BRIGHTON, MA — Change was the theme of the summer for the Boston Celtics, who parted ways with four of their top-10 players in terms of total minutes from last season. Marcus Smart, Robert Williams, Malcolm Brogdon, and Grant Williams turned into Jrue Holiday and Kristaps Porzingis.
While Boston’s depth was sacrificed, the result is an elite top -6. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Al Horford, Derrick White, Holiday, and Porzingis were all regular starters last year, but that won’t be the case heading into this season.
“I can’t stress enough the idea of flexibility on our team,” head coach Joe Mazzulla said after Saturday’s practice. “We just have a lot of options, and we’re going to take advantage of those as much as we can. I think there’s a lot of freedom and a lot of opportunity when you have the flexibility that we do and credit to our guys. They have the open-mindedness to do whatever it takes to win.”
Prior to the addition of Holiday, White was slated to take over as the Celtics’ starting point guard, but now, Boston will have to decide whether to go big or small on a nightly basis, likely swapping between White and Horford in the starting five.
Horford has only come off the bench ten times in his 16-year career, and never with the Celtics. White, on the other hand, spent some time coming off the bench last season when Williams was healthy.
Either would thrive as a full-time starter, but both could find themselves in different roles based on matchups, timing, or schedule.
“Flexibility in the sense of decision-making, right? Like, there’s no wrong answer until it goes wrong,” Mazzulla said. “And so, that answer at the time is what we feel is going to be the right answer to win that game. And if we don’t win that game, that doesn’t mean that it was the wrong answer, even though you’re going to say it was the wrong answer.”
Boston’s first preseason game is Sunday against the Philadelphia 76ers, and all eyes are on Mazzulla as everyone waits to get a first glimpse at what the Celtics’ starting five will be.
The buzz surrounding the topic has gotten so loud that Mazzulla considered throwing a wrench into everyone’s plans.
“Absolutely nothing, please,” Mazzulla said when asked what people should take away from his starting five decision on Sunday. “I know you guys aren’t gonna listen to me, but whatever I do tomorrow – I almost thought about starting someone way off the bat just to throw you guys off, but I was talked out of it. But don’t read anything into it.”
Depth is the biggest concern in regard to Boston’s current lineup. Past the first six, guys like Sam Hauser, Payton Pritchard, and Luke Kornet will have to step up. Even players like Lamar Stevens and Wenyen Gabriel, both of whom are on Exhibit 9 deals, could end up playing significant roles.
But while some worry, Mazzulla is extremely confident in everyone on the roster.
“We have eight, nine starters,” said Mazzulla. “And one of the things I thought was a strength of our team last year was when guys were out. I remember the game at Toronto, we had like three or four guys out, and we won, and then at Milwaukee, we lost at the buzzer with four guys out.
“And so, the season just breeds challenges and opportunities, and we have a lot of, a lot of good players, and whether I start one one game or not one game, I think we just have to be ready for that and just know each decision makes the most sense for us to win.”
On any given night, Hauser or Pritchard could nail five threes, Kornet could get three blocks, Stevens could snag 10 rebounds, or Gabriel could lock up the opposing team’s best big for a three-minute stretch.
Add that to the overall talent of Boston’s core, most of whom could drop 30 on any given night, and the Celtics have a lot of different ways to throw opponents off.
“I think the one thing we learned is you can’t just have a fastball,” Mazzulla said. “And I think some of the lineups that we throw out there at certain times will give us curveballs that we need.”
Boston’s potential starter logjam could be seen as a dilemma, but Mazzulla is treating it as an edge up the Celtics have on the rest of the league.
“We have so much opportunity that we have to use that to our advantage,” said Mazzulla.