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Celtics lineup preview: in defense of going small

Coach Udoka mentioned his Core 4 at Media Day. Filling in rotations around them takes some planning.

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Media Day around the NBA is always filled with canned comments, relentless optimism and proverbial coachspeak. Sometimes, hidden within the fluff are little crumbs that indicate basketball decisions or leanings of the coaching staff. Despite his remote status due to COVID-19, new head coach Ime Udoka weighed in on the debate around how to construct his lineups and what he’s looking for on the floor:

“Balance overall. We have a lot of different directions we can go in, a lot of versatility in our lineups with the players we have added. So, you look at both starting as well as the bench coming in and the balance you want there. Like I said, we can play big, small, faster, slower.

We have a big team overall in general and it depends on who we start at the four spot for the most part. We can downsize or we can go big there. We’re going to look at all those options through training camp. We’ll tinker with a lot of lineups. Bringing in great veterans, some of the guys we have in Dennis [Schroder] and Josh [Richardson], it kind of gives us more depth off the bench, but we also want to see our young guys take steps in growth and so, we’ll tinker with some of those lineups in the preseason as well as in training camp and see what’s best fits us.

Overall, it’s balance so we have some punch coming off the bench.”

Sure, the regularly scheduled commentary that says pretty much nothing is apparent here. But it’s worth noting that Udoka doesn’t seem to lean too much into believing one path is better than others. He also seems committed to entrenching Josh Richardson and Dennis Schroder into bench roles.

The Celtics have a core of four players — Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and blossoming big man Robert Williams — who are fairly locked into the starting lineup, all of whom don’t lock the team into one style: big, small, fast or slow.

Since making his return to Boston, Al Horford has been rumored by many to be the fifth option, getting the Celtics towards a larger starting lineup. The leading candidates for bench minutes then follow: Schroder and Richardson, Payton Pritchard, Aaron Nesmith and one of Enes Kanter or Grant Williams (most likely). Romeo Langford and Juancho Hernangomez could also see some second unit duty as well.

That five-man lineup is versatile and pretty strong in the first group. But it strikes me as pretty small with the second group, with none of Pritchard, Schroder, Richardson or Nesmith best-served at the 4. The Celtics under Brad Stevens regularly played one of Brown or Tatum with the second unit (usually Tatum) so it was rare to see reserves altogether at 1 thru 4 spots. It remains to be seen if Udoka will follow suit.

Toronto Raptors v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Our suggestion for a deep and cohesive first and second unit would be to replace Horford in the starting group with second-year guard Payton Pritchard. The concept behind Pritchard in with the first group is two-fold. First, it provides some much-needed veteran balance with the second unit where Horford can facilitate atop the key. Second, Pritchard fits well as an off-ball threat next to Tatum, Brown and the rolling threat of Williams.

We’ll start with Pritchard, who established himself this summer in Las Vegas and throughout his rookie season as a positive catch-and-shoot threat. Last year, P-Rabbit shot 70-154 (45.5%) on catch-and-shoot looks, 7th best in the NBA for all who took at least 150 attempts. Not bad for a rookie.

The shooting prowess of Pritchard is no surprise to the Celtics brass that drafted him and tracked his off-ball ability in college. As a senior, he made 42.5% of his catch-and-shoot looks. That trend held up in Summer League, going 57.7% from deep. Seems pretty safe to say he could be Boston’s best off-ball option.

The value of getting that threat next to Brown and Tatum as much as possible is evident. Sure, Pritchard is listed as a traditional point guard, but his play style is far more that of a combo guard who is elite off-ball more than as a pure facilitator or creator. Perhaps it gets the most out of Pritchard by playing him in a purely off-ball role as a spot-up threat. With Marcus Smart as his backcourt mate, there’s enough size to allow Pritchard not to guard the 2. In any lineups with Schroder and Pritchard side-by-side, the C’s will have one of the smaller backcourts you’ll see.

Toronto Raptors v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Pritchard isn’t the only one who benefits though. Timelord was 31-for-46 on pick-and-roll dives to the rim last year, according to Synergy. To keep the impact of his budding screen-and-roll game high, he’ll need shooters to surround the action. Smart, a solid shooter who isn’t striking fear into most defenses from 3-point range, isn’t the ideal backcourt floor-spacer while Tatum and Brown navigate ball screens. Pritchard’s presence has great value — and is certainly more statistically impactful than Horford.

By moving Big Al to the second unit, the Celtics find a veteran stabilizer. If Udoka chooses to re-establish the staggering of Tatum and Brown’s minutes, they’ll both get plenty of run with Horford, a pro known for making all those around him better. In 2018-19, Horford’s last year with the Celtics, the team featured a +3.7% assist rate when Big Al was on the floor, a number that ballooned to +4.9% in the postseason. To me, that is more useful with a second unit that features shooting specialist Nesmith and tunnel vision guard Schroder than with the combo of Tatum and Brown.

Horford’s ability to the 4 won’t be fully neutralized. If the matchups and timing is right, Enes Kanter can supplant Grant Williams on second units. There’s plenty of room for spurts where Horford and Timelord are side-by-side; it’s just not their starting group.

Expect Udoka to figure this out by trial and error throughout the preseason, settling on groups that perform well and provide balance within both first and second units. To me, starting a little smaller not only provides positive shooting while both Tatum and Brown are on the floor but doesn’t hamper the size of Boston’s second unit. Looking at both sections of game — first and second grouping — is vital to maximizing the rotation and finding balance in their attack.