas replied. "But if Coach puts me in the starting lineup, I'll be happy. If he doesn't, it is what it is, but I definitely can help. That's my game: bring energy and make plays. So, if he calls my name and I'm in the starting lineup I'm going to continue to play basketball the way I know how and do whatever it takes to win."
A major rotational change this late in the regular season is unorthodox, but it might be a necessary move to spark the Boston Celtics into the playoffs. Here are three changes that could help the team:
1. Isaiah Thomas must start
There is no question that naming Thomas as a starter is the first decision that needs to happen, which should start as early as tonight in a must-win game against the Charlotte Hornets.
Since the deadline the Celtics have 43 four-man lineup groupings with positive Net Ratings and Thomas is included in 70 percent of them. The tiny point guard makes an undeniably colossal positive impact on the lineup, and should be utilized from the opening tip to help cure the slow starts.
Even though Thomas is still working his way back from a lower back bruise, he appeared to be rounding into form against the Clippers by displaying his trademark shiftiness.
Thomas bullies reserves when he comes off the bench, but he already proved himself as a legitimate 20-points-per-game-scorer as a starter in the much more competitive Western Conference with the Sacramento Kings. Thomas provides playmaking, energy, and shooting, which are three things the starters are severely lacking.
If Thomas is named a starter, then benching Marcus Smart seems like the best option. Smart appears to have hit the rookie wall, as he's shooting only 31.4 percent from the field, but he is still a terrific defensive player and could be utilized as a lockdown vise grip off the bench.
2. Jae Crowder should start if Thomas does
The Celtics have nine remaining games with six different opponents, and all but one of those teams have scoring threats at the center position, which includes Al Jefferson, Roy Hibbert, and Andre Drummond. Considering the starting centers of each team, Tyler Zeller is probably going to remain the starter. He is the team's best low post defender, so by default they're going to have to lean on him for long stretches of games.
More important are the matchups at forward, which will feature tandems of Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Ersan Ilyasova and Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Kevin Love and LeBron James.
All of those power forwards space the floor as shooters, so the Celtics could face a barrage of three-pointers down the final stretch. With the current inclination of the starting lineup, Evan Turner has some pretty difficult matchups, but he isn't able to switch onto power forwards.
Jae Crowder is capable of doing that, which is precisely why he should be starting, especially if Thomas is also named a starter. The Celtics would have their primary ball handler in Thomas, so Turner's ability there would be deemphasized, meaning there is an increased importance on defense.
Crowder has been a stud defensively. The 24-year-old Swiss Army Knife is able to switch on nearly every play and defend at least three positions. Crowder has spent time defending bigs, forwards, and even some guards. The Celtics allow 101.3 points per 100 possessions with Crowder on the floor, which leads all of their players to log at last 400 minutes this month.
Turner is obviously a superior scorer, but Crowder is a better spot up shooter. On the season, Crowder is five percent better than Turner on catch-and-shoot opportunities, according to SportVU.
This isn't a knock on Turner, because he would be able to feast on smaller bench players as a backup point guard, and he'd still log plenty of minutes. But starting Crowder allows the Celtics to roll with one of their best punchers, due to his defensive versatility and intensity, while providing complementary offense.
3. Unleash the European Duo
Brad Stevens recently called Gigi Datome the best shooter on the Celtics, which isn't as insane of a statement as it sounds. Datome was an MVP in the Italian League, largely due to his ability to hit shots from all over the court, which is a skill he has displayed as a garbage time hero with the Celtics.
"It's easy to play down 30, but those guys that were in there played well, as they did the other night, too," a meditative coach Stevens said after the game. "Maybe I should go with those guys earlier and see... I thought they did a good job of giving us a chance."
The Celtics had a number of wide open jumpers in Sunday's game, but they didn't fall because the top players on this roster just can't be relied on to hit shots consistently. Stevens should go with his gut and give sharpshooters Datome and Jonas Jerebko increased minutes, because this team desperately needs those shots to start falling.
Since joining the Celtics, Datome and Jerebko have been the two best three-point threats on the team, as they are both shooting over 40 percent. They can hit open shots, and as a byproduct their spacing can create driving lanes for primary ball handlers like Evan Turner and Isaiah Thomas.
Playing both Datome and Jerebko for about 15 minutes per game seems like a fair amount of time. Any possible defensive weaknesses, especially for Datome, would be minimized with the majority of their minutes coming against bench players, but Stevens would be able to emphasize their aptitude for shooting and spacing.
If Kelly Olynyk starts shooting threes like he should, then this grouping could be devastating for opposing teams to defend.
A starting lineup of Tyler Zeller, Brandon Bass, Jae Crowder, Avery Bradley, and Isaiah Thomas should be able to throw punches straight from the opening tip, and they don't lose any of the synergy they have developed since they joined forces at the trade deadline.
The Zeller-Bass frontcourt pairing remains, but the Bass-Crowder switching tandem would be emphasized more frequently, and both Turner and Smart get moved to the bench, but they'll still get to stick together like they have for the bulk of the season.
These ideas aren't as radical as they appear to be, as it's more a shuffling of pieces and groupings of players than it is a complete overhaul of the rotation. Instead of having Crowder and Thomas come off the bench in the mid-first quarter, it would instead be Turner and Smart.
With so few games remaining, the Boston Celtics need to try something new. Maybe starting Isaiah Thomas won't be enough to propel them into the playoffs, but at least they can say they tried everything possible to get there.