Brad Stevens has been making waves all summer, beginning with his onboarding of Kristaps Porzingis in an early splash. Sunday’s trade for Jrue Holiday, which sent out Robert Williams and Malcolm Brogdon, is the latest rocking of the boat – leaving a host of lineup questions in its wake.
The Celtics now have six starting-level players on their squad. Holiday, Porzingis, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown are pretty safe in their premier roles. The last spot in the five-man group will be filled by either Derrick White or Al Horford. Head coach Joe Mazzulla has yet to decide which will get the nod, according to CelticsBlog’s own Jack Simone.
“I haven’t really come across what the best way to go about that is yet, but I want to be as open-minded as I can knowing we have a lot of flexibility,” Mazzulla said.
Horford didn’t provide an answer either, saying at the press conference that it was “something that Joe will have to address.”
“We have such a special group here. We’re all ready to put in the work to get started,” the 37-year old continued.
Horford is the strongest candidate for the sixth-man role. The big man is entering his 17th season, and already sits out the second night of back-to-backs to preserve his body. Bringing him off of the bench would save him some minutes and make up for a lack of depth at the center position. Besides, Mazzulla named Derrick White as the starting point guard earlier in the offseason. Taking him out of the starting lineup entirely would be a massive change. And, referring to White and Holiday, the coach added that “the addition of one player shouldn’t take away from another player. That can’t happen.”
Reading between the lines, it seems like White is the expected starter.
That said, Horford has come off the bench just 10 times in the regular season, and never for the Celtics. When he played for Philadelphia, Brett Brown sat him in favor of Alec Burks. Horford is not one to make a stink to the media, but he did not seem to embrace the role.
Horford’s starting position was a question mark when he returned to Boston in 2021. When asked about it then, he said he wanted to play “when it matters most.”
“I do like to start. That’s just the reality,” Horford said before the 2021 season.
Beyond the starting five, the Celtics lost some meaningful depth this offseason. Turning Williams, Brogdon, Marcus Smart, and Grant Williams into Porzingis and Holiday has decreased the number of players on the roster worthy of heavy minutes, even if the top-6 players could be, as a group, historically great.
The Celtics brought in wings Oshae Brissett, Lamar Stevens, and Svi Mykhailiuk in free agency, with forward Jordan Walsh coming via the second round of the draft, to add to the returning Payton Pritchard, Sam Hauser, and Luke Kornet. All of these players have had varying levels of success in different roles, so it remains to be seen who will get the first chances at contributing.
Mazzulla clued us into who he has his eyes on going into the season at Media Day, showing his excitement for Boston’s “second unit and third unit, like Payton and Sam and Brissett and Luke and Jordan Walsh.”
“Last year our second and third unit won us games, and they have to be able to bring that mindset and intensity and that level of basketball,” he said.
It’s no surprise that Pritchard and Hauser are at the top of Mazzulla’s list right now. Both were helpful playoff rotation pieces last season.
As for Pritchard, Mazzulla said he’s “excited for him.”
“I think this opportunity is going to be big for him. We’re going to be relying on his mentality, his mindset… that toughness,” he said. “He’s a dog.”
Walsh, Boston’s 6’6” rookie out of Arkansas, is also on Mazzulla’s mind when he thinks about the bench. Mazzulla spoke very highly of the energetic wing, saying he’s “excited about getting him into an organization where there’s direction, there’s an identity.”
“There’s no rush here … you are not being judged on how you handle preseason game #3 or how you handle the minutes you get,” Mazzulla said of Walsh. “You’re getting judged by how you approach every single day, how you can get better, and can you get better at certain things. Can you fill a role?”
Brissett was another offseason acquisition Mazzulla mentioned on Monday. The 24-year-old power forward saw his minutes cut for the last two seasons in Indiana, which meant statistical drop-offs in almost every category, but it seems Mazzulla will look to him to be an important bench contributor.
Lastly, Mazzulla mentioned Kornet. It seemed Boston might turn away from Kornet after acquiring Porzingis, as a roster with three talented centers who play significant minutes tends to obscure those lower on the depth chart. But with Robert Williams out the door, Kornet could be an important depth piece. If Boston wants to play more double-big lineups, he is essential.
“I’m just ready and trying to put myself in the best position for us,” Kornet said of a potentially expanded role. “I’m just ready to be the most available and the most prepared I can be for the roles that come.”
In other exciting news for Boston fans, Kornet suggested he might do the “Carlton” dance as an in-game celebration.
“I can probably throw it out in a game, but … I think I would immediately get taken out by the other team,” he quipped.