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Reason for optimism: Celtics core four have been great together

While their appearances have been few and far between, the franchise’s foundation have a bright future ahead of them.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Denver Nuggets Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

As CelticsBlog’s Bobby Manning suggested, COVID protocols have presented Ime Udoka a puzzle to patch together different lineups. With over half of the roster either injured or quarantined, necessity has been the mother of invention. The good news is, he doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel here. Despite all the absences, for the most part, Boston has had its core players available and while the regular season as a whole has been fairly mediocre, the Celtics mainstays have performed at a high level together.

Only four players are signed into 2023-24: Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Robert Williams III. In 214 minutes this year, they have a 110.4 offensive and 94.9 defensive rating. It’s a relatively small sample size because of Brown’s extended absence with his hamstring injury, but big enough to suggest that Boston’s core is good enough to build around.

Comparatively speaking, that foursome ranks sixth in the NBA in net rating (with at least 200 minutes played) and ahead of juggernauts like Utah’s Donovan Mitchell, Royce O’Neal, Bogdan Bogdanovich, and Rudy Gobert or Philadelphia’s Tyrese Maxey, Seth Curry, Danny Green, and Joel Embiid.

For most of the season, Al Horford has played alongside Williams in a double big frontcourt and that’s more or less worked, but other players like Dennis Schroder and Grant Williams have also played extended minutes in those five-man lineups:

  • w/ Al Horford: 110.1 OffRtg, 89.5 DefRtg
  • w/ Dennis Schroder: 106.0 OffRtg, 98.2 DefRtg
  • w/ Grant Williams (!!): 139.6 OffRtg, 104.3 DefRtg

The numbers suggest that players of all different sizes and skill sets have been able to plug-and-play with the franchise’s foundation and this week, we’ve seen other players succeed in supporting roles too and some have maximized the opportunity to have their best games of the regular season.

Against the Warriors and Knicks, Horford, Schroder, and Grant Williams remained out and it was Josh Richardson that slotted in as Stuart Sutcliffe (or George Martin, if you’re so inclined). In eighteen minutes, that fivesome has made beautiful music together with a 22.2 net rating (113.9 OffRtg, 91.7 DefRtg) and coincidentally on Saturday night, Richardson had his best game in green with 27 points (5-of-7 from behind the arc), 4 assists, and 3 steals against the Knicks.

Obviously, adding another switchy defender like Richardson on the perimeter only fortifies an already fearsome foursome on D. He didn’t start against the Warriors or Knicks though. Instead, Udoka opted to go with Romeo Langford on Friday and Aaron Nesmith on Saturday. Neither really had breakout offensive games like Richardson, but again, both strengthened an already stiff defense.

Inevitably, with the team a game below .500, fans will start looking toward the trade deadline and even into next offseason and ask what player would be best going forward. Horford has been good, but the 35-year-old is 35 years old. Grant Williams seems like a viable option in that “great shooter, versatile defender” mold. Nesmith and Langford could make similar leaps to Grant’s in the coming weeks, too.

Thinking bigger, could Damian Lillard, Bradley Beal, or Domantas Sabonis co-exist with that lineup? Does a smaller trade for a young pick-and-roll point guard or traditional power forward make more sense? President of Basketball Operations Brad Stevens should consider any and all possibilities, but rest assured that the long term prospect of the roster is promising.