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Ime Udoka, Celtics to continue experimenting with lineups

“It’ll play itself out to some extent in training camp and preseason, but we feel comfortable with 10-12 of our guys.”

NBA: Preseason-Orlando Magic at Boston Celtics Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

The Celtics appear to be one of the deeper teams in basketball, bringing in starting-caliber veterans like Dennis Schröder, Josh Richardson, and Al Horford with the second unit for the preseason opener. Romeo Langford and Enes Kanter were the 12th and 13th men off the bench and didn’t even reach the floor until minutes into the fourth quarter.

Ime Udoka faces a monumental task: to rebuild the culture and bridge personalities across the Celtics locker room. Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum stand out as shoo-in starters — the pillars of the team. Beyond them, an array of guards, shooters, bigs and perimeter defenders, young and old, need roles assigned.

Udoka doesn’t foresee going starter-by-committee, instead envisioning the Celtics as a matchup team, able to play different styles in rotation. That entails difficult nightly decisions, assigning DNP’s and making the call on who to ride into the fourth.

The Celtics rotation could be hard to manage. As evaluators like ESPN’s Zach Lowe point out an abundance of reliable players, we know that can become a blessing or a curse. In 2019. starting-caliber players like Brown, Gordon Hayward and Terry Rozier played off the bench that season. An ability to match up with any team is conducive to winning a variety of games, but depth requires a strong communicator when everyone’s available and someone needs to sit.

“It’ll play itself out to some extent in training camp and preseason,” Udoka said Wednesday. “We feel comfortable with 10-12 of our guys. It’s just a matter of game-by-game, scheme and coverage and who we’re guarding and who we’re playing ... it’s hard to play 12 guys, obviously, every night. Nine to ten is a more manageable number and so that’s where the competition lies and how they’ll play in the games, and what we’re seeing in practice.”

Boston benefits from willing participants. Richardson opened camp only expecting to play, whether starting or off the bench. Horford endorsed Udoka’s versatile approach. Schröder reportedly signed with the team without expecting a starting role either. With that said, the veterans shouldn’t find themselves starving for minutes. Brad Stevens and Udoka have already said that the youth need to prove themselves to earn PT; there are no developmental minutes here.

Grant Williams saw the influx of veterans as exciting — a challenge — even if it boxes him out of minutes. He played nearly ten minutes on Monday. Udoka expects to mix and match throughout camp, pointing toward a possible Aaron Nesmith start in Saturday’s Toronto game, where the Celtics will see an array of perimeter players and no seven-footers.

Nesmith and Langford haven’t received concrete roles and remain prepared for whatever gets thrown at them. Stevens typically found ways to keep players involved during his coaching tenure, reaching down to Tremont Waters as a two-way player for several spot starts last season. Udoka threw a Stevens-esque loop before Monday’s game by pulling Juancho Hernangómez from seemingly in that competition range to starter. He added not to read too much into that decision. It provided a look into how the Celtics want to complement their pillars and Robert Williams III, whether that’s Hernangomez or Horford or whomever moving forward.

“One of the best things we got is the versatility, we got a lot of players that can play different positions. All the positions here are interchanged,” Hernangómez said at shootaround Monday. “I’m just a basketball player.”

The Celtics wanted to get older this offseason and did, but the younger Summer Celtics owned the fourth quarter and many of them, particularly Pritchard and Nesmith, look primed to contribute substantially this year.

“We know what we have with Aaron,” Udoka said. “It’s just a matter of him getting the reps with that starting group, the shooting ability is obviously there, we want him to step up defensively as well and be solid, not be a liability there. He does a lot of good things out there, obviously finished the game very well toward the end, but I think the experience of him being out there with some of the starting guys, as well as the second and third unit who came in and finished the game, is invaluable for a young guy. It’s not just to see him with the starters, but just to get him minutes in general and in different roles. So he was great in Summer League, now we want to see him on a bigger stage.”

Horford will likely start games alongside Williams, as one of Boston’s better shooters and more versatile defenders. Udoka also wants him be in the mix as a stretch five with young players too, which he did on Monday by subbing Horford for Williams at the midway point of the first three quarters.

Horford peaked at 42.9% from behind the arc in his second season in Boston, playing often at the four spot next to Aron Baynes and taking 226 attempts outside. He took fewer in 2019, converted 35% on his highest total volume of threes in Philadelphia, then returned to 36.8% on his highest per-game volume of his career in Oklahoma City (5.4).

Udoka sees Horford stretching the floor from the five position and utilizing his array of skills at the four, but on a Celtics team without elite shooters at the guard spots, the combination of Williams’ vertical spacing and Horford’s perimeter shooting could provide more space than single-big looks. We just didn’t see that combo against the Magic on Monday.

“We’ve had several different lineups here, big and small,” Udoka said. “We’ve seen Al with Rob quite a bit, and they’re doing a great job ... it’s more so seeing the young guys with those groups ... we’ll see Al in those starting lineups as well in the preseason as well ... he has a contrasting style to some of our other bigs, and so we wanted to stagger that as well and have him be a stretch five when he’s in there as opposed to Enes and Robert. So we’re looking at that as well to see who works in different positions at the five, but when we can slide him to the four, we know what he’s going to do as well. Space the floor, be a post-up threat and be a great initiator of the offense.”

Schröder who’s been a starter his whole career, played two seasons with the Thunder as a sixth man. After a 2020 campaign when he was runner up for Sixth Man of the Year, he was traded and then started every game with the Lakers. After a disappointing free agency, being a finisher more than a starter remains Schröder’s goal. For Schröder to get there, he needs to adapt to the switching defense he struggled with in his debut, space the floor, and make plays.

“It’s always great to be a starter,” Schröder said. “I think everybody knows that as well, that I’m a starter ... right here, right now, what we need is whatever coach needs me to do ... I’m a winning person and a team player, so at the end of the day, whatever coach is telling me to do and whatever the group thinks is best, we’re going to figure that out and then everybody just got to know what the situation is.”

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