It’s amazing how much you can learn about a team in such a small sample size. Just four games into the new season, and we already know some of the more prominent pros and cons of this Boston Celtics team. Unfortunately, sometimes knowing isn’t all it's cracked up to be.
Over the past 24 hours, I've been trying to figure out how Boston adjusts their center rotation to combat opposing teams that decide to go big. Against the Orlando Magic, both Wendell Carter Jr. and Bol Bol had their moments, from blocking shots to controlling the glass, then Nikola Vucevic and Andre Drummond taught a weight room lesson in the middle of the game.
Having some size issues at center isn’t anything new for the Celtics, especially not during the Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown era. But as we continue trending into a My Little Pony era of basketball where there are unicorns at every turn, having a rotation of single-skill big men just doesn’t seem to cut it.
Up next, is the Cleveland Cavaliers, who boast Evan Mobley, a unicorn in his own right, and Jarrett Allen, a rim-runner with the explosiveness to teleport across the court to chase down blocks or provide weak side annihilation.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the four ball-handling lineups and am a big proponent of figuring things out with the current rotation and scheme. But, it’s hard not to ask yourself how the Celtics are going to overcome both the hulks of the league and the new hybrid centers that can do everything from everywhere.
“Anyone that was expecting fireworks from Noah Vonleh had not been paying attention. He was out of the league last season. He was playing in China. He’s made his way back over, earned himself a roster spot, but he was always, in my eyes, going to be quite low down in the big man rotation. Now, obviously, I dunno what’s happened with Luke Kornet since his ankle injury, but he just doesn’t seem to be the flavor of the month that we were all expecting him to be,” Adam Taylor said on a recent episode of the CelticsPod podcast.
Outside of Kornett and Vonleh, the Celtics can call upon Al Horford, Blake Griffin, and Mfiondu Kabengele. Even at his current age, Horford is the best big man option from that rotation by a considerable margin, so, while the Celtics wait for Robert Williams to return to action, there are going to be some grimacing nights in the paint.
Is moving back to a double-big lineup the answer? Sliding Horford back into the 4, and having Vonleh or Kornett protect the rim as a drop defender? But how does that affect the offensive flow Mazzulla has been looking to implement since taking the reigns as interim head coach?
Or is the answer as simple as reducing Vonleh’s role and giving those minutes to Griffin? After all, the veteran big has the physicality to absorb contact in the paint, has solid positional awareness, can draw charges, and has the size to offer some rim protection too -- just don’t let him get dragged onto the perimeter.
“Maybe they’re just trying to get him (Kornet) back into game shape before he takes his rightful place in the starting lineup, if they decide that’s what they need to do because of the issues that we’re talking about with the big men or if Vonleh just isn’t that guy. Maybe Kornet gets a chance to kind of supplant him as the first big off the bench. But it seems like, with Mazzulla’s focus on offense so far this year, Kornet would be the better option because he’s a better offensive player. He’s just a little bit more versatile,” Greg Maneikis said.
Luckily, we’re still in the infancy of this new season, and Mazzulla is likely still experimenting with his rotations, lineups, and minutes distribution as he searches for the perfect blend. There’s certainly a stellar defensive team residing within Boston’s roster right now — there’s been far too little turnover for such an elite unit to decline so rapidly.
Yet, something tells me that we’re not going to see Boston’s defensive best until Robert Williams returns to the rotation and strikes fear into the hearts of scorers around the league. Nevertheless, there has to be a second option, because, for all of the exceptional things Williams does, his health will always be a looming question mark.
What that second plan could be is something that will certainly take time to figure out, but it should start with a resurgence in Boston’s rebounding by committee mantra, and by re-defining roles within the defensive structure, because if we’ve learned anything over the first four games, it’s that the defense is nowhere near the level we saw to end last season.