We've been talking about the team's depth as if it could be an issue (The Sporting News' Sean Deveney calls on his readers to "Pity Brad Stevens"), but really, it's a rich man's problem. Yeah, it would be nice if there was a two-for-one deal out there where Danny could consolidate upside and youth for proven, experienced talent, but for now, the team's wealth of talent and versatility could be its biggest strength. Brad Stevens has talked about potentially using a 10-man rotation and while that sounds unorthodox in a league built on stars and those stars being supported by role players, it could be the perfect solution to an imperfect roster.
But so many questions remain: who starts, who comes off the bench, and who plays with who? We'll know a little more after today's open practice and certainly much more after the team travels to Europe for some preseason games, but we can start speculating on who plays with who from some of the tidbits we've gotten post practice and based on the numbers from last season.
Let's start with starting guards. This might be the easiest to predict. I think it's safe to pencil in Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley because those two speak to Brad Stevens' comments about the back court: "the strength of our team is being able to be aggressive on the perimeter defensively." With the modern game focused on wing play, the importance of solid defense on the perimeter is a premium. Smart and Bradley are young at 21 and 24 respectively and they're signed on for the relatively long term.
Offensively, it could be a breakout season for both. Smart was hampered by an ankle injury in his rookie year and he says that he's finally healthy. He played so much off ball last year with Evan Turner handling the ball handling but now, he's got his explosion back and he's looking to be much more of a creator off the pick and roll and penetrate like he did at Oklahoma State. The education of Marcus Smart starts this season.
Bradley, on the other hand, has made a couple of minor tweaks to his game that could return big dividends. He's talked about ball handling and getting to the rim and free throw line more, but his biggest adjustment might be taking a step or two behind the three point line. Stevens has made it a priority to get AB shots in the corner where he's a cool 40% behind the arc and with Smart operating aggressively on the pick and roll, that could open Bradley up for short 3's.
Like Smart and Bradley in the starting five, the other no brainer might be Jae Crowder at the 3. Statistically, Crowder was one of Boston's best isolation defenders and he showed that against LeBron James in the playoffs. The 3 spot is riddled with match up nightmares in both conferences and more times than not, Crowder will probably draw the most difficult cover on the opposing team. He'll take on bigger power forwards and quicker small forwards and whatever you get out of him offensively is gravy.
The front court is the most difficult to predict. So far, the only big man that's distinguished himself in these early stages of training camp has been newcomer Amir Johnson. At his Media Day presser, Brad Stevens gushed that Johnson can play with anybody and Saturday's two-a-day showed that, too:
"Then, offensively, he's just a real good team player. He can catch the ball on the seam off a pick-and-roll and make the right pass; he can catch the ball on the seam and go up and make a floater; he can dunk it on the roll; he's a good rim-runner. I think the biggest thing that probably would summarize it is, when we looked at our list of bigs at [the start of free agency] and certainly now, Amir fits with all of them. And being able to fit next to someone is a big part of this."
However, that doesn't make him a lock to start because if we're pairing talents, Johnson and Isaiah Thomas are a perfect match (and right now, Thomas will probably serve as the team's super sub sixth man). Of players that served as roll men in a PnR, Amir Johnson ranked 9th in efficiency, scoring 1.16 points per possession (with a minimum of 100 possessions to qualify). Check out Kevin's analysis here and Justin's here. And for what it's worth, Tyler Zeller was 4th at 1.20 PPP.
On the flip side, as a ball handler in the pick and roll, Isaiah Thomas was in the NBA elite. In 21 games in Boston, he averaged 0.94 PPP, just behind players like Steph Curry, Chris Paul, and James Harden. However, what makes his numbers more impressive was the number of times Thomas drew a foul and went to the line. Harden (21.8%) and Jimmy Butler (22.4%) are the masters of creating contact, but Thomas is just behind them at 16.3%.
"Like, if you're playing with Isaiah [Thomas] and you can space the floor and shoot the ball, that's a good skill to have with Isaiah, because he's going to be able to get into the teeth of the defense," Stevens said. "If you're a big that does something different than the other bigs and can manage any of your potential weaknesses, that's good, because being able to complement the other guys is important."
Joining Thomas and Johnson on the bench are three utility players that I think Stevens will elect to go to depending on the situation. Kelly Olynyk, Evan Turner, and Jonas Jerebko don't necessarily have any stand out strengths other than that they're good at everything. Olynyk and Jerebko's outside shooting can help a penetrator like Thomas (or Smart). Turner has mentioned playing more off ball this season and with his ability to keep plays alive with his dribble, he could serve as a good point swingman on the second action of the offense rather than being the initial trigger man.
That leaves David Lee, Jared Sullinger, and Tyler Zeller in contention for the two starting spots at power forward and center. First of all, this is an intersquad competition that could be decided more by the front office than on the floor. As Stevens decides which players work best with each other, Danny Ainge has until Halloween to determine whether or not to offer extensions to Sullinger and Zeller. There's talk that both sides are talking, but regardless of whether either get extended, my gut tells me that the #17 and #21 picks of the 2012 NBA Draft will be the Opening Night starters.
A healthy Sullinger was Boston's most consistent player last season. He's in the best shape of his career, mentally and physically, and could be the perfect complement to Smart's penetration early in games. Sullinger has vowed to "getting (his) big butt on the block" and he should see a healthy amount of close touches playing alongside Smart. Sullinger ranked in the top-20 in offensive putbacks per game and that number should go up as he aims to play more in the paint. Every perimeter shot or drive to the basket should see Sully attacking the glass for a rebound or dump pass. He said of growing team chemistry, "if I know me and Kelly [Olynyk] and even me and Amir are in the game, and sometimes Amir pops [to the perimeter], I know I've got to dive to the bucket."
A reserved Zeller has become somewhat of the invisible man in Boston's rebuilding efforts, but GodZeller had a minor breakout year under Stevens in 2015. With his soft hands and good touch in the paint, he was very efficient offensively and an above average rim protector. My gut tells me that Zeller is closer to an extension than Sully. I don't think his value increases that much next summer even with the exponential increase in salary cap, so if Tyler's happy in Boston, they'll re-up him for three or more years easy.
That leaves David Lee as the odd man out and puts him in a similarly unfortunate position as he was in at Golden State. He'll get minutes here and there as the team suffers injuries and possible trades, but the youth movement is in full effect and the 32-year-old just isn't part of the big picture.
Today's open practice should give us a glimpse of what Stevens' has in his head, but the season is still thirty days away with seven preseason games in between. Players can fall in and out of rotation. Rookies and young players could step up right away. A trade could shake up the roster (again). For now, let's just be happy that the team has plenty of puzzle pieces to play with.