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Green With Envy: where is the NBA’s best 5-man lineup?

Is it time for Joe Mazzulla to unleash last year’s starters in the new year?

2022 NBA Finals - Game Three Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

If you are an insatiable consumer of NBA podcasts and analysis, one of the through lines over the past calendar year has been the utter dominance of last year’s starting lineup for the Boston Celtics. It doesn’t matter which analyst you turn to - every one of them recognizes how otherworldly that lineup is and was. I’m talking about the vaunted starting fivesome of Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford, and Robert Williams.

According to, they played a total 443 minutes together last season and were a +218 on the year. The next most used lineup? Sub Grant Williams for Horford. That lineup was used for only 109 minutes of game action. Ime Udoka knew what worked and he stuck with it.

This season, things are different. With Joe Mazzulla at the helm, the focus (especially with Rob sidelined) has been on the offensive side of the ball. For all of its defensive prowess, when it was their turn to score the ball, that starting 5 could feel a tad clunky at times. And boy, was Celtics Nation excited about this offense to start the year. After last year’s NBA Finals where the Warriors exposed all of the Celtics’ offensive flaws, it looked like the team had made a deal with the devil to never experience such droughts again. Drive, kick, swing, swing, drive, kick, 3 ball, rinse, repeat. The team looked unstoppable, but the defense suffered.

Boston Celtics v Chicago Bulls Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

However, the team is trending in the right direction on the defensive end, up now to 7th overall in defensive rating and 3rd overall over the last 10 games, but it doesn’t feel the same. Why might that be? Maybe the answer lies in the infrequency of the NBA’s best 5-man unit.

Since Rob’s return, you would have expected to see a fair amount of Smart, Jaylen, Tatum, Al, and Rob, right? Well, it has only seen the court for eleven total minutes over four games (though Rob has played in seven in his return). The sample size is small, but it’s a net zero if you’re wondering.

Maybe this is as simple as the Celtics wanting to experiment with rotations and lineups with their shiny new toys. For instance, the most used Rob lineup features Malcolm Brogdon, Jaylen Brown, Sam Hauser, Grant Williams, and Rob (5 games, 17 minutes total, +1). The second: White, Brogdon, Tatum, Grant, Rob (3 games, 15 minutes, +5). I really like the promise of that lineup. The third: Brogdon, Tatum, Hauser, Grant, Rob (3 games, 14 minutes, -5).

Golden State Warriors Vs Boston Celtics At TD Garden Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

So, it seems Coach Joe likes the idea of Brogdon, Grant, and Rob on the court together, and might be trying to cover up for Hauser’s average defense with Rob on the back line. Not to mention the offensive upside of using Rob’s vertical spacing and gravity to work in symbiosis with 4 knock down shooters. All of this makes sense. The regular season is the time to experiment and see what works and Coach Joe is trying to find that balance between offense and defense.

So the question is: when do we see that 5-man unit on a more consistent basis? It doesn’t have to be the starting five, but if you want that lineup in the game night-to-night, it probably makes sense to start games that way to ensure it happens. That’s the easiest solution. But as CelticsBlog Keith Smith said last night in our Slack, “who starts games is the most overblown topic” in basketball discourse, but he too “wants to see more of that group.” Host Will Weir added, “I would like to see more of the starting 5 lineup from last year. Even if it’s not as the starters...this would have been a good game for it.”

As long as the Celtics defense keeps trending in the right direction, Mazzulla could continue to search for other combinations that work. It’s quite possible that Mazzulla hasn’t relied on that lineup because inevitably, he knows that he can. But this is definitely something to watch over the next few weeks.

Tune into the latest episode of Green With Envy for more conversation on Celtics/Nuggets, contenders and pretenders around the league, and our weekly vibe check!

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