We all know the 2018 Boston Celtics season didn’t really go as planned. Gordon Hayward went down after playing a little more than five minutes. Kyrie Irving was shut down in mid-March. Daniel Theis was ruled out for the year shortly after. Marcus Smart missed over thirty games. A season that started with so much promise was scuttled before it really got off the ground.
But a funny thing happened along the way. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum blossomed. Terry Rozier excelled as a starter. Al Horford turned in a terrific all-around season. And several veterans locked into their roles better than anyone could have ever expected. All of a sudden, rather than bemoaning “what could have been”, Boston was one bad shooting night from an NBA Finals appearance.
We’re now less than a month away from seeing the 2018-19 Celtics take the floor for training camp. The roster is returning largely intact from last year’s playoff run, but is obviously bolstered by the return of Irving and Hayward. That has launched speculation into lineups, minutes distribution, and how Brad Stevens can re-incorporate two superstars when other players grew into bigger roles. It will take some rotation juggling for sure, but this isn’t a bad problem to have…until it is…if it is. Stevens seems to be the right kind of even-tempered leader to navigate some potentially rough waters.
One thing that brings comfort is that the Celtics know they have lineups they can turn to if they need a jolt, because they did it all of last year. By looking at some of last season’s most used lineups, we can see which ones Boston should continue to run with and which ones they can largely shelve.
Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford and Aron Baynes
This was Boston’s most-used lineup in 2017-18. It became the default starting five, as the Celtics went big after losing Hayward. This grouping played over twice as many minutes together as any other lineup Stevens rolled out. In 354 minutes played over 36 games, this group outscored opponents by 11.9 points per 100 possessions. They largely did it through good offense, as they shot 50.7 percent overall and 45.6 percent from behind the arc. The defense was solid, even if it lagged behind some of the team’s better units. Against opponents who tend to play bigger lineups (Philadelphia, Toronto, Detroit), this is a combination that should still see plenty of time.
Kyrie Irving, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Al Horford
This unit was the second most-used lineup with 154 total minutes together. It was also the Celtics regular closing lineup, as Smart joined the floor for his defensive presence. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this group struggled somewhat to shoot the ball. They launched nearly 33 three-point attempts per 100 possessions, but hit under 34 percent of them. Not awful, but not nearly as good as some of the team’s other groupings. That’s probably to be expected with the presence of Smart on the floor. More surprising is that of the lineups that played more than 50 minutes together, this group got to the free throw line at one of the best rates. The Celtics averaged 28.3 free throws per 100 possessions when this lineup played together. As this alignment often closed both the first half and the game, that could be related to the team being in the penalty. But it also shows that this group was on the attack, as it featured multiple players capable of creating shots for themselves and others. Hayward will feature in closing lineups, but, depending on matchups, this group will still see some time together.
Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Morris and Al Horford
This was the team’s third most-used lineup, at 148 minutes over 22 regular season games. This group played almost as many minutes as the lineup above it, despite playing together in 14 less games. For a lineup that logged as much time together as they did, they didn’t do very well in those minutes. The team was outscored by 6.7 points per 100 possessions with this collection the floor. It was also among the team’s worst rebounding lineups. And offensively, as is to be expected with any lineup anchored by Morris, the Celtics featured a lot of midrange jumpers with this group. They didn’t get up nearly as many three-pointers as other lineups, nor did they get to the free throw line with any sort of regularity. With Hayward back, this is a lineup Stevens should probably shelve.
Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford and Aron Baynes
This was the most-used regular season lineup after Irving was ruled out for the year, and the one that started the most often in the playoffs. Those delineations serve as a clean break between the productions of this group as well. This lineup dominated in the regular season. In 115 minutes together over 11 games, this pairing of Celtics outscored opponents by 14 points per 100 possessions. They hit three-pointers at a staggering 55.6 percent clip. In the playoffs, the story flipped big time. They played together for 85 minutes over 11 games and were outscored by 11.8 points per 100 possessions. The shooting from distance dropped off the planet at just 22.9 percent. Seeing the same opponents over and over again exposed this lineup’s lack of creators on offense. That led to contested shots, often late in the clock. This lineup probably gets some regular season run, but likely with Hayward in for Brown or Tatum, as they are both still better at creating offense for themselves than they are for others at this point.
Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Morris and Al Horford
Rarely seen in the regular season (just 20 minutes over seven games), this became the lineup Stevens turned to most often in the postseason. This group played 121 minutes together over 15 games, making it the fourth most-used lineup of the year, regular season and playoffs combined. It was great in the small sample of the regular season, outscoring opponents by 18.3 points per 100 possessions. This is what likely gave Stevens the confidence to turn to this group regularly in the playoffs, where they delivered solid results. In the postseason, this lineup outscored opponents by 5 points per 100 possessions. That’s a small number, but not insignificant when you consider how close most playoff games are. They attacked the rim and got up 28.2 free throws per 100 possessions. Despite Morris’ proclivity for midrange jumpers, he went to the basket more in the playoffs than the regular season. This group gives Stevens the versatility he loves on defense and just enough offense that we should still see it used on occasion in the coming year.
Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Al Horford
Call this one the post-Kyrie closing lineup if you will, but be forewarned that it was a decidedly mixed bag. In extremely limited regular season minutes (25 over 11 games), this group largely closed out halves in dominating fashion by outscoring opponents by over 38 points per 100 possessions. But you have to be comfortable doing a lot of projecting to believe, with just 25 minutes played together. They played slightly more together in the playoffs, with 34 minutes over 11 games and the results were similar. This was one of the best defensive groups the Celtics put on the floor. But the shooting was horrendous. With both Irving and Hayward back, it’s unlikely we’ll see this group close very many games in 2018-19.
Any good NBA team is going to feature lots of good lineups. It’s just the nature of the beast. You don’t win a bunch of games without putting effective groupings on the floor. For the Celtics, it’s easy to see what worked in what ended up being almost two different seasons: with Kyrie Irving and without Kyrie Irving. With bigger goals than winning a bunch of regular season games, Stevens is probably going to go to some of the non-Irving, non-Hayward lineups on a consistent basis. As we saw last year, it worked out well more often than not.
One other thing we saw last year, albeit for just 5:15 of playing time, was a lineup that could be pretty special. The Celtics opened the season with Irving, Hayward, Brown, Tatum and Horford as the starting five. It’s largely forgotten now, but that group was actually leading 12-9 when Hayward was down on the floor with a broken leg. And how they got those buckets is pretty telling of what this team might be in 2018-19. More to come on that later this week on CelticsBlog!