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A CelticsBlog debate: should Aaron Nesmith or Josh Richardson start?

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Who ya got?

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Three out of the four starters seem locked in for next season: Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, and Jayson Tatum. Shooting guard and center are up in the air. Today, two CelticsBloggers will debate who plays at the 2.

Daniel Lubofsky: I’ll start by saying that it’s really difficult to get a read on which Josh Richardson the Celtics will be getting. He was on a very encouraging track as a surprise second-round pick with the Heat. Then he played on that mess of a 76ers team with negative spacing then contracted COVID-19 fairly early into his lone season in Dallas.

That being said, I do think his best work will come playing next to better players in the starting lineup. He put up a decent amount of points as a focal point of Miami’s offense during his last season in South Beach (16.6 a game) but he wasn’t efficient doing so, shooting 41.2 percent from the field.

Adam Taylor: I like Richardson, and think that he will be a valuable piece in the Celtics rotation. I also agree that he’s currently an unknown commodity (in terms of what version we’re getting), but I think the Celtics' biggest issue last year was the bench. Both offense and defense suffered when the second unit was on the floor, and by running Richardson with the second unit, he can get the touch’s he needs to be effective and provide the defense that unit needs.

For me, Nesmith makes sense to take the starting role. He’s under contract for longer and the minutes with higher-level players would force him to continue raising his game.

Miami Heat Vs Boston Celtics At TD Garden Photo by Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Lubofsky: I certainly wouldn’t hate seeing Nesmith in the starting lineup for the reason you just mentioned. But with young guys, there’s always going to be that question of if they’re ready to take the next step.

Nesmith lit up Summer League, but he played less than 700 minutes as a rookie and made just one start. Is the 21-year-old suddenly ready to step into the starting lineup for a legitimate playoff team? Boston’s future would certainly be brighter if that was the case, but I’m a bit hesitant to hop onto the bandwagon just yet.

Conversely, Richardson will be entering his seventh NBA season in October. He has 30 career playoff games under his belt. The Celtics clearly haven’t abandoned the development aspect of roster building, but Tatum and Brown are already at a stage where they need as known of a commodity as they can get alongside them.

Taylor: I can see the point of Richardson providing the experience needed. That’s a big plus for him being on the roster.

However, I would rather distribute that experience between both first and second units. Nesmith would be inexperienced, no doubt, but he would be able to lean on guys like Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart, and Jaylen Brown.

By having Richardson on the second unit, he can not only lead the line (on both sides of the floor) but he can also provide a steady hand for guys like Romeo Langford and Payton Pritchard. I would rather “hide” Nesmith among the starters, to add value across the rotation.

Boston Celtics v Philadelphia 76ers - Game Four Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Lubofsky: The thing with that is I’m not so sure Richardson can lead the second unit. In fact, I think that’s been a problem of his entire career. After setting himself apart on a Heat team with a collection of good-not-great players, he’s been miscast as someone you can run the offense through, when he’s not that guy.

Going back to that last season in Miami, which was unquestionably his best statistical season as the team’s leading scorer, his shooting percentages got worse the more he dribbled the ball. I’m not sure that’s the guy you want leading the second unit.

Taylor: And that’s fair. A valid concern. My only retort there would be that with the Celtics' second unit, Richardson will have the likes of Schroder or Smart, and either Horford or Rob Williams.

There are options for him as a facilitator, which would ease the burden of scoring for him. I envision Richardson being at his best when operating in a “less is more role,” but I can’t see the value of putting him in the starting 5 when it would imbalance the roster.

With either Smart or Schroder as the primary ball-handler, Richardson could offer secondary offense while focusing on being a veteran presence and locking guys up on defense.

Lubofsky: I think Richardson needs to recast himself as a guy who plays off of the main guys. There are bits of potential. He shot north of 36 percent from three in four seasons with the Heat. He has the athleticism to function as a solid cutter.

Maybe you can get some of that same production playing alongside Schroder and whichever big man comes off of the bench, but there’s nothing like the looks that are generated from the greatness of two All-Stars.

Taylor: I get that. And definitely agree that him being miscast is why his values so low. But with him being on a 1-year deal, and someone like Nesmith showing two-way potential, giving Richardson the starting spot doesn’t make sense to me.

Nesmith could potentially become the Celtic's next solid wing - capable of scoring on all three levels, hustling on defense, and spacing the floor.

Developing the raw talent from last year's draft pick, while providing spacing for Tatum and Brown seems more valuable than having Richardson being a 4th option.

Off the bench, Richardson would get more touches, and be one of the unit's primary defenders. Also, if Udoka staggers Brown and Tatum like Brad did, Richardson will still get minutes feeding off the stars.

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Lubofsky: The staggering is probably the biggest factor in this entire discussion because it doesn’t have to matter who starts and who comes off the bench if the rotation is handled properly, so I agree with that. Richardson can always be in the game with one of Tatum or Brown. Maybe he develops chemistry getting feeds from Horford, so Udoka makes it a point to have more of their minutes line up.

The emphasis on developing Nesmith does fall in line with the thought process many have about the Celtic after their somewhat quiet offseason, that they’re looking ahead to 2023 and beyond.

If that is to be the case (though the franchise will never admit it) sacrificing whatever short-term gains the more seasoned Richardson might bring in favor of the long-term contributions Nesmith could provide on an accelerated timeline would work in Boston’s favor.

Taylor: That’s my thought process. Nesmith developing can either give the Celtics a high-level trade chip, or provide incredibly wing depth for years to come.

Richardson solves multiple needs for the Celtics, and his presence will only be a positive. But I would rather use him for defense and some offense, if that means Nesmith is getting the development time he needs.

Lubofsky: That’s fair. Especially considering that there’s no guarantee Richardson returns when he hits free agency next year. The Celtics are kind of in a lose-lose in that sense. If Richardson struggles, well then that doesn’t help the team. But if he thrives, he’ll probably get an offer that comes in higher than what Boston is willing to pay him.

Taylor: That’s part of the problem, too. Developing a guy who isn’t likely to feature in the teams long term plans, shouldn’t come at the expense of a player like Nesmith in my opinion.

Lubofsky: I don’t know if I’m supposed to admit this, but you’ve convinced me to jump onto the Nesmith side of the argument for all the reasons you said. Especially considering the Celtics are still a notch below the true championship contenders heading into next season, which means that prioritizing Richardson offers minimal upside in the grand scheme of pursuing the ultimate goal.

Taylor: Haha, I think that draws us to a happy conclusion :)

And for what it’s worth, if Richardson does start, I hope Nesmith wrestles that spot from him during the season. It just makes more sense to me.

Lubofsky: The season can’t come soon enough.

Taylor: Amen!


Editor’s note: This debate was completed before the Celtics signed Josh Richardson to a one-year extension through 2022-2023. The following comments are a follow-up to that deal.

Taylor: For me, the extension doesn’t change anything. I truly believe that Richardson is better suited to a bench role - primarily due to the balance it would provide to the rotation. But I also feel that Nesmith projects as a future part of the teams core rotation, as such, he should be given every opportunity to develop alongside the teams star talent.

My main reasoning here, is that Nesmith’s mistakes or inconsistent shooting is less likely to affect the starting line-up due to the presence of Tatum and Brown. Also, Horford’s playmaking ability should allow Nesmith to be judicial in his shot selection. Whereas, if Nesmith was coming off the bench, he would be heavily relied upon as a primary floor spacer. With Richardson playing with Schroder off the bench, the second unit will have a solid veteran presence which will allow the likes of Pritchard to continue developing. Last season we saw a young bench consistently fall short, by keeping Richardson with that second unit, there’s always going to be NBA experience to steady the ship.

Lubofsky: I agree with you on this one. I don’t know if a one-year extension should drastically alter how we view the future of Boston’s roster and Richardson’s place within it. If the Celtics really wanted Richardson for the long haul and believed in his fit alongside their core, they would’ve given him more than an extra year.

We know the true motives behind this extension, which is to ensure the Celtics have the matching salaries should Bradley Beal ask out of Washington. The deal is also a win for Richardson, who gets another $12 million he otherwise probably won’t earn in a yearly salary when he hits the free-agent market.

So, if the aforementioned is truly the case, the argument hasn’t really change. The Celtics should prioritize the player who will be on the team beyond 2023 and start Nesmith.