With a deep blend of versatile players and the addition of another scorer, the Celtics could be the chameleons of the NBA. For the past two seasons, though, it has been clear that the team has been a lot better when it opted for smaller lineups as opposed to traditional, bigger lineups. So the question is: Should Boston start the season with a small-ball lineup?
Bill Sy: In ESPN's roundtable, I picked Kelly Olynyk to start with Al Horford, but I wouldn't be surprised to see the Celtics start with a small-ball lineup like they did against the Hawks in the playoffs. That could mean Jonas Jerekbo at the four or moving Jae Crowder to PF and starting Jaylen Brown or Marcus Smart.
Alex Kungu: I agree that small-ball is where the Celtics were at their best last season, but I do have my reservations on how effective it can be if used too often. The pounding that guys like Crowder, Smart, and Brown will take could lead to greater fatigue near the end of the season. The Warriors, who are perhaps the standard for this small-ball era, still started games with Bogut and only tried to go small in doses rather than full-time. With the Celtics frontcourt filled with capable options, I’m not sure taking away opportunity from guys like Olynyk, Jerebko, and Zeller would be the right play.
Jeff Nooney: I like the situational small-ball play as well, at least for the regular season. If a lineup with Crowder at the four is cooking, then I'm all for starting that in the playoffs. Until then, I think limiting the wear and tear of small-ball is a good move.
Bobby Manning: Health is crucial when considering the approach to this season. As fun as last regular season was, a broken Jae Crowder, a banged-up Isaiah Thomas, and missing Avery Bradley partly diminished the season’s potential and helped lead to a round one loss. Small-ball puts enormous stress on guys like Crowder and Smart who get pushed further away from their positions, but there's little doubt about the strategy’s effectiveness. Spurts and late in games seem to be the best situations to utilize small-ball lineups. The organization is as deep as it has ever been, and that depth needs to be put to use, especially the wide variety of bigs available. Mickey's shot-blocking, Zeller's running, and Jerebko's shooting are all crucial tools to be utilized.
Bill Sy: Let's throw out a hypothetical scenario: a Celtics vs. Cavs Eastern Conference Finals. Who starts vs. Irving-Smith-James-Love-Thompson? You figure Crowder has to play the three to cover LeBron, but does Stevens counter with stretch four on Love, or does he put Horford at PF and start Amir Johnson at center?
Alex Kungu: A Thomas-Bradley-Crowder-Johnson-Horford lineup could match up well. The problem with going small in that situation is rebounding. The Celtics have skilled bigs, but rebounding is not a strength. In a different situation (like against the Raptors, where the rebounding issue would be an okay risk to take), then maybe you roll the dice and take your chances on a Horford/Valanciunas-like matchup. This would be a lot easier if Marcus Smart could run the offense effectively next year. A potential rotation of Smart-Bradley-Brown-Crowder-Horford would be lockdown defensively and would have wings that could help on the boards and lead a break.
Bill Sy: I hear ya, Alex. It's just the 2K in me; I never worry about the rebounding. But in a broader sense, I get the idea that this Celtics team is going to be more of a counter-puncher. Without "star talent" to rely on, they'll speed things up and create chaos. Against bigger teams in the half court (like the Cavs), they'll double more and rely on help defense from the weak side. Horford was so good at that in Atlanta and could clean up a lot of gambles on the perimeter.
Lachlan Marr: I think Horford adds a lot of versatility to the Celtics’ roster and allows for a range of options in specific match ups. Part of the reason he was such a good 'get' for Boston is that he allows Stevens to scheme with various configurations and combinations. While his rebounding in Atlanta wasn't exactly amazing, it seems like that was more of an issue of scheming than one of Horford's specific skill set.
Horford's abilities as a true two-way front-ourt player open up a range of possibilities for the Celtics that simply weren't available to them last year. When attempting to go small this past season Stevens would generally keep Johnson, Sullinger or Olynyk on the court as the lone big man, and none of those players have the two-way abilities of Horford. Boston also has several players who can play multiple positions, allowing almost endless tinkering with lineups for specific match-ups. Players like Crowder and Jerebko will likely be called upon to alternate between the SF and PF positions, while players like Smart and Brown could be asked to play anywhere between the one and the four. We could also see Horford and Johnson share their role as the Celtics’ small-ball center or play side by side in the front court. Simply put, I'm not too worried about specific match-ups, as I think the Celtics have so many options at almost every position that they can adapt to almost any situation. Even if they play small for most games, their depth still allows various combinations, any one of which could prove to be the Celtics' own 'death lineup.'
Bill Sy: Brad Stevens mentioned the same thing about Horford on The Vertical Podcast with Chris Mannix. Horford is a complement to every big on the roster. Looking at the big picture, I do think that small-ball will define this team, particularly on defense. No other roster in the NBA can boast the defensive quality and depth the Celtics can on the perimeter. I'm sure that was a big part of the pitch to Durant.
Lachlan Marr: Last season the Celtics had one of the most versatile rosters in the league. Horford just adds that much more maneuverability. Losing Tuner will hurt, but Smart and Rozier should be stepping into bigger roles. If Brown is ready to contribute then the Celtics will be the Swiss Army Knife of NBA teams.
Boston can boast a small-ball lineup that can chase opponents off the three-point line, stop opponents inside and still get out and run on offense. Plus, they can do all of that with a number of configurations. Usually the biggest reason to avoid going small is because of what you give up on defense, but for the Celtics this isn't really an issue, which gives Boston an advantage over any other team that might also choose to go small.
Bill Sy: The Achilles heel will (again) be perimeter shooting. They'll generate more turnovers and transition points going small (hopefully), but will they have enough threats outside the arc in the half-court game? I wouldn't be surprised if the team shot fewer threes next season and attacked the rim more. Rozier showed in summer league his knack for getting inside. Brown's biggest strength right now is his driving ability. Amir Johnson is still an efficient roll man, and Tyler Zeller could return to form as a rim-running big. I'd love to see this team do more damage from the free-throw line rather than the three-point line.
Alex Kungu: If the Celtics put out a starting lineup of Thomas-Bradley-Crowder-Olynyk-Horford they’d get the best of both worlds in regards to shooting and spacing, plus enough defense to cover IT. I don’t think shooting will be as big of an issue this season, because we do have players that could make leaps in that area (Smart, Crowder, Rozier, etc.). Also, we have lineups where we can throw out five guys that can hit the perimeter shots. I am intrigued to see whether Stevens tries to keep shorter rotations from the jump. For the first time in the Stevens era, there won’t be many questions of who his best five to seven players are. From there it could all come down to just plugging in guys based on the match-ups.
In conclusion, health, match-ups, rebounding, and internal personnel are all factors that will go into deciding whether to start a small-ball lineup. The idea of playing small really speaks to versatility rather than size. Even if the Celtics decide to go with a frontcourt of Horford-Johnson or Horford-Olynyk, they’ll still have the versatility to guard on the perimeter, especially paired with Boston’s elite perimeter defenders. In the past, going small has worked for the Celtics because they relied so heavily on transition baskets, and smaller lineups were the best way to get them. This year, they’ll have the talent to play in the half-court and the personnel to maintain size with versatility. Because of this, the idea of going small may not be as much of a priority as in previous years. Still, it will be a weapon that will have its place throughout the season.