The Boston Celtics are the deepest team in the NBA and are going to have to find a way to juggle roles for a lot of gifted players. The word from Keith Smith at summer league is the team is even looking to rest guys throughout the year just so they can have the ability to play some of their talented reserves. Chances are, if the team is winning at a high-pace and not being involved in close games, it opens the door for more guys to be on the court which could quell some of those concerns. Also, just winning in general usually keeps the most disgruntled at bay. But let’s get back to the question at hand.
We (mostly) feel that the Celtics starting five next year will be Kyrie Irving-Jaylen Brown-Jayson Tatum-Gordon Hayward-Al Horford. We’ve all heard that Horford doesn’t actually like playing the five, and we also know that against the Andre Drummond, Rudy Gobert, Marc Gasol Joel Embiid, and Dwight Howard’s of the world, he’d be in for a lot more physical toll during the regular season than either him or the team would want. We love Al, we know we need Al, and the worst thing we can do for him is ask him to bang with those guys throughout the year while simultaneously preserving himself for what will probably be his third consecutive long playoff run.
The obvious counter is Aron Baynes. The team had the best defensive rating when he was on the court last year (97.0), and he established himself as one of the better overall defenders in the league with an underrated ability to guard on the perimeter. He’s also 6’10, 260 lbs and well equipped to bang with the league’s giants as Joel Embiid found out the hard way last May:
Conventional wisdom says that even if Baynes isn’t an everyday starter, he should at least start in matchups that involve prominently featured bigs just to take the toll off Horford. That brings up another question: who does he start in place for?
Most of us have targeted one of the wings to be replaced. Maybe it’s Tatum because you think his scoring on the bench would be great. Maybe it’s Hayward because you want to bring him along slowly during the regular season. Maybe it’s Brown because it’ll give him a chance to do more things with his game with the second unit. I’ve heard all the arguments and understand why each of them would make sense.
However, I think the cleanest and most logical guy Baynes should start in place for is Al Horford. The rationale here is that the team already wants to preserve Horford during the regular season so they can have him at his best for when the games matter the most. With Irving and Hayward back, the team has their offensive hubs and won’t lose much in terms of defensive versatility. On the second unit, Horford can be an offensive hub for those guys, helping Smart and Rozier run the offense and being a threat himself, but most important of all, he avoids those grueling battles in the post from November to March so he can be fully ready for them in April, May, and June.
The most recent move of this magnitude was Andre Iguodala making the change to sixth man for the Warriors. Like Horford, Iguodala was a “master of none” at his position that provided his team a consistency and a calming presence. Based off everything we have heard about Horford, the move--even if it’s just for 15 games during the regular season--shouldn’t be a problem. He wants to win at all costs and once he understands the bigger picture, he’ll buy in fully.
Another underrated part of the potential move would be the message it sends to the rest of the team. As we’ve previously talked about, the depth is strong and there will be a lot of guys that will have to be bought into certain roles that they may not love. Seeing a leader like Horford taking a bench role (even on a part-time basis) sends the message that everyone should be willing to do what it takes to win.
With all that being said, it’s not the easiest decision in the world. Horford and Baynes were the teams most effective two-man unit and were the main influences of the team having the number one defense in the league, so potentially limiting their minutes together could be detrimental on that end. However, the overall balance of the team might actually correct any of the shortcomings and make the Celtics a more balanced team overall.
Alex Kungu Joined the Celtics Beat Podcast to Discuss Horford as 6th Man: