Everyone loves starters. Starting is sexy. Players love to start. Fans love to debate who will and who should. The NBA makes a huge deal out of All-Star starters with an extensive voting process that involves fans, players, and media. Teams are even mandated to announce their starters publicly 30 minutes before tip-off (hat tip to Vegas).
Despite all the publicity and discourse that centers around starting, there is an open secret known to anyone with a modicum of basketball IQ: when it comes to impacting winning, starting lineups don’t hold a candle to closing lineups. Imagine if coaches had to announce their closing lineups 30 minutes before tip-off. They would stage a full-fledged mutiny.
It is true that there is often a good deal of overlap between most teams’ starting and closing lineups. After all, it makes sense to have your best players on the floor as much as possible. However, starting and closing lineups don’t always align. Those decisions about who to have on the floor in crunch time are some of the most impactful choices that coaches make. If you want to know who a coach truly trusts, just look at who is on the floor (and who isn’t) down the stretch.
The 2022-23 Boston Celtics strike me as one of the most fascinating contending rosters in a long time when it comes to deciding which five players should close games. Their top-8 players can all make the case that they should be on the floor in the highest-leverage situations when games are decided.
How should Coach Mazzulla deploy his wealth of options? Should he have a consistent closing group regardless of matchup? Or should he be constantly mixing and matching based on opposing teams’ strengths and weaknesses, how individual players are performing on that given night, or offensive and defensive strengths of his players?
Before we dive in on the candidates, here is a quick glance at some big picture statistics for offensive context.
TS% and USG %Data
|Player||TS%||USG%||COMBINED TS% + USG%|
|Player||TS%||USG%||COMBINED TS% + USG%|
Obviously, these two statistics are a small snapshot of a larger picture, but true shooting percentage is a fair approximation of how efficiently players score, and usage percentage gives a sense of how involved each player is in shot creation (for themselves and others). Out of the Ssix core role players around the Jays, Rob, Horford, and Grant are all extremely efficient scorers on low usage. Brogdon is an efficient scorer on higher usage, and White, and especially Smart, are less efficient on middle of the road usage. This data vibes with the eye test when one watches the Celtics.
The Total Locks: Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown
Coach Mazzulla has plenty to consider when it comes to his closing five, so let’s not overthink the obvious. Pending injury or fouling out, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown will always be on the floor at the end of games regardless of situation or matchup. Additionally, offense will likely run through their hands at an even higher usage rate than it does throughout the rest of the game. Therefore, the other three players chosen for the closing five need to complement Tatum and Brown, especially offensively.
The Lock(down) Defender: Marcus Smart
I would consider Smart to be a lock for the closing lineup although I am sure that will generate opposing viewpoints considering his polarizing relationship with Celtics fans. At the end of the day, I would have him out there as a closer, and I expect Coach Mazzulla to follow suit (as Coach Udoka and Coach Stevens have previously).
While Smart’s shooting inadequacies are well-documented, he is not a non-shooter and does not lack confidence, which means opposing defenses have to account for him on the perimeter. Additionally, he has the ability to handle the ball, facilitate, and be a threat to score in the paint or from the free throw line.
Defensively, of course, is where Smart truly shines. We all know the resume, but his defensive versatility and ability to guard any type of player or position is amplified in crunch time when opponents are usually hunting for the weakest defensive link to try and get switched onto their star scorer. Suffice it to say that no NBA team tries to get Smart switched onto their star for a key possession. If Smart were on the floor with Brogdon or White, opponents would target Brogdon or White. That key distinction is enough to push Smart into the lock category out of the available guards.
On the Outside Looking In: Grant Williams
Again, brutally tough decisions are still to come, so I will rule out Grant Williams as a viable option for the vast majority of closing situations. On the one hand, he is a strategic fit for a closing lineup because he is a switchable defender that can space the floor and hit 3’s around the Jays. However, when push comes to shove, the Celtics likely have better options to fill the same role. Horford, in particular, is a similarly sharp-shooting, low usage option who trumps Grant with better size, rim protection, ball-handling, and facilitation. Grant could certainly develop into a closer in years to come, but he is not quite there on this stacked roster.
Four Options for Two Spots: Al Horford, Rob Williams, Malcolm Brogdon, and Derrick White
Here is where it gets legitimately tricky. Let’s explore the options. I will move from what I view as least likely to close major playoff games to most likely to close.
Derrick White: White is an excellent defender (better than Brogdon on balance), but he doesn’t quite have the elite strength to switch onto any matchup like Smart. That is why bigger wings like Giannis, Jimmy Butler, Luka, etc. will often seek him out defensively. And, while White has better shooting percentages than Smart, he is more frequently left unguarded on the perimeter and has a penchant for passing up open looks at times.
Similarly to Grant, White is a viable closer in the NBA, but the Celtics might have slightly better guard options available. However, leaving White out of the closing lineup is far from a slam dunk decision. The lineup of Smart - White - Brown - Tatum - Horford has a net rating of +12.9 in a decent sample size of 277 minutes. Meanwhile, replacing White with Brogdon in the same lineup has a surprising net rating of -17.9 in a much smaller sample size of 66 minutes. Lineup data is often noisy, but it is worth monitoring if Brogdon can play effectively off the Jays with more opportunities.
Malcolm Brogdon: Brogdon is the best pure scorer and shooter out of the four options (and 3rd best scorer on the team). He is the most likely to create a bucket out of nothing, and he is also a dangerous catch and shoot option spacing the floor. Offensively, he would seem to be an ideal fit who can play off the Jays or take pressure off them and create if they see double teams. While he is certainly not a bad defender by any means and has good size at the guard spot, Brogdon is not quite as accomplished defensively as many of his teammates. He would likely be the defender opponents hunt to get switched onto their star.
Rob Williams: Rob is a non-shooter from the outside, but he brings a completely different dynamic from the others as a hyper-efficient (albeit low usage) interior finisher on lobs, drop down passes, and offensive rebounds. Rob is also a dynamic shot-blocker and rim-protector, but he struggles a bit to switch onto smaller, quicker guards in space. Basically, Rob has the most unique strengths of all of the options, but he presents some potential problem areas in the key categories of switchability and floor spacing.
Al Horford: Horford brings size, shooting, experience, and some ability to switch and guard on the perimeter (though his effectiveness in this area is one to track as he continues to age). If Horford loses a step guarding competitively on the perimeter, he will start to get mismatch-hunted with more frequency. His strengths are not as extreme as Rob’s, but he currently does not have many weaknesses for the opposition to target.
Ironically, we may have ended up where we started. Despite their wealth of options, it is quite possible that the Celtics preferred starting lineup of Smart-Brown-Tatum-Horford-Rob should also close. However, I would call it essentially a coin flip at the moment between Rob or Brogdon filling the final spot around the Smart - Brown - Tatum - Horford core 4. What’s more valuable in the final seconds? Rob’s rim protection, lob threat, and offensive rebounding? Or Brogdon’s ball handling, shooting, and general shot creation? Since it is so close, I would lean towards matching closing lineups to opposing personnel. Go with Rob against matchups that have serious interior threats like Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and Cleveland. Roll with Brogdon for smaller, more perimeter-oriented teams like Brooklyn and Miami. If Horford loses a step guarding the perimeter, then Brogdon and Rob as a pair could become the desired alternatives.
Keep the conversation going in the comments.
- What is your preferred closing 5 for the Celtics and why?
- Should the Celtics have a closing 5 that they go to essentially every game, or should they mix and match based on the opponent and flow of the game?