The Celtics aren’t quite done filling out their roster. Brad Stevens told reporters Thursday in Las Vegas, he still wants to add wing or forward depth. Stevens likely has no more than veterans’ minimum contracts to offer free agents, but has a $6.3 million trade exception to seek additional help. He also has enough future outstanding capital to think about a bigger trade, but that could be a conversation for another day.
In all likelihood, the Celtics have completed their biggest roster change for the upcoming season. They made a major shakeup early, sending Marcus Smart to Memphis in a trade that netted KristapsPorziņģis. That move alone ensured that Boston’s rotation would look very different during the upcoming season. But how different will it be? That’s what I set out to discover when I mapped out my own version of the Celtics rotation. Obviously, any further changes would alter my calculation, but this seemed like a good time in the offseason to take stock of the current roster.
Before I reveal my projected rotation, know that this exercise is definitely one of the more difficult things I do each season. I hate myself every time I do it. As I try to come up with the perfect lineup combinations, I jot down notes, cross off a million ideas, and repeatedly ask myself why I’m such an idiot. Even after I come up with a somewhat acceptable rotation, I always have sharp questions for myself. This year they included, but were not limited to:
- Why is your pathetic behind refusing to play Payton Pritchard? Don’t you know he’s actually been pretty good when given the chance and there should be more room for him now after the Smart trade?
- Why didn’t you find more minutes for the 7-foot-3 Porziņģis to play at center, you irredeemable fool?
- Hey bozo, don’t you think Joe Mazzulla will close with Al Horford after doing it regularly last season?
Mazzulla could. But for this exercise I am responsible. And I’m not kidding when I say that devising a pretend rotation gives me far more respect for coaches around the world. I don’t have to live with the consequences of my lineup choices. I don’t have to wonder how the players I leave on the bench will react to my decisions. I don’t have to worry about the locker room impact on every move I make. And still I hate that I didn’t find enough time for a lot of different lineups, including the ones with Porziņģis in the center. I wanted to stay big because size could differentiate this Celtics team, but I could have gone too big. Did I get enough ball handling on the pitch? Did I prioritize toughness and fit enough?
I must have screwed up a lot of little things. I’m sure I got some of the big stuff wrong. At the very least, I now understand a very small percentage of the pain Mazzulla and other NBA coaches go through as they come up with a rotation each night. For anyone who is constantly ready to criticize coaches for not playing a certain lineup or playing enough, know that putting together the puzzle of an NBA rotation is a brutal task.
So why am I putting myself through such suffering? Because building my own rotation can help shed light on questions the team still needs to answer. Because it can help me see a potential vision for the Celtics. Because it helps me understand the scheme a little bit better, and I hope it does the same for the readers.
Anyway, here’s the rotation I came up with followed by five of the biggest takeaways from the exercise. Mazzulla could change the lineup from night to night depending on matchups and situations, but this is just one idea for a healthy Celtics rotation.
1. No Pritchard?
Brad Stevens has regularly included Pritchard on the list of players who should get a bigger opportunity with Smart gone. That suggests Pritchard is likely to play on a regular basis. At the very least, he should be next in line for minutes when one of the perimeter players ahead of him misses time. The Celtics don’t have a lot of backup wings right now. They don’t have an abundance of ball handlers. Pritchard seems like a real part of Boston’s plans.
So why didn’t I give him any time here? I just prioritized more size and athleticism. The Celtics should give Derrick White more minutes now that Smart is gone. They can get away with a guard rotation of just White and Malcolm Brogdon if they give the rest of the perimeter bench minutes to Sam Hauser and Oshae Brissett. I’m not entirely sure the Celtics would have enough ball handling that I was betting everything on, but Pritchard doesn’t actually run the offense very often anyway. In my brain, which admittedly doesn’t work at least 60 percent of the time, I decided that the defensive benefits of added length would outweigh the positives of Pritchard’s accurate shooting and constant movement.
Was I right? Maybe not. The Celtics may decide they need another guard on the court. Pritchard’s lack of size probably doesn’t matter so much when Porziņģis and Robert Williams are behind him. Pritchard could knock out Hauser and/or Brissett for minutes. Mazzulla could go several different ways with his bench. But maybe it’s instructive that I went into this practice thinking Pritchard was likely to be part of the everyday rotation and walked away from it thinking, “Oh, I don’t know, maybe not.”
(Of course, the Celtics will need Pritchard if Brogdon isn’t right physically. But Stevens said on draft night that he’s “very confident” Brogdon will be fine).
2. Celtics size could kill
A major factor in my call to keep Pritchard out of the rotation: The acquisition of Porziņģis gives the Celtics a chance to be huge all over the court. I leaned into that identity.
Stevens has regularly said he believes Porziņģis will be a good fit next to either Horford or Williams. During a recent interview with Celtics.com, Stevens even floated the wild idea of Porziņģis playing small forward alongside the other two big men. Do I think the Celtics are likely to use that crazy lineup much, if at all? No. But I think it’s probably wise to listen to the boss man when he said the Celtics wanted to trade one of their guards for a big man because they wanted to rebalance the guard. That tells me the idea is to put more size on the pitch – a lot of size.
I ran with that idea. If the Celtics start the group, as I think they will, their first unit average height will be 6’8.5”. I could have emphasized a bit more size with bench lineups, but would limit minutes for Horford (who is 37) and Williams (who has a long injury history). Porziņģis also has health issues in his past, but played around 32 minutes per game last season. Boston should ask him to do the same. I probably didn’t play him enough at center in this practice (only a few minutes per half), but that’s only because it was hard to do so while finding enough minutes for both Horford and Williams. Mazzulla, Celtic’s actual coach, might want to correct my mistake there. The Porziņģis-at-center lineups should have a whole lot of offensive juice.
The other lineups could be dominant defensively. Even though the Celtics lost Smart, the 2022 Defensive Player of the Year, they should have far more rim protection than they did a season ago and plus-size at every position. Boston gave up considerable defensive versatility, but did so in order to build one of the greatest, blocking frontcourts in basketball. While the losses of Smart and Grant Williams could limit Mazzulla’s strategies come the playoffs, the guess here is that Boston’s defensive numbers won’t suffer much, if at all, at least during the regular season. Porziņģis ranked as one of the league’s best rim protectors last season and now has much more defensive talent around him.
The Celtics won’t always be at their most enormous. While I included all three big men in this rotation, I’m sure the team will do some load management during the season. With regulars sitting, I expect the Celtics to play smaller lineups more often, with Pritchard, Hauser and Brissett landing more opportunities. But when all are available, I expect Mazzulla to turn to some giant lineups. The Celtics will be huge with plenty of shooting. It should be a good combination if they don’t miss the passing and toughness they lost too much, but they could certainly miss it. Their style will change without Smart.
3. White is a point guard now – and a closer
White played just 21 percent of his minutes at point guard last season, according to Cleaning the Glass. That is his primary position now.
Of course, Tatum and Brown will handle the ball a lot. The Celtics will run some offense through Porzingis. They won’t just ask White to run constant pick and rolls, but he should be responsible for the offense more often. It typically worked well last season; The Celtics crushed opponents by 15.7 points per game. 100 possessions with White at point guard, according to Cleaning the Glass’ positional estimates. It’s been a deadly look for the team since he arrived in Boston, but there’s less margin for error now with Smart in Memphis. The Celtics bet White will be ready for the new responsibility. He didn’t always close out games last season, but I’d be shocked if he’s not a regular in that role now. In my rotation, he would play four more minutes per game. game than he did last season.
4. Who else will start? And close?
In my mind, the Celtics have at least four spots in their starting lineup, and the final lineup is already decided. White, Tatum, Brown and Porziņģis should all be part of both groups. Fifth place will probably be up for grabs – and Mazzulla will have options.
In all likelihood, he will mix and match the fifth part of the final lineup depending on the circumstances. If the Celtics want to go small, they can throw Brogdon next to White and use Porziņģis at center. If they want to go big, they can throw in either Horford or Williams at the end slot and push Porziņģis over to power forward. I put Williams into the final lineup because after a healthy offseason, I think he’ll be ready to take on that role. When I decided on that spot, I considered all the success Porziņģis had next to Daniel Gafford, another athletic center, last season. The Porziņģis-Williams duo could end up thriving on both ends of the court.
I still started Horford, whose presence will give the Celtics first unit shooting across the court. But Mazzulla could potentially go with Williams in the starting lineup instead. Either way, Mazulla should have fun experimenting with his revamped frontcourt.
5. How much will Grant Williams be missed?
The decision to move on from Williams helped Boston avoid some of the harsh limitations of the deal’s other frontcourt, but it also left a lack of forward depth behind Tatum and Brown. That probably shouldn’t be too much of an issue in the regular season when the Celtics are healthy. Hauser has proven he can handle consistent minutes, and Brissett should replace some of the defensive versatility Williams brought to Dallas. Hauser and Brissett should be fine in the regular season.
Will they cut it during the playoffs? That has to be decided. Brissett, who shot 31 percent from the 3-point arc last season, could be an offensive problem. Hauser could be a problem on the other end of the court. Jordan Walsh, Boston’s second-round pick, is likely a longshot to earn any kind of consistent minutes, never mind a playoff role. The Celtics may ultimately regret losing Williams mostly for financial relief and improved roster flexibility.
That’s a concern for another time. On paper, in mid-July, the Celtics rotation looks pretty good.
(Photo: Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)