We now know that the 2020-21 season will begin on December 22nd, cramming 72 games into less than five months time. The Boston Celtics last played on September 27th, giving them less than three months to recoup following a disappointing finish in the Eastern Conference Finals.
A team led by a 22 and a 24-year-old will hardly be the first to garner much sympathy when discussing the physical difficulties of an abridged offseason leading right into a compressed regular season. But what Boston’s roster lacks in age is made up for in mileage, the type that could be exacerbated under the unique circumstances of the pending season.
In just four seasons, Jaylen Brown has appeared in three conferences finals. Jayson Tatum has two such runs in his three seasons. That’s more wear and tear than your average players tend to have at those respective stages of their career.
Kemba Walker turned 30 in May and knee troubles had him struggling throughout the bubble playoffs. Nobody needs a reminder of the injuries Gordon Hayward, also 30, has accumulated since arriving in Boston.
Brad Stevens has typically been a proponent of heavy minutes for his bench. In four of his seven seasons as head coach of the Celtics, his second units have ranked no lower than 12th in minutes per game, twice cracking the top-10.
That preference changed in 2019-20 as his personnel did. The team that previously had too many mouths to feed was suddenly lost without its starting unit, which ranked seventh in minutes per game and third in scoring.
Sacrificing regular season wins isn’t typically worth doing when home court advantage can swing any series in one’s favor, but what is home court even worth in a season unlikely to have fans? There’s a sense of comfort in the familiar surroundings of a home arena regardless of the crowd. Is that to be prioritized over the physical well being of the players, a much greater factor for the success of teams than the environment they occupy?
With his four most crucial players susceptible to fatigue-related ailments, now might be the time for Stevens to revert back to habits of old.
Boston’s bench unit isn’t bad. It’s just raw, comprised of several young projects who haven’t gotten many minutes to develop on a contending team with few to spare.
Wouldn’t the upcoming season, where the Celtics would be wise to conserve the energy of their best players, be the perfect time to invest more into the development of guys like Robert Williams III, Grant Williams and Romeo Langford even if it meant subtracting a few wins off their total and playoff seeding?
Robert Williams showed flashes as a vertical spacer and rim protector in the playoffs. Grant Williams offered intrigue as a small-ball center. Those are elements the Celtics would be wise to look into after lacking them last season.
Emphasizing more bench play would allow the Celtics to see who among them might be worthy of a legitimate spot in the rotation. Those who survive would then be far more ready to contribute when called upon than they otherwise would be riding the bench, fortifying the second unit woes that plagued Boston in these past playoffs.
Stevens has not traditionally been one to bring young players on slowly, entrusting sizeable roles to Brown, Kelly Olynyk, Daniel Theis and even Terry Rozier early in their careers. There seemed to be that trust in the Timelord during the seeding games. He averaged 14.8 minutes across four straight outings and rewarded Boston by putting up 11.5 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game before the rigors of the playoffs forced Stevens to go with more stable options. In February and March, Grant Williams was already averaging nearly 17 minutes a game. It’s not a stretch to expect 20+ minutes from him next season. Unfortunately, Romeo Langford will start the year on the shelf after wrist surgery.
Investing in the second unit is a tough sell given its current state. It might look even worse next season depending on the choices of Brad Wanamaker (unrestricted) and Enes Kanter (player option) in free agency.
But the Celtics are aiming for a title. Anything that improves those chances has to be under serious consideration, no matter the temporary side effects.