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Will the Celtics ever go back to super small lineups?

Playing forwards at center is cool, but playing four point guards at the same time was cooler.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

My favorite Celtics lineup of all time was a four-guard lineup that Brad Stevens used against the Wizards in the second round of the 2017 Playoffs. In the fourth quarter of Game 2, the Celtics ran Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart, Isaiah Thomas, Terry Rozier, and Al Horford against a mix of Wizards, including the lengthy Otto Porter, Kelly Oubre, Marcin Gortat, and Markieff Morris alongside Bradley Beal and John Wall.

This was Isaiah’s 53-point game on his late sister’s birthday. It was also the Wizards’ best opportunity to prove Al Horford chose the wrong team in free agency. Terry Rozier was playing huge playoff minutes in his sophomore year, and hit one of the biggest shots of the season:

For me, I remember marveling at the success of the mini-Celtics lineup--that was triumphantly +3 in about four minutes of play--and thinking, “this is it. This is the modern NBA at it’s finest.” With all due respect to Jae Crowder, those five players were arguably Boston’s five best players in that post-season and while the pieces didn’t exactly work on paper, games aren’t played in the theoretical. Maybe it wasn’t sustainable, but they made it work in a crucial game.

Here I am now, living in a world where lineups like this are probably never coming back because a “small” lineup today typically entails an undersized four or an oversized three playing at the five (think Draymond Green). It’s a shame that the league now properly values length, because I really felt like Brad’s four-guard lineup was the most fun example of “positionless basketball” to date. It’s an absolute matchup nightmare--for both teams!--and the Celtics thrived in chaos with Smart as their defensive cornerstone.

Boston could of course replicate that magic again this season. Kemba Walker and Carsen Edwards are generously listed at 6’1”, while Tremont Waters is listed at 5’11”. Could the Celtics field one of the shortest lineups ever, or is super small ball officially a thing of the past?

Memphis Grizzlies v Boston Celtics Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

For better or worse, Boston’s roster has been refreshed. This is generally a good thing--last year’s team was a chemistry nightmare of ego and not height--but one lingering issue remains: what’s the best lineup in order to maximize the team’s best players? If the Celtics simply wanted to run their five best guys out there, then they’d start Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Gordon Hayward, right?

And yet, the debate about the starting lineup revolves around who starts at center, despite universal agreement that our big man rotation might be considerably weaker than the past three seasons with Horford. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but the assumption that Boston needs to start a traditional center is an admission that small ball isn’t the answer to our problems, even if our best interior defender might be the 6’4” Smart.

That may sound crazy, but if Boston is going to switch everything on defense anyway, why not make opposing teams bend to our will rather than us to theirs? Against the Wizards two years ago, Stevens elected to play four guards against a fairly traditional Washington team and it worked. Why not approach the season that way? The direction of the Celtics is pretty clear right now: youth, length, and defense.

Post-FIBA World Cup reflections

For now, we’re going to ignore the idea that the play of Boston’s young core was more detrimental to the team than two completely unplayable Milwaukee Bucks (Kris Middleton and Brook Lopez) and focus on the stretch where Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown locked down Giannis while Myles Turner and the rest of the bigs struggled with him.

The grey area between irony posts about Smart playing center and the sincere ones is blurrier by the day and I’m starting to question what it is that people really believe. Even as length becomes the hottest commodity in the NBA, I am still extremely in favor of making small ball work. But even my favorite small lineup had an Al Horford in the middle of it. The equivalent of that lineup this year would have to include Smart, Walker, Edwards, Waters (or Wanamaker) and a prolific passing big man yet to be named.

I could see Grant Williams taking on this role pretty early, and maybe Robert Williams later on. But if that’s the case, then Boston just doesn’t have the right pieces to run super small lineups. Instead, I expect that they’ll tinker with a very forward-centric lineups with Kemba playing the point, which is basically the inverse of the four-guard lineup they ran with Al in 2017. Walker, Brown, Tatum, Hayward, and Ojeleye could be something worth exploring as an answer to Giannis, or even as a way to deal with Orlando’s obnoxiously tall lineups (which could be a real issue in the playoffs).

The expectation is usually that Boston will innovate, but they’re currently set up to embrace the NBA’s status quo: playing three-and-D wings, ball-dominant guards, and bouncy centers who either stretch the floor already, or will be expected to before long. I don’t expect them to go super small again, although I’d still like to see how it looks in a tight game again.

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