Brad Stevens has earned a reputation through his first six seasons in the NBA as an avid experimenter. Whether or not that’s him, it’s what life as Danny Ainge’s coach demanded.
Ainge handed Stevens new rosters three times: to begin his tenure, in the middle of the 2014-15 season, and after the 2017 Eastern Conference Finals — when Stevens had finally set his eight-man rotation. The fourth turnover happened unexpectedly this summer, the most challenging yet.
Stevens’ reputation rests on his ability to successfully solidify a winning rotation early. Boston signed a new all-NBA guard, returns two young stars after inconsistent seasons, could slide Gordon Hayward up the roster, and introduces five rookies. The hole Al Horford left dwarfs the Big Dig.
Kyrie Irving’s moodiness shielded Stevens from much of the blame, but he’s next in line if the Celtics struggle with Kemba Walker. Last year’s debacle stemmed from opening 10-10. The inefficiency of the Irving, three wings, Horford lineup derailed Boston before adjustments improved the team.
Stevens will experiment. And Stevens loves to experiment — with minute averages that vary widely down the roster each month.
Back during the first month 2013-14, he funneled minutes to Vitor Faverani, before abandoning him by January. That could be Vincent Poirier now. Enes Kanter could occupy the majority of center minutes, but the Celtics committed two years to the French center to see what he has.
Stevens’ starters remain consistent until injuries strike, then the whole rotation can change to create new complements and a flow to the closing lineup. Chris Johnson earned 25 minutes per game in January 2014 when Avery Bradley fell.
Kris Humphries and MarShon Brooks broke into the fold during that time, after mostly sitting early. Jordan Crawford — a conference player of the week in September — sat after Rajon Rondo returned.
The turmoil of a lottery team trading a player every week won’t happen here, barring injuries. Walker, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown should log 30 MPG. Gordon Hayward and Marcus Smart will draw close as secondary facilitators. Boston’s most intriguing minutes fall below the seventh spot.
Predicting the center position — likely seventh or eighth in minutes here — requires remembering the 2015-16 group that mixed Amir Johnson, Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger inside. None excelled on defense, and the Celtics succeeded thanks to small ball made possible by Jae Crowder’s minutes at the four.
Grant Williams fits into that position immediately, akin to Smart landing over 20 minutes every night as a rookie after the Rondo trade. Stevens’ past rotations provided opportunity to the youth early, then consolidated in February to eight or nine players averaging over 13 MPG.
Discussion began in recent weeks about Smart drawing center assignments. Concerns at center exist, but the four could be the more depleted role. Tatum and Brown lacked the bulk to defend there. Morris became a better fit to bang routinely, allowing the youth to prioritize offense. Hayward can play there, but primarily checks guards.
Kanter will start and play about 20 MPG like Johnson in 2015-16, with backups filling in when size is needed. Grant’s spacing potential, rebounding, and footwork could earn him between 20-24 minutes per game, even as a rookie reserve on a packed roster.
Stevens integrated rookies that can contribute in the past. Olynyk received six starts and over 20 MPG in his first NBA month. Jaylen Brown worked there by January. Rookie Terry Rozier barely cracked the rotation.
Otherwise Stevens is as likely to tug a Phil Pressey (over 10 MPG in all but one of his months in BOS) or Shane Larkin (20+ MPG late in 2018) up the depth chart sporadically. James Young, Jordan Mickey and RJ Hunter became used to Boston’s courtside seats.
That means Romeo Langford could end up sitting, even as the highest-selected rookie this summer. His shot is a project, and he enters behind five wings. Rozier similarly fell behind Isaiah Thomas, Evan Turner and Smart. An injury could still boost him to 20 minutes for one month.
Edwards likely earns Stevens’ early, steady commitment, too. His spot shooting could generate high-teens scoring the Celtics desperately need, with Smart or Hayward leading the bench in a pass-first role. Secondary wing ball-handlers like them lend Walker rest when the rotation consolidates.
Poirier, a pick-and-roll center with size and passing upside, may grab 10-15 minutes against bigger teams. He’s a strong rebounder, who will compete with Daniel Theis for 14-18 MPG.
Theis is a Stevens favorite who posted great lineup splits last year. Stevens granted Sullinger, Olynyk, Johnson and Jerebko rotation minutes in 2016. That team played two bigs more than this team will.
Brad Wanamaker’s an interesting case after he failed to crack the rotation last season. Rozier’s steady 20 MPG blocked him, and made some of the least sense of any Stevens minute allocation ever. Wanamaker could reemerge with T-Ro gone as the Pressey playmaker, but now he has Tremont Waters available for 45 nights to vie for those 10-14 MPG.
Little time remains for Semi Ojeleye unless four help is needed. Robert Williams only earned one stretch of 15 MPG last December. He still appeared raw in summer league. There are seasoned veterans ahead of him in the center role that’ll likely get a quick hook for small ball.
Stevens’ 2019 lineup proved his most rigid, beside Smart and Morris insertions. That stability turned to stagnancy. The usual Stevens’ experimentation now returns without favor, potentially reinstating the coaching fortune of his most chaotic years.
Prediction: Kemba (30-35), Tatum (30-34), Smart (28-30), Brown (26-28), Hayward (26-28), G.Williams (20-24), Kanter (20-22), Edwards (15-16), Theis (10-14), Poirier (10-12), Wanamaker (10-12), Langford (8-10), R.Williams (8-10), Waters (7-8), Ojeleye (6-8)