Instagram revealed that Kyrie Irving is back on the court before training camp as he predicted, Daniel Theis is at the team’s facilities inching closer to his return, Terry Rozier raved about Gordon Hayward’s mobility and on Thursday, Hayward himself declared that he’s nearly 100 percent. A glance at the calendar reveals that we’re a week away from near normalcy at Celtics training camp.
Depth, versatility and top-level talent fill a roster that will largely send its Eastern Conference Finals starting lineup to the bench, instead backing up Boston’s returning All Stars. Their players that will take flicks on Media Day next Monday largely mirror those from one year ago, but the view counts on preseason videos from October 2017 highlight the hunger for the re-run.
Kevin O’Connor didn’t include Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford, Irving and Hayward as one of the most anticipated NBA lineups entering the 2018-19 season because they technically started on Opening Night. Though he did add that the return of Hayward technically classifies it as new. The firepower and hype that that starting five possesses is evident nonetheless, but Stevens can also deploy 4,367 other unique five-man rotations.
With an increased emphasis on rest for the veterans and so much depth at his disposal, there may be as much mixing and matching as there is fawning over the starters — who will soon desperately need their own unique, non-”Death Lineup” nickname.
To jump off O’Connor’s idea, I’ve compiled five other rotations that Celtics fans should be excited about ahead of camp:
Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart, Marcus Morris, Semi Ojeleye, Daniel Theis
Rozier’s 10-of-16 Game 6 in Cleveland stood up with Tatum’s early performance in Game 7 as the greatest hopes for the Celtics to make the 2018 Finals. Since Rozier didn’t dunk on LeBron James and Boston lost by 10, few will remember his 28 points that erased his prior road playoff struggles.
Now entering his fourth season, Rozier’s playoff scoring surge positions him as the most important player on a second unit that has a chance to be the best in the NBA. This group could warrant near starters minutes in the regular season, especially to avoid heavy minutes on Boston’s top end talent. All five aforementioned starters could only be called on for no more than 30 minutes per game with this depth.
Brown and Tatum will stagger often, given that Guerschon Yabusele and Ojeleye haven’t fully proven themselves, but even Ojeleye got prime time run guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo in April. Eventually Stevens will likely fully stagger his rotation down to seven or eight at most, but this group allows the C’s to first both experiment and, presumably, win based on last season.
Less minutes and shots may soften the impact of this group, but Rozier and Smart meshing could compensate with efficiency. Rozier’s inconsistency through the 2016-17 season thwarted the hype of them uniting on the bench. Then Smart’s injuries separated the two through portions of 2017-18. Upon Smart’s return for Game 5 against the Bucks, the duo posted a +3.3 net rating across 15 playoff games with a 2.10 assist/turnover ratio. They ranked eighth of any tandem on the team with a 61 assist percentage (min. 5+ games).
It’ll be interesting to see who Stevens favors between Aron Baynes and Theis. The urgent debate between them is how Theis recovers from March knee surgery. They did play 31 minutes together last year, but the 17-18 roster was more conducive to going big — part of why Greg Monroe entered the fold and eventually replaced Theis.
Prior to Theis’ injury, Baynes averaged 17.7 minutes to his 14.9. Those minutes likely consolidate to one of them, given the availability of more small ball minutes through Hayward, Tatum and Morris. Baynes played a crucial role in the playoffs, but Theis’ mobility, shooting and rebounding fit the system more comfortably — if he returns to form.
Despite concerns about Morris’ minutes, “it’s always minutes for a versatile bully,” and Ben Rohrbach pointed out that he only needs to average 20 MPG to clock in slightly below his minute total from last year. Morris’ role is important for rest and injury purposes. With a 4.6 career VORP, he’s better than an average replacement player. His place on the team only falls into question if Ojeleye makes major offensive strides.
It’s always mins for a versatile bully! https://t.co/36ozI4rVkW— Marcus Morris (@MookMorris2) July 26, 2018
Kyrie Irving, Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart, Gordon Hayward, Al Horford
Stevens loves small ball. It felt like both his playbook and his baby were ripped from his hands when Hayward fell in Cleveland. From there, sometimes Horford played some point guard. Necessity forced lineups with Tatum as a pseudo-two. Now, Tatum and Hayward could rejuvenate Stevens’ three-guard lineups that feature a spacing forward capable of playing big on defense.
Horford is the key to the success of those groups, which once featured Jae Crowder shooting, defending and rebounding alongside him. Tatum’s teenage frame probably wasn’t as fit for that position in his rookie season, which led to situations like when Kelly Olynyk poured 30 points on the C’s by drilling him and others with fakes.
The small ball four minutes funneled to Morris, whose most-used lineup in that role (playing with Tatum) posted a 114 defensive rating. Tatum’s did a 109.6, even with the assistance of Smart who will continue to play a role in all these lineups with his help defense. Stevens effectively shielded Tatum to the point where he scored over a +1 defensive box plus-minus, with Morris eating a -1.7 in more difficult matchups.
The most underrated aspect of Hayward’s return is that while off his feet, he’s been able to maintain the muscle mass he added throughout his Jazz career. In his final season with Utah — about 15 pounds stronger than he was at Butler — Hayward played 63 minutes at the four with George Hill, Rodney Hood and Joe Johnson with a 97.6 defensive rating. The presence of Rudy Gobert is vital to the defensive prowess of any lineup, but Hayward could assist another DPoY caliber player in Horford with his quick feet at 6’8”.
Hayward’s defense could become the most important factor in the team’s success. They will almost certainly be better offensively, but their success will be determined by their ability to maintain defensive dominance in smaller lineups.
Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Semi Ojeleye, Jayson Tatum, Daniel Theis
Prepare for the possibility of Brown and Tatum leading the Celtics in total minutes this regular season. While Irving, Hayward and Horford receive their rightful veteran rest through this long and more inconsequential regular season, it’ll open the door for both Brown and Tatum to hone their playmaking skills.
Brown said over the summer that two of his goals for this season were hammering down his free throw percentage and becoming more of a facilitator on offense. While neither Tatum nor Brown will likely lead sets this year, they both facilitate secondary passes within the flow of the offense.
Smart helps them both accomplish that as the main ball handler. He rarely attacks the basket individually, but rather makes a move that sets up someone else for a shot or a play of their own. Theis is here for Smart’s affinity to throw lobs, while Ojeleye will always garner space for spot-ups, but needs to hammer them down at much more reliable clip.
Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward
It’s hard to imagine matchup-obsessed Stevens going to the extreme of no bigs on the floor often, but this may be one of the most capable groups imaginable to allow him to.
There’s some precedence here. Stevens ran a Rozier, Smart, Tatum, Ojeleye, Morris line in three games last year. Another tiny rotation of Brown, Irving, Ojeleye, Smart, Tatum played in four. The first group may have posted a -57, but Irving’s lineup managed a +16 — albeit both in minuscule sample sizes.
It’s tempting to mix Morris in with this group to max out on offense, but the necessity of Smart to play up to bigger bodies is unavoidable. While the aim of these types of lineups — which will only account for the tiniest fraction of Stevens’ lineups — is instant points, this year’s roster must consider balance at every step. Even the extremes.
What this group will gain with Hayward’s offense will need Smart’s defensive aptitude, even if it limits the offensive ceiling. In a macro sense, the team that led basketball in defense last regular season has to remain close to that point while elevating their mid-tier offense.
While I’m not expecting these five to step on the floor together unless Stevens is reaching for something down 20, it’ll be worth keeping the television on when he does.
Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford, Robert Williams
The mind wants what is new. Only two players on this roster have never played a Celtics game.
Despite the seniority of Baynes, Theis and the amount of small-ball five that Horford will play there’ll be opportunities for Williams to occasionally mix in. He will likely spend time in Maine, but his home’s proximity to the team’s practice facility and the concerns around him indicate he may stay around more often than other rookies.
On any given night an early lead could open the door for him to step in for one of the wings. It’d be the best way to integrate him, get him play alongside Horford and the dizzying array of playmakers that Boston’s starting line features.
Through the drag of the offseason, Boston still has not officially cleared Williams to return to the court after they pulled him from the Summer League over concerns with his tendinitis. An awkward few months of late passes and his exit from Las Vegas within minutes probably don’t rank Williams too highly on anybody’s excitement power rankings, but it’s also worth remembering the potential that made his fall to the Celtics so exciting in June.
Jeff Goodman said on Draft Night he would attach Williams to Horford at the hip as a mentor. That’d be sound approach on the court too, whenever Williams gets a chance to play on this crowded roster.