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Udoka looks to solidify consistent starting lineup in training camp

The Celtics head coach wants stability throughout his rotation.

2021 NBA Playoffs - Brooklyn Nets v Boston Celtics Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

On Media Day, the emphasis was on versatility. Through three days of official practice, it’s pace.

When asked why he wanted to play faster this season, head coach Ime Udoka responded, “the multiple ballhandlers that we have, guys that can rebound and push it, including some of our bigs. Al showed that throughout open gym and training camp...teams that have a big that can attack puts pressure on other teams. (We used) Bam (Adebayo) and Draymond (Green) on (Team) USA that way...we’re encouraging our bigs to rebound, our big wings to rebound, and not just find the point guards every time. Looking at last year over all, 20th in pace, we’re emphasizing upping that.”

We’ll like see some double-big lineups against the behemoth contenders in the East like Milwaukee and Philadelphia, but it sounds like for the most part, the Celtics want to play fast and to be fast, that means playing small, too. That doesn’t just mean more fast breaks. They’ll look to play quicker in the half court and move the ball.

On Saturday, Udoka also suggested that even with the variety of looks he can go with with the starting lineup, he’ll try to solidify one option rather than change it up night-to-night based on matchups.

“We will determine a starting lineup that fits best so guys are not second guessing,” Udoka said after practice. “‘Am I starting this night or am I not?’ I’ve been on teams where we’ve done that before and it is tough on players to know if they’re going to play a certain role every night.”

Udoka has called Boston a relatively big team, but that size is mostly on the wing, not in the paint. As many as seven rotation players are between 6’3” and 6’8”. We can debate on whether Al Horford or Robert Williams or both are in the starting lineup, but in the end, the Celtics will field a mobile center who can play above the break on offense and switch on defense. With that said, let’s a take an early crack at what could be the rotation to start the season:

Possible 2021-2022 Celtics Rotation

Boston’s strength is around the perimeter. If Horford and Williams (with some cameo appearances from Enes Kanter) soak up 48 minutes at the 5, that leaves nearly 200 minutes to fill with ballhandlers and shooters.

There seems to be at least two timeshare positions in the rotation: at point guard and at shooting guard. Unless something dramatic happens, Marcus Smart is the starting point guard of the Boston Celtics. It's within the realm of possibility that he could slide into a super 6th man role — not as a demotion, but as a function of balancing the lineups and as Brad Stevens used to call him, “a sixth starter” — but all signs point to Smart finally getting his shot at the point. Behind him will be Dennis Schroeder. Neither excel off the ball so expect them to tag team at point guard and rarely play together.

At the traditional shooting guard spot, expect another day shift, night shift rotation with the Celtics' 2020 draft class of Payton Pritchard and Aaron Nesmith. Both are Boston's best catch-and-shoot options and perfect complements to drive-and-kick playmakers. As CelticsBlog’s Adam Spinella suggests, Pritchard could slot in as the starter in part because of the defensive size on the floor. With Smart, Brown, and Tatum, Udoka could hide Pritchard on opposing team’s smallest player.

I’ll opt for Nesmith here because he doesn’t have the off the dribble chops that Pritchard has and his role is somewhat simpler with the starters. He’ll be tasked to space the floor and defend like crazy. Coming off the bench, Pritchard can also act as a ball handler and has some instinctual playmaking ability. That makes him more versatile and thus, more valuable on the second unit.

Where it gets tricky is at the 3 and 4. Udoka has said that the 4 will be the bellwether of what Boston is trying to do. If they’re big, that’s Al Horford sliding down a weight class. If they’re small, it’s the 6’8” to 6’10” Jayson Tatum at power forward. There are other options, too. Jabari Parker proved at the end of last season that his injury history hasn’t diminished his ability to score. Juancho Hernangomez’s rebounding and shooting paired with his size make him an option. Grant Williams will also get some run and in this mock up, he gets the nod for those spot minutes in this expanded eleven-man rotation.

One solution could be playing double big wings with some pairing of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Josh Richardson, and Romeo Langford always on the floor. Udoka has said that they’ll try to stagger Tatum and Brown’s minutes so that one of them is on the court at all times. That’ll give Richardson plenty of PT spelling the both of them and enough space to find his game.

“Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve been kind of a glue guy, a guy that can morph into whatever the team needs on any given day,” Richardson described himself. “One thing that I bring every day is intensity and I’m vocal. I don’t mind talking, I don’t mind helping guys out. Guys help me out. Just being a good communicator a gap filler.”

Admittedly, this model is skewed towards the young players. There are try out minutes for Langford and Grant Williams built in to start the regular season, but those probably get soaked up by Schroder and Richardson if neither of the third-year players pops. It’s also optimistic that sophomores Pritchard and Nesmith are ready for substantial roles on a playoff team. On a personal note, I’m rooting for them to succeed because they’re our guys.

Or maybe Udoka plans to walk the talk, or in this case, run. If the Celtics do plan to play fast, it’s not inconceivable that Boston utilizes a 10-11 man rotation to do so. Last season, the world champion Milwaukee Bucks were second in pace and had 10 players average over 15 minutes per game. The Celtics have a roster to do the same.

“We want to play fast. We got a lot of guys that can do that,” Brown said after Wednesday’s practice. “Today was fun. I’ve been saying for years. ‘I want to play fast.’ And we got the personnel to do so. We got bigs that can run and play make. We got guards that love to get up and down the court. To me, that’s music to my ears.”

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