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The myth of Boston’s Best Five and the reality of its Big 3’s

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Let’s remember what we have.

Boston Celtics v Miami Heat - Game Six Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s possible that nothing dramatically changes over the next two weeks. Danny Ainge might be able to consolidate #14, #26, and #30 to move up in the draft to snag a prized target. The taxpayer’s mid-level exception should provide punch to the second unit. A couple of minimum vets would be nice. For the most part, the Celtics should return a relatively top-heavy team spearheaded by Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown with hopes that some of their young players develop and contribute immediately.

Last week, Daniel Lubofsky wrote that because the of abbreviated season and how compact it is, Brad Stevens should embrace going deep into his bench and playing a 10-man rotation:

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.

Fans can daydream and theorize what a Kemba Walker-Marcus Smart-Jaylen Brown-Jayson Tatum-Gordon Hayward lineup could accomplish next season, but if last year’s small sample size is any indication, the reality is that it was too small, too average, and too much of a good thing all at once. On paper, the possibilities are intoxicating, a whirling dervish of playmakers that can all shoot, drive, and pass and switch on defense. In practice, opposing teams quickly learned to take advantages of mismatches.

Instead of thinking of what Boston’s Best Five could do, Stevens could break up playing time in terms of Big Threes, ensuring that at least three of his best players are always on the floor. If last year’s numbers are any indication, there’s a lot to work with (and to be fair, a lot to avoid). Below are the trio combinations of Boston’s Best Five with the other two players on the bench:

Cleaning The Glass & NBA Wowy h/t to Arjun Balaraman (@arjun_balaraman)

Some obvious trends come into view. It’s hard to ignore that the three trios with (fairly significant) negative net ratings all have Kemba Walker. And as expected, the issue is on defense. Sure, the qualifier is that these are small sample sizes, but they’re not that small; playing next to Brown and Hayward, that threesome is giving up an unsightly 138.5 points per 100 possessions over in 55+ minutes; with Smart instead of Hayward, the bleeding isn’t as bad, but it’s still 122.5 ppp over 80+ minutes in 2019-2020.

The rumors that the Celtics are interested in dealing for Jrue Holiday shouldn’t be surprising. With the ascensions of Tatum and Brown, the need for a scoring point guard may not be as necessary anymore. By all accounts, Walker is the better offensive weapon, but considering the size of his contract (roughly $10 million more per season with an extra year on his deal) and his size on the floor (Holiday is three inches taller and considered one of the league’s better point-of-attack defenders), a potential deal with New Orleans makes sense.

In a sense, Holiday is the fully realized version of Marcus Smart. He’s a serviceable three-point shooter and as Adam Taylor notes, does most of his work breaking down defenses and attacking the basket:

Attempting a total of 553 attempts around the rim throughout last season, the 30-year-old guard relishes getting his work done down low as a slasher. Over the same period, Holiday attempted 14.9 drives per game - four more than Boston’s best penetrators in Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum. Holiday also took more attempts per drive than Walker and finished with a marginally better field goal percentage of 47.9%.

However, Holiday’s biggest impact would be to the defensive identity of the Celtics. On the premiere episode of J.J. Redick’s new podcast “The Old Man & The Three,” Damian Lillard called Holiday “the best (guard) defender in the league.” The former First and Second Team All-Defense winner would join another two-time winner in Smart.

It’s a little self-evident, but the Celtics were better defensively with Smart and Kemba on the bench. The three lineups with the three lowest defensive ratings all have Smart at the point. And for what it’s worth, it’s not as if Smart was an offensive liability at the point. In 92 minutes flanked by Tatum and Hayward, they boasted a stingy 98.0 defensive rating and lit the nets on fire with a 125.9 offensive rating. Here’s the more promising stat with more evidence: with Brown and Tatum, they sported a 9.2 net rating (108.8 offensive rating, 99.6 defensive rating) over 137 minutes. At 26, 24, and 22 years old, that’s the future of the franchise.

Cleaning The Glass h/t to Arjun Balaraman (@arjun_balaraman)

There’s also the current situation to consider. Of Boston’s Best Five, the most tenuous future is with Gordon Hayward. He has a $34 million player option he could exercise by Tuesday and there’s the possibility of re-negotiating an extension with the Celtics to stay long term. Obviously, Hayward’s three-year stint so far in Boston has been mired by injury and bad luck, but last season, it’s hard to ignore just how efficient he was.

Individually, he turned in arguably his most efficient year, averaging nearly 18-7-4 on 50-38-86 splits. Even in a diminished role, he neared Utah Hayward numbers and as impressive as those stats are, it’s important to see how they mesh with the framework of the rest of the team. The narrative has been that Hayward is a bit of a luxury for the Celtics. Even though they’re paying him a max-level contract, he’s at worst a complementary piece to Brown and Tatum or at worst, a speed bump on their road to superstardom.

Off the court, Kemba gets a lot of credit for his leadership and willingness to take a back seat in favor of the franchise’s core duo. On the court, it’s really Hayward that galvanizes the team. As previously mentioned, Walker is part of all three trios with negative net ratings. Hayward, on the other hand, is part of the three best. Hayward-Brown-Tatum and Hayward-Smart-Tatum are +20 in net rating and if you consider the fact that in both lineups, he’s ideally the primary playmaker (rather than playing off ball), bringing him back to Boston for next season and even two or three more is a no-brainer.

NBA: Playoffs-Miami Heat at Boston Celtics Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Down one with twelve seconds to go, Stevens might opt to put all his best players on the floor at such a crucial time in the game. Midway through the second quarter though, let’s see what the Williamses can do next to some of the starters. Smart isn’t the most dynamic PG in the league, but pairing him with Hayward and Tatum plus a rookie learning the ropes and a free agent rim-running big could eat up minutes with the rest of the starters on the bench. Boston’s Best Five may not be the stuff of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, or Paul Pierce or the league’s best duos like LeBron James and Anthony Davis, but broken up over the course of a game and an entire regular season, they could add up to Banner 18.