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All-star break roundtable: Who should start for Celtics?

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Brad Stevens said lineup changes could be in store. Should they? We debate the starters before Marcus Smart returns.

NBA: Utah Jazz at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

The Celtics expect Marcus Smart’s return in time for the team’s first practice in Boston on Wednesday following Sunday’s all-star game. His return is a welcome sight for a group that lost four of five entering the break, including allowing 111 to Toronto who has since overtaken the Celtics as the east’s one seed.

The Cavaliers and Clippers both dropped 120 on the defense to cap the stretch, and many attributed Boston’s defensive capsizing to Smart’s absence. Al Horford said Boston lost its early-season momentum, while Stevens hinted at lineup changes.

Kyrie Irving and Horford expect to remain mainstays in the lineup, while it’s hard to imagine Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum going anywhere while they play well. That leaves one spot up for discussion: Aron Baynes.

So we did, in the first of a week of questions about the 2017-18 Celts from now until the next game day, Friday vs. the Pistons.

Mike Petraglia

Kyrie, Rozier, Brown, Morris Horford.

Andrew Doxy

The right answer is not the most realistic answer: Kyrie Irving-Marcus Smart-Jaylen Brown-Jayson Tatum-Al Horford lineup.

The Celtics keep going down by 20+ points early in games because they don’t maximize their first half rotations. Guys that fit best together aren’t playing together from the end of the first quarter to the beginning and middle of the second. To fix this, sending out Boston’s best five makes the most sense to me. Irving and Smart complement each other brilliantly, and they bring the best out of each other when they share the floor (except for in three-guard lineups).

Starting with this lineup would also allow better staggering. Smart plays better with starters, so Stevens could pull Irving early and plug him back in with the second unit with Rozier, a pairing that works well together. Smart and Horford usually keep the offense humming when they share the floor, and Horford hasn’t been assertive enough when he’s the primary option.

The only downside to this lineup is that it makes the bench extremely big and unbalanced. Keeping everyone happy with their minutes, including new signing Greg Monroe, would be difficult. However, it’s worth it to not go down by double digits early every game.

Keith P. Smith

Baynes, Horford, Tatum, Brown and Irving. Boring right? Well, boring got this team 16 straight wins earlier this year and they have generally played well with this group. It keeps Horford from having play center from the jump and gives the opening group good size.

Where the team should tweak things, is to primarily stick with a bench unit of just Marcus Smart, Marcus Morris, Terry Rozier, Daniel Theis and Greg Monroe. This means Shane Larkin and Semi Ojeleye are relegated to change-of-pace duty. But that is where both of those guys fit best at this point.

In addition, Brad Stevens should make subs quicker and get out of bad match-ups earlier in game. When the opposing team goes small, where Baynes doesn’t make sense as a starter, I’d like to see Stevens go to Smart in the start five, as opposed to Morris, who has functioned as the “matchup starter” this season.

If the team wants to be drastic, they could start Smart and bring either Brown or Tatum off the bench. This gets a bit tricky, as it puts a lot of pressure on Rozier to be the primary ball handler on the second unit. He plays better off the ball, with Smart running the offense.

Tim MacLean

I’m torn between both Andrew’s and Keith’s suggestions.

Starting Baynes next to Horford would allow the latter to play where he’s more comfortable and he’d likely handle a less physical option on defense. As we’ve seen this season, Horford has struggled at times when asked to bang down low with bigger guys. Sliding him down a spot might give him a better opportunity to use his length and block some more shots.

Starting Smart is intriguing, too. He has a history of playing better when he starts and his defensive acumen could benefit the Celtics’s opening lineups. Rather than fall behind by 10-15 points, Smart can try to blanket the opposing team’s best option and help keep games from slipping away too soon.

Starting Smart would also give Terry Rozier the chance to continue his solid stretch off the bench. Though he’s not nearly as good a play maker as Smart yet, he’s proven that he can score in bunches when he’s given more freedom on the ball.

There’s really no definitive answer, though, so it’ll be interesting to see what Brad comes up with.

Alex Kungu

At this stage you have to start Smart and bring Tatum off the bench. This was not an easy decision considering I’m maybe the only blogger on earth to pick Tatum as my ROY before the season, but at this stage it’s a necessary move.

Tatum hasn’t been as effective as a scorer since dislocating his finger and without the ability to consistently spread the floor his advantage over Smart on the offensive end sinks. This isn’t just theoretical, the lineup with Irving-Smart-Brown-Horford-Baynes owns the second highest net rating in the NBA at 32.1.

There’s obviously a lot of noise with that considering the sample isn’t as large, but it does give some beef to the suggestion that inserting Smart into the starting lineup can be effective. Adding Smart allows the team to play Kyrie a little bit off-ball so defending him becomes a little unpredictable.

Smart and Horford are probably the Celtics most intelligent passers and them sharing the court for as much time as possible could even lead to some added ball movement that the Celtics just haven’t done enough of this year. Smart’s abilities as a passer and a defender also could help in ways that go beyond himself. For example, putting Smart in the starting lineup allows Terry Rozier, who has been absolutely tearing it up for a month to continue to lead the charge in the second unit with another strong scorer in Tatum being added and a hopefully more comfortable and acclimated Greg Monroe.

The move could also allow Brown to not have to consistently defend the teams best perimeter defender night in and night out which theoretically could help him become a more consistent offensive player. On the flip side, the move for Tatum could lead to a more expansive role as a full-time second unit player and takes a lot of pressure off of him on both ends of the court. A second unit of Rozier-Tatum-Mook-(Ojeleye/Theis)-Monroe could overwhelm teams with its sheer size and offensive potential.

Also, Gordon Hayward could end up being a killer piece to the second unit in place of Ojeleye or Theis if he’s able to come back.

Bobby Manning

Irving and Horford are the two best players on this team so they aren’t going anywhere. Brown has solidified himself as the best +/- on the Celtics (6.7 per 100 possessions), plus he played some of the most consistent basketball of his career in the two weeks entering the break. Keep him too. Those are my three locks.

Tatum’s the next closest thing, even with some regression from his ridiculous early-season pace his numbers still fit the bill of a starter and this season’s still about developing players like him. He deserves the minutes over Marcus Morris, even if Morris does likely need the emotional boost of getting into the lineup. The final spot comes down to a similar question, the mindset of Baynes and Smart (set to return from injury after the break).

The team could absolutely use better starts and Smart’s consistent energy and defensive prowess bodes well in that department. Rozier showcased himself as a capable source of offense in the absence of Irving and Smart over several week, and Shane Larkin will return after the break also set for more time. It’s also worth noting that Tatum’s time at the four has been limited this season even though that’ll likely be where he plays next year when Hayward returns (sorry optimists).

All of that points toward a Smart entry but where does that leave Baynes? Make no mistake, net ratings speak fondly of Baynes’ impact with him and Irving sharing a +5.8 +/- per 100 possessions. Boston’s typical starting lineup with him at center has lugged over 300 minutes and still boasts a +13.5 net rating. In fact, Baynes plays in four of the Celtics’ seven best rotations (> 35 min. played) in that category, including the best two (Rozier in for Irving, Smart in for Tatum +32).

It’s easy to say put Smart in, it’s harder to find a place for Baynes elsewhere and he’s still an extremely useful player that Boston needs to engage more than it already does, not less. The closing lineup’s a better question, and that is where Irving-Smart-Brown-Tatum-Horford could have potential (though it’s only +1.2 in 147 min. with a defensive rating of 109).