As a coach, I’ve always believed that public narratives focus way too much on who starts games and not enough on who finishes them. The two are, in a way, closely related. Starters are in the best position to play the most minutes with how rotations are set up. For many teams, the group they begin with is also the group they close with.
Boston Celtics fans may have noticed that that’s not always the case. Take Marcus Smart, the team’s super-sub the last few years who ceded starting duties to Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and the now-departed Gordon Hayward. Based on the flow of the game and the matchups, Smart could find himself on the floor at the end of the night to replace one of these four.
In some games, Daniel Theis, the team’s starting center, would be on the pine in late moments, too. Late in the season, head coach Brad Stevens began to lean on smaller lineups more frequently, plugging in Grant Williams at the 5, or going positionless with the team’s five-best players and letting five ball handlers and wings get their run.
Hayward’s departure, and the lack of an experienced wing replacement, removes the “Best Five” super-small lineup from Stevens’ arsenal. Gone is Stevens’ ace in the hole, supremely talented offensive grouping that could speed up the pace and get them back in games. Without replacing Hayward on the wings with a veteran who is ready to fill that role, there’s no way to play small.
Amidst the arrivals and departures at TD Garden is a growing uncertainty about exactly who the head coach can lean on during these crunch time minutes. Boston’s core four is as talented and balanced as any four-man group in the Eastern Conference. Without a fifth, the Celtics are tempting the fates to do it by committee.
From a coaching perspective, there’s certainly an advantage to the versatility to plug in whatever pieces the matchup dictates. Brad would ride the hot hand in the Disney bubble, and his flexibility to tinker with the fifth guy helped Boston at times. The Celtics could adapt to the flow of the game and play different guys based on their opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. If they were behind or could play small, Stevens could roll with that small unit. If up or facing a bigger team, he’d roll with Theis or even Grant Williams.
It’s a great regular season tactic that can help rack up wins. Teams vary in their styles, so having the ability to match up with them and win in any style is crucial to success. The downside is pretty evident, though: the Celtics don’t have an imposing-enough five-man group to force others to match to them.
Good teams can win in many ways; great teams force you to beat them at their own game.
In the Miami Heat series, the lack of certainty around closing lineups forced issues, as is the case in postseason series against elite teams. Hayward’s return in Game 3 provided a shot in the arm for the depth of options to select, and the Celtics played five different five-man rotations within the final four minutes of games. Without Hayward, it was the clear Walker-Smart-Brown-Tatum-Theis grouping. When he returned, it was anybody’s guess.
Game 3 saw the trio of Brown, Smart and Tatum remain for all minutes, with Hayward, Walker and Grant Williams rotating in and out. Theis was nowhere to be found. In Games 4 and 6, they went super-small, with that best five-man group out there to finish. The Game 5 win featured Smart-Brown-Hayward-Tatum-Theis, sitting Kemba who played only 2:57 in the fourth quarter with five fouls.
Flow of the game and matchups are one thing, but it felt like Stevens was grasping at straws, throwing spaghetti against the wall and seeing what would stick. There wasn’t a clear-cut best five-man group he could depend upon, a trait so many elite teams know with certainty.
Look no further than the inconsistent role and minutes of rookie Grant Williams as a sign of desperation. In Game 6, after consistently positive minutes and contributions, Williams played zero minutes in the first half. He logged 10:27 in the second, including 6:02 in the fourth. Theis, who was the team’s closer just one game prior in their victory, logged only 1:22 in the final frame.
To have a definitive five-man group would eliminate the need for hot hands to play a role in who gets minutes. There will always be times when matchups dictate who should be on the floor and a need to break from the mold. But the Celtics haven’t addressed the uncertainty here, only added more pieces to Stevens’ growing puzzle.
Herein lies the difficulty in swapping Hayward out for an upgrade at the 5: the substitutions become less about stylistic changes and more about the play of their bigs in the first three quarters. There is no reliable super-small lineup. Going super small with Jeff Teague leaves far too many defensive disadvantages. Rookie Aaron Nesmith might not be ready for such a role. Instead, the Celtics seem committed to playing a big in their closing moments. The challenge is figuring out who earns that role.
All candidates at center provide something different. Tristan Thompson and Theis could be offense-and-defense subs, with Thompson’s dependable rebounding and energetic presence helping Boston in tight situations. Those decisions for substitutions, which take place at dead balls, are easy to make. Choosing which to ride with during the flow of a game is much more challenging.
Grant could establish himself as an important cog next year, and even a starter. He’d be a nice small-ball 5 option, though that won’t work against every team. He’s a “break glass in case of emergency” player, and putting him on the full-time closing group over the likes of Theis or Thompson would mean significant steps forward in his game and consistency.
Other options don’t appear ready. Robert Williams isn’t trustworthy yet, although he had positive flashes in minutes with Boston’s second unit in the bubble. And with all due respect to Grant, he doesn’t provide the offensive firepower in a wing-heavy lineup to justify playing over Theis if the C’s need some offense.
The Celtics offseason was centered around talent upgrades, adding role players and saying bon voyage to Hayward after a tumultuous tenure. However, he did little to address who would be the guy at center. Thompson and Theis are different players, each with notable limitations. Perhaps one will emerge as the clear favorite through the course of the season, but for a team that loses an undervalued wing who could play in the decisive moments, adding another one-dimensional center puts pressure on Stevens to keep everyone happy and prepared.
Mental preparation is easier when roles and expectations are clearly defined. Stevens may appreciate the flexibility to play which cards in his hand make the most sense for him, but I’ll always believe that a championship-caliber team has five cards who the coach cannot help but play.
Let’s hope this team is the exception to that rule.