With the news that newcomer Malcolm Brogdon will come off the bench this season (along with the possibility of a slightly more high-profile newcomer now officially off the table), it’s already fairly easy to divine what the Boston Celtics’ starting lineup will look like this season. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Al Horford and Robert Williams III are all but certain to be taking the court for opening tip for the 2022-23 Boston Celtics.
And why not? Last year’s starting five was one of the very best lineups in basketball last season, and it’s the group that played the lion’s share of minutes in leading the Celtics to the NBA Finals. It clearly ain’t broke, so for now, there’s no real need to fix it.
What’s more interesting, however, is how Udoka intends to finish games, which is always a much more complicated calculus. Having added Brogdon without sacrificing any of their eight-man playoff rotation from last season, the Celtics have a veritable embarrassment of riches in their active rotation. With depth, however, will come some difficult decisions; the Celtics can’t play all of these guys at once.
So, what names will Udoka call with the game on the line? I’ve grouped players on this roster into loose categories based on how likely they might be to finish out games. Let’s get into it.
Carve it in stone
Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart
The first two are, of course, beyond obvious. When healthy, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown will be on the court for every important moment the Celtics face this season. The only way that ever could have been false would have been if Brown was a Brooklyn Net right now, and as we now know, that won’t be happening. The Jays play, so that’s two spots of our closing lineup right there.
Smart might be a bit less of a lock in the eyes of those with concerns about his offensive performances, but when healthy, he’s a certainty to see the court in the team’s most important minutes. The reigning Defensive Player of the Year has been making winning defensive plays down the stretch of games for years, and he also remains — even at this very moment — the team’s best playmaker at the guard position. He’s simply too important to be riding the pine in these situations.
Right away, three slots down. Now this is where things get more interesting.
One or both?
Al Horford, Robert Williams
The intrigue begins with the centers. Given that the team’s third-best actual center is, at this moment, probably Luke Kornet, it’s fair to assume at least one of these two will be on the court. That’s our fourth slot, right there. But which one? And what about both?
In a vacuum, Horford would fall in the preceding group and be a fixture in Udoka’s closing lineups. His skillset is one-of-one; nobody else in this frontcourt rotation has the ability to elevate a lineup the way he can on both ends of the floor. When push comes to shove, he’s still the best big on this roster, and should see the court in crunch time, especially in the postseason.
But we’re not just considering pure ability in this discussion. There are complicating factors that could affect the Celtics’ ability to deploy him as judiciously as they might like. Horford turned 36 years old during Boston’s lengthy playoff run, and maintaining his health will be one of the most crucial elements of a successful season. We already know he won’t typically be playing back-to-backs, so there are certainly going to be occasions this year where he simply won’t be available.
In comes Williams. His 2021-22 season was a remarkable breakthrough, following through on his potential as one of the most tantalizing young bigs in the NBA. We already know he can thrive alongside Horford, flying around the Celtics’ defense as a de facto free safety. Now, he’ll be seeing even more reps without the vet covering his back. It’s an interesting test for the young big, as only one lineup with Williams on and Horford off saw substantial time in the regular season last year (Tatum, Brown, Smart, Williams and Grant Williams — a very encouraging +31 net rating in 109 minutes).
All of that said, we’ve created some branching timelines here. If the Celtics simply decide to close with the starters, all five of our slots are filled and this article wasn’t actually as interesting as I led you to believe. If they sit one, then we have another spot to fill, and that leads to several further decisions.
Time to downsize
Malcolm Brogdon, Grant Williams
In the event that Udoka does opt to keep one of his two core bigs on the bench, we have a comparatively downsized lineup on our hands. They will almost invariably be riding the pine in favor of a much smaller player as part of a more traditional NBA lineup. There are different levels of “small” though, and these two players offer different brands of versatility.
On one hand, we have Brogdon. The crown jewel of the Celtics’ offseason is a tantalizingly versatile combo guard with scoring chops and playoff experience. Though his numbers in Indiana underwhelmed, he was overtasked as one of the top two scoring options on the roster. He’s historically a very efficient scorer (he recorded a 50-40-90 season in 2018), and he’s a very safe bet to rebound to his Milwaukee form as part of a much more talented Boston team. The moment he checks into the game, he’ll be the most prolific rim-attacker on the court for the Celtics.
But let us not forget about the other Williams on the roster. For a team with no shortage of heroes last season, Grant Williams stood at as one of the most poignant improvements. He shrugged off his sophomore slump of the season prior to become one of the most reliable 3-and-D role players in the NBA, shooting 41% from behind the arc while adding a physical edge to the team’s defensive scheme. His feisty defense against Kevin Durant played a sizeable role in the Celtics’ first-round sweep of the Brooklyn Nets.
In this scenario, which one joins the other four on a given night will depend on what kind of “small” Udoka wants to go. Would you rather have an extra guard on the court, adding playmaking and driving ability while relying on only Horford or Williams III as the only true big on the court? Or do you want to run another forward, adding physicality, defensive stoutness and a catch-and-shoot release valve, while sacrificing the offensive juice Brogdon would bring?
When need arises
Derrick White, Sam Hauser
On an average team, a player like Derrick White would both be in the starting lineup conversation. On the Celtics’ bench, he’s unlikely to see the court in crunch time when the team is fully healthy. It’s what we call a “good problem.”
“Not many” doesn’t equal “zero,” however. There are always occasions where a specialized skillset can help swing a game in the clutch. White, for his part, is a defensive menace. His versatility as a guard defender and his ability to slither through screens was a significant weapon throughout the postseason, especially against the Miami Heat and all their movement shooters. The shooting might be poor, but he remains a net positive offensively with his driving and playmaking effectiveness.
The other discussion here would have been Danilo Gallinari and his prolific three-point shooting, but a torn ACL suffered in international play will all but certainly end his season. That brings us to Hauser, a similarly tall, high-volume deep threat, though one far less proven than his Italian counterpart.
The Celtics are bullish on Hauser, having signed him to a three-year NBA deal prior to the season, and now he’ll take on the responsibility of filling Gallinari’s shoes. He certainly can shoot, and if he leverage that ability into real NBA impact, it’s not impossible for him to find his way onto the floor in important situations.
With the full roster active, the Celtics will be very unlikely to dig this deep into their bench in a close game situation. But a full roster is never a guarantee, and both players have skillsets that can help win tight games. They will get their chances, occasionally.
Break glass in case of emergency
Let’s start by saying: this is no disparagement of Pritchard. The soon-to-be-third-year guard has acquitted himself admirably, evolving into a 40%+ shooter from behind the three-point arc and a spark plug option on the back end of the bench. He played very admirably in the postseason, and had himself a few heroic moments in the process. That said, minutes will remain sparse for the young flamethrower. There just isn’t much room for him in a healthy rotation.
So there we have it: the top ten players on the roster, and where they sit in the team’s pecking order at the moment. Personally, I’m most interested to see what Brogdon looks like alongside the starters, in place of one of the bigs. In the postseason, equivalent looks with White really sang at times, and Brogdon is in a vastly different tier as a shooter that could unlock even more. A lineup of Tatum, Brown, Smart, Brogdon and Horford would be profoundly difficult to crack on either end of the court.
Now, it’s your turn. What’s the potential closing lineup on this roster that compels you the most? Sound off in the comments below to let us know.