Last season, the lineup of Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford, and Robert Williams dominated the NBA. Among all lineups with at least 200 minutes played together, they had the best net rating (24.6) and best plus/minus (+218). When healthy, they were far and away the best starting five in the league.
But that was last year.
This season, it’s been Derrick White who has been a starting lineup mainstay for the Boston Celtics. The group of Smart, White, Brown, Tatum, and Horford has played nearly as many minutes as last year’s starting five, and the stats are still elite. They have the fourth-best net rating (13.8) among fivesomes with at least 200 minutes played, as well as the third-best plus/minus (+110).
Neither number is quite as good as last season’s group, but they both lead this year’s Celtics and that’s what matters. This year, the starting five with Williams instead of White has only logged 81 minutes together, and in that time, they have a net rating of -12.4 and a plus/minus of -27.
The harsh reality is the group that was so dominant last year simply hasn’t had the time to gel again this season. It was evident when they shared the court together during Williams’ first return from injury, and since his most recent resurgence, he’s been coming off the bench.
Boston finally has their full roster available to them. With the playoffs just a few short weeks away, one of the most valuable things this team needs is consistency. Building team chemistry and establishing a constant rhythm has been impossible all year because they’ve never known who’s in the lineup. Now, that has a chance to change.
However, flip-flopping between White and Williams could shake that. Rather than reverting back to what worked last season, focusing on what has been successful this year while simultaneously creating a steady gameplan could prove crucial come playoff time.
In addition to the simple yet important theme of consistency, a starting lineup that features White instead of Williams also helps the Celtics stay relevant with the league’s current playstyle.
Offense around the NBA is up substantially this year. All of the top-10 offenses in this year’s NBA would rank in the top-2 of last season’s. Meanwhile, this season’s top defense would rank ninth last year.
The Celtics were able to roll through the league last season due to their soul-crushing defense. And while they are still a top-five defense this year, the simple fact that offenses are so potent makes their defensive-minded lineup much harder to execute on a consistent basis.
Having White in the starting lineup not only adds more spacing to the mix to improve their offense, but it also doesn’t take much away from their defense. Instead of Williams’ rim presence, they add White’s perimeter prowess and top-notch shot-blocking at the guard position. It’s the perfect way to maximize the talent on Boston’s roster.
Defense wins championships, but when the Celtics were at their best this season, they were pummeling teams on the offensive end. Getting off to a hot start on offense and establishing a rhythm with White in the game could prove to be more valuable, especially since it would also give Williams a chance to come in and make an immediate impact off the pine. The starting lineup with White has the fifth-best offensive rating in the league at 124.0 (min. 200 minutes played).
Lastly, and most importantly, this is an easy way to get the most out of White. Williams has been solid when he’s been on the court, but it’s clear that he’s not the same player in the second half of the regular season last year. Two knee surgeries will do that, and he still has plenty of time to get back to that point.
But this season, White has been dominant. He’s played in every single game and ranks fourth in the entire league in plus/minus (+457). Simply put, when White is on the floor, the Celtics are the better team. The only players in the NBA with a better plus/minus are three Denver Nuggets - Nikola Jokic (+655), Aaron Gordon (+536), and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (+534).
Williams can finish games. He can provide a massive spark off the bench and be Boston’s X-factor. But for the sake of offensive prowess and overall lineup consistency, White should be the starter for the remainder of the regular season and playoffs.