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Potential lineup changes for the Boston Celtics

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Starting Marcuses Smart and Morris turned the Celtics’ season around back in November. Benching one or both of them now might do so again.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

On November 24th, the Celtics lost a disappointing Saturday night contest against the Dallas Mavericks, dropping their record to a disappointing 10-10 for the season and marking the low point of their early season struggles. A Jaylen Brown back injury combined with an earlier demotion for Gordon Hayward paved the way for a new starting lineup that would right the ship heading into December: Kyrie Irving, Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Morris and Al Horford.

Now, as we turn the page to March, the Celtics have seemingly slipped back into that early season malaise — if not worse. They were just 5-6 in February, suffering some of the most embarrassing losses of their season, and the collapse has the team and fans alike scrambling for answers. It may well be time for another lineup change to put a jolt into the flat-lining Celtics.

At the core of the Celtics’ poor play in February is the unit that turned their season around to begin with. After posting a gaudy +16.3 net rating prior to the beginning of the month, the quintet has crumbled to -4.1 since. Irving has struggled to stay healthy, Smart and Morris have both seemingly lost their improved touch from behind the three-point arc, and Tatum has at times seemed lost in space somewhere. Only Horford has really looked like himself.

Assuming that Irving, Horford and Tatum are untouchable, a change to the starting lineup has to involve one (or both) of the Marcuses. Operating under that certainty, what are some potential options?

Jaylen Brown for Marcus Morris

One of the most direct causes of the Celtics’ February struggles has been a dramatic slump from Morris. Though he was never all that likely to maintain his exceptionally hot shooting from the first two months of the season, regression to the mean has been exceptionally unkind to him, as he’s canned just 27% of his triples in past month. He’s the most expendable of the team’s current starters, and the clearest route to an upgrade.

Enter Jaylen Brown, who has turned his season around in significant fashion since his November injury and subsequent benching. Since January 1st, he’s trended in almost the exact opposite direction as Morris, improving 56.1% true shooting percentage and posting a +7.3 net rating that ranks as the best on the team among players who play 20 minutes or more per night. Brown finally looks fully healthy, and even when his shot hasn’t been falling, he’s affected the game with his energy and his willingness to attack the rim (a rare trait on this roster). Spending more minutes alongside superior facilitators like Irving and Horford will afford him better looks and less defensive attention.

On the downside, this change costs the Celtics’ starters a fair bit of size and physicality. Where Morris is a bulky, swing forward capable of playing the four, Brown is closer to a guard, which would necessitate shifting Jayson Tatum into power forward duty.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Gordon Hayward for Marcus Smart

Hayward has reversed his fortunes since the fateful lineup change as well as Brown has, if not better, but introducing him to the starting lineup is a bit of a more complicated proposition. Since his demotion to the bench, Hayward has served as the best ball-handler and distributor on the second unit, and replacing him with Morris would leave the second unit starved for players who can create for their teammates.

Smart makes for a neater replacement if such a change must be made. Though he’s been enjoying a career season from behind the three-point arc — quite literally answering the hypothetical “what if Smart was a 35% three-point shooter?” — he’s returned to Earth a fair bit in February, and Hayward would be an immediate upgrade on the offensive end. We also still haven’t seen the Irving-Hayward pairing fully realized just yet; they have a net rating of +7.8 together for the year, but have played together sparingly in February.

There’s also an important condition here: Smart needs to be handling the ball in second-unit lineups rather than Terry Rozier. The two have not coexisted well together on the court, posting just a -5.9 net rating in their 330 minutes this season, and this happens in part because Rozier has largely assumed the ball-handling duties of these lineups. Smart can succeed in an off-ball role when playing alongside an offensive dynamo like Irving, but Rozier’s poor passing and decision-making heavily mitigate Smart’s offensive value. If Smart isn’t the lead initiator in this exchange, it will hurt more than it helps.

Overall, Smart’s massive contributions on both ends of the ball as a start make this a bit of a tough pill to swallow...unless, perhaps, you take it one step further.

Hayward and Brown for Smart and Morris (Opening Day lineup)

The previous two possibilities lead us to a more significant change: a full-blown return to the fabled — and ill-fated — “Death Lineup” that started the first 20 games of the season. This is the lineup we all dreamed upon over the offseason, the star-studded quintet that some felt could challenge even the Golden State Warriors. That obviously did not pan out. The Irving/Brown/Hayward/Tatum/Horford group limped their way to a -4.5 net rating across the team’s 10-10 start before the promotion of Smart and Morris turned the tide of the season. Since that time, the five players have shared the court just six minutes total.

Now, perhaps, it’s worth revisiting. Times have changed since that disappointing start, after all. While still inconsistent, Hayward looks like a wholly different player than he did in October, when he had just returned to NBA basketball after his 2017 injury and subsequent setback this past summer. Brown, too, is the healthiest he’s been all season, and looks like the dynamic athlete and spark plug many hoped he could be. Meanwhile, Smart returns to his comfortable super-sub role — though he simply must play more than the meager 24 minutes per game he recorded off the bench in the first 20 games — and the bench re-embraces their hard-nosed, physical, “Bench With Attitude” style of basketball.

The fully realized iteration of this starting lineup presents the highest ceiling for the Celtics as a whole, a five-out group of dynamic talents that can attack defenses in almost any conceivable way while playing the versatile, switchy defense that the modern NBA loves so much. Whether they collectively buy in enough to approach that lofty ceiling is debatable, of course, but the sheer upside arguably makes it worth revisiting.

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Boston Celtics Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Aron Baynes for Marcus Morris

Here’s where we get into some outside-the-box considerations. Believe it or not, the leader in net rating for this year’s Celtics is not Irving or Horford or Tatum — it’s Aron Baynes. Picking up from where he left off last season, Baynes has continued to be a centerpiece of the Boston defense, doing all the dirty work for a team with arguably too few role players. He’s managed just 34 games to this point, but he’s nearing a return from his recent foot injury, and his return will come not a moment too soon for a team in need of some stability.

Through a combination of injuries and rotational changes, Baynes and Horford have spent precious little time on the court together — just 52 minutes total on the year. In those minutes, however, they’ve dominated teams to the tune of a 78.8 defensive rating. That number is certainly inflated by a smaller sample size, but in a much more substantial 863 minutes last year, the duo’s 93.9 NetRtg mark helped pace one of the NBA’s best defenses. That Baynes has continued to shoot and hit threes since last postseason just adds icing to the cake.

To promote Baynes to the starting lineup is to commit to a defense-first approach along the lines of last season’s squad, and perhaps a bit of a return to the “punk rock” mentality of teams past. Consider this change an unlikely one, but one with some curious potential benefits.

Terry Rozier for Marcus Smart

Okay, our last proposed lineup is the most... adventurous. Based on recent results, there’s very little evidence to suggest Rozier has earned an increased role, and the idea of promoting him to the starting lineup would be understandably distasteful for fans who are displeased with his recent performance.

Indiana Pacers v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

If you’re a big believer in “Starter Terry,” however, there are a few reasons why this might be something you’d consider. Rozier is averaging 13 points, five rebounds and six assists in his 10 starts so far this season, with a 58% true shooting percentage that vastly exceeds his miserable 49% mark for the year. Playing alongside Irving and Horford would — in theory — move Rozier off the ball with greater frequency, and the less time Rozier spends holding the ball, the more effective he’s been as a scorer. In 124 minutes, the three-man lineup of Irving, Horford and Rozier has a +9.7 net rating this season.

Of course, this depends on Rozier’s willingness to forfeit his ball-handling responsibilities, which is something he has not done alongside Smart and Hayward on the Celtics’ second unit. It’s possible even a promotion might not convince him. Considering just how bad the Celtics have been when he’s played — his +0.2 net rating for the year is worst on the team among rotation players — it just doesn’t seem like the upside to this move is really there, making this more of a thought exercise than a practical solution.

Poll

What change should the Celtics make to the starting lineup?

This poll is closed

  • 26%
    Jaylen Brown for Marcus Morris
    (368 votes)
  • 8%
    Gordon Hayward for Marcus Smart
    (118 votes)
  • 33%
    The Opening Day Lineup
    (469 votes)
  • 26%
    Aron Baynes for Marcus Morris
    (367 votes)
  • 2%
    Terry Rozier for Marcus Smart
    (40 votes)
  • 2%
    No Change
    (30 votes)
1392 votes total Vote Now