(Editor’s note: This was written before news of the Celtics signing Blake Griffin.)
The Boston Celtics may still be one of the 2023 NBA Finals favorites, but they’ve got some questions. There are the obvious ones surrounding bouncing back from Ime Udoka being suspended for the season. Right behind those are wondering how Joe Mazzulla will adapt to being a first time NBA head coach. But there are on-court questions too.
The Celtics will be without Danilo Gallinari for the season, barring some sort of unexpected Wolverine-like healing. Boston will also be without Robert Williams for the first two or three months of the season. The leaves Mazzulla having to adjust lineups on the fly, all as he learns how to run the team.
During the 2021-22 regular season, Boston’s most-used lineup was their regular starting group of Rob Williams, Al Horford, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart. That lineup played 443 minutes together over 34 games. That grouping was also pretty dominant, as they were a +218 in those minutes.
The next most-used lineup saw Grant Williams subbed in for Horford. That was regularly the combination used on nights when Horford sat. That group was also pretty good, as they were +68 in 109 minutes over 22 games.
Beyond those two groups, the lineup combinations are all over the place. The third-most used grouping featured Dennis Schroder, who is no longer with the Celtics. After that, no other five-man lineup logged as many as 100 regular season minutes. That speaks to just how many different lineups Boston had to use last year.
Flipping forward to this year, it seems like Mazzulla has a few options. Horford, Tatum, Brown and Smart are all back. That’s a great starting point. The obvious move would seem to be moving Grant Williams in for Robert Williams, while the latter recovers from knee surgery.
No so fast, my friend!
Boston seems to like Grant Williams in the third-big role off the bench. With Gallinari sidelined, Williams is also easily the most experienced big man of the Celtics reserve group.
Coaches are creatures of habit. They like to leave players in rotations roles that work. That’s probably the reason Luke Kornet was working with the starters when training camp opened. So, let’s start there.
The “New Regular” Lineup
This grouping leaves the most Celtics in their regular roles. The four starters do their thing and Grant comes off the bench as the third-big. The question: Is Luke Kornet capable of starting?
Kornet didn’t play enough for Boston last season to draw any sort of meaningful conclusions about his play. But during the 2020-21 season, Kornet logged 254 minutes for the Celtics. Still not a big sample size, but big enough that we can look at how he did.
One thing to look at is how Boston performed with Kornet on the court. In his minutes, opponents had an Effective FG% of just 50.3% and the Celtics logged a defensive rating of 105.5. Both of those were better than the team’s overall performance for that season.
As far as his overall fit as a starter goes, Kornet should be fine. He’s not going to be Timelord, but Kornet should hold up. He’s been a good shot-blocker (averages two blocks per 36 minutes for his career) and his rebounding and passing are also solid too.
On offense, Kornet can stretch the floor…in theory. While he’s never been a reluctant shooter from the outside, Kornet hasn’t connected on a consistent basis. Maybe with regular minutes, he finds a rhythm, but that’s in theory.
On the flip side, Kornet has been a solid finisher around the rim. This is especially true during his time in Boston. And he can pass and screen as well. Kornet won’t make the highlight plays of “How did he catch that?” that Rob Williams brings, but he’ll be efficiently solid.
Defensively, Boston loses some of that “switch everything” ability. Kornet simply doesn’t move his feet nearly as well as Williams does. But look for a wrinkle with the way the Celtics defend.
When the Celtics took off last year, Udoka started using Rob Williams as a “roamer”. He’d float around the baseline and function as a designated helper. This meant Al Horford guarded the more traditional big or center for the opponent.
Mazzulla could flip that. Let Kornet take on those bulkier options, while Horford plays the Williams “roamer” role. Horford is still quick and athletic enough, plus he’s got the smarts to get himself into solid help position.
If Kornet starts, Grant Williams retains his third-big role. He’d likely end up logging even more minutes than Kornet, because Williams will likely close each half. And that’s where Grant has excelled thus far in his career.
The “Small” Lineup
For his career, Tatum has logged about 37% of his minutes at the four. Brown is about equally split between the two and three. Playing up a position is a regular thing for both Boston stars.
This lineup would feature a ton of shooting and playmaking. All five guys can space the floor and do something with the ball in their hands. Defensively, this is a “switch everything” group.
Whether this lineup opens games or not, expect it to be featured heavily for Mazzulla. There’s a chance this could be the regular closing lineup for Boston.
The “Just Start Grant” Lineup
Prediction: If Rob Williams is out until the holidays or later, this will be Boston’s most-used lineup this season.
Oddly enough, this group logged just 61 minutes together last regular season over 15 games. And it wasn’t an effective group either, as the Celtics were -13 in those minutes.
In the playoffs, this was Boston’s most-used grouping. But like in the regular season, they struggled together. The Celtics were -28 in 161 minutes over 18 postseason games with this grouping.
Neither of those sample sizes are large enough to draw any definitive conclusions, but they do raise an eyebrow. This lineup seems to feature the defensive versatile you want, plus enough shooting and playmaking. Turnovers and fouling seem to be a challenge for this group. Both are elevated when compared to Boston’s other lineups. Maybe with more time together, those are things that can be ironed out.
The “Super Smallball” Lineup
This group won’t ever start a game, but it could close once and a while. This is probably the best combination of speed and shooting Boston can put on the floor, while staying competitive defensively. This could be something Mazzulla might turn to if he needs to speed up the game late in either half.
There are obviously a lot more lineup combinations we could look at. The roster is pretty versatile in that way. But, in the sake of brevity, we’re switching gears.
One of the Celtics goals this year has to be to get to the playoffs healthy and as rested as possible. That means bringing down the minutes-load some for guys like Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Al Horford and Marcus Smart. Boston will also want to manage minutes for Malcolm Brogdon as much as possible too.
While Rob Williams is out, a rough minutes’ distribution could look something like this:
Luke Kornet – 12
Al Horford – 28
Jayson Tatum – 33
Jaylen Brown – 33
Marcus Smart – 30
Malcolm Brogdon – 28
Grant Williams – 28
Derrick White – 28
Payton Pritchard – 10
Sam Hauser – 10
Essentially, this keeps all of the top-seven in the rotation between 28 and 33 minutes per game. On nights when someone sits, one of the current Two-Way or camp guys can slide in. Or the minutes for the others can be plussed up a bit.
Kornet would likely open each half and then would give way to Williams and smallball lineups. Brogdon becomes more of a wing (guarding up a spot or two regularly), than a primary on-ball option. Pritchard and Hauser see spot minutes in each half. And, as did Brad Stevens and Ime Udoka, Mazzulla can try to always have one of Tatum or Brown on the floor at all times.
When Robert Williams returns, Kornet eventually falls out of the rotation. And Williams’ minutes will eventually climb up to around 28. The extra time likely comes from trimming some of the top-seven, while also eventually eliminating Hauser or Pritchard from the rotation.
Ideally, by the time the playoffs roll around, the minutes might look something like:
Robert Williams – 30
Al Horford – 30
Jayson Tatum – 35
Jaylen Brown – 35
Marcus Smart – 32
Malcolm Brogdon – 26
Grant Williams – 26
Derrick White – 26
The rotation cuts down to eight and the starters all pick up a couple of extra minutes. Of course, Pritchard, Kornet and Hauser could still factor in, but for meaningful minutes, this is likely where we’ll be.
Boston lost a lot of lineup versatility with Robert Williams needing a second surgery and Danilo Gallinari tearing his ACL. They also lost a chance to really keep minutes down for their main players. Gallinari was likely to play 25 minutes a night and to help take a lot of the load off Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
But Joe Mazzulla still has enough to bring the regular season minutes down some, while putting competitive lineups on the floor. Look for more smallball. Look for things like Al Horford to function as the starting four and the backup five. Look for that wrinkle of having Luke Kornet handle the banging, while Horford floats around in the “roamer” role.
The main thing? The Celtics need to win at a consistent clip out of the gate. They can’t dig themselves into a standing hole in the season’s early months. That forced key players to play far too many minutes in the latter months of the regular season. And that contributed to a team that looked worn down by the NBA Finals.
This season, the goal is to play until the end of June with a roster that is healthy and as rested as possible. All the pieces are there for that to happen. It’s just about executing starting on October 18.
(Editor’s note: This was written before news of the Celtics signing Blake Griffin.)