The Boston Celtics had one of the best five-man lineups all year long, and that group of players was a massive part of why the team propelled itself to within two games of the franchise’s 18th championship.
Of course, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown will get the credit for being the best players in that lineup, but each player played an important role. It could be argued that Al Horford was the most important in that grouping. The defensive switch-everything scheme that Ime Udoka is now famous for as the Celtics decimated opponents for four months straight just doesn’t work without Al Horford.
A smaller player in that position doesn’t allow Robert Williams to play off of hefty, back-to-the-basket centers. And if Williams can’t do that, his ability to provide award-winning help defense is hampered. A clunkier, bigger player in Horford’s position doesn’t offer the defensive versatility. On the other end, a player without Horford’s range would absolutely kill Boston’s offensive spacing.
Yet here I am, like a madman, wondering what it would be like if Al Horford came off the bench next season. Here’s a reason why to do it – Al Horford is 36 years old and is heading into a year where he’ll likely avoid playing in one leg of back-to-backs. So much inconsistency in the lineup could affect the team, so maybe it would be less disruptive to just have him routinely come off the bench.
Additionally, Boston was never able to procure a reliable fourth center behind Horford, Williams and Grant Williams. Danilo Gallinari should, under no circumstances, be the guy guarding centers or playing center. So, from a depth perspective, you could have Horford effectively backing up Robert Williams at center.
That, to me, is the principal argument. The best reason to change what was the best defensive starting lineup in the league is for roster balance and Horford’s longevity. There was a time when Horford looked cooked in Philly. As we’ve seen in his stops in Oklahoma City and Boston last season, the extra rest was certainly beneficial as Horford went from early 2021 into playing late into June the following year.
With even less rest between last offseason and this, the Celtics should be finding any way possible to try to recapture the magic of older man Horford, and that includes load management as well as potential lineup shifts.
Now, who would replace Horford in the starting lineup? Three options come to mind – Grant Williams, Danilo Gallinari, or Malcolm Brogdon.
Grant Williams is the obvious choice. He conceptually fits as a player who can space the floor, switch onto wings effectively (and guards competently enough), and has the chemistry with this group. Williams starting would also balance the rotation better, with Gallinari cleanly subbing in for the rest of the minutes at the four while Horford would spell Robert Williams exclusively at the five.
Danilo Gallinari is who you go to if you’re looking for more offensive punch. I see him as the least likely candidate, but still one worth considering. Gallinari isn’t a strong defensive player, but one average defender won’t collapse the entire defensive scheme (see: almost the entirety of Brad Stevens’ coaching run). Gallinari spaces the floor almost as well as Williams while allowing for more creative offensive sets.
Finally, Malcolm Brogdon would force the Celtics to go small but probably has the highest upside out of all of these options. Brogdon is a borderline All-Star, and just by virtue of being the best player out of the three options, he’ll warrant a lot of consideration. Conceptually, he fits next to Marcus Smart and adds another degree of playmaking.
Yes, virtually everyone has said he’ll come off the bench behind Smart, but this isn’t about Smart. We’re talking about Horford. Tatum has proven to play effectively at the 4, so sliding him down to have two guards should work. This would arguably be putting our five best players on the floor to start each game, and that can’t be a bad thing necessarily.