The Celtics underwent a pretty significant roster overhaul during the offseason, particularly for a team that won 53 regular season games in 2016-17. With nine new players in the fold, Brad Stevens will have to experiment with a variety of new faces in the rotation once training camp kicks off next month. One of the first riddles the coach will have to solve: What starting lineup should he go with?
There are a lot of possibilities to consider, and over the next few weeks of the offseason, I will be periodically breaking down a few of the more intriguing starting lineup units that Stevens may consider. I’ll analyze some of the potential pros and cons of each grouping and take a stab at just how likely we are to see each on opening night in October. With that in mind, let’s take a look at option two, after we examined a "going big" lineup on Tuesday.
The "Jaylen" lineup
PG: Isaiah Thomas
SG: Jaylen Brown
SF: Gordon Hayward
PF: Al Horford
C: Aron Baynes
Brown has the athleticism to defend smaller guards: If there was one major takeaway from Brown’s play in summer league last month, it was his defensive assignments in those contests. The 6-foot-7 wing spent nearly every game guarding opposing point guards and shooting guards, likely in preparation for a steady diet of those matchups upon the arrival of the regular season. Brown was a mixed bag defensively last year, but he has the tools from an athleticism standpoint to hold his own against a number of top backcourts around the league. With Brown now having a year of experience under his belt, Stevens could turn to him some nights to take some pressure off Isaiah Thomas by defending opposing point guards. That’s something he wouldn’t necessarily be able to do with Hayward at the 2.
Brown has succeeded with starters before: Avery Bradley was sidelined for a sizable chunk of the season last year, and the Celtics faired quite well with Brown filling in for him as part of the starting five. Boston went 13-7 in 20 starts from the rookie, but the results were even better when Brown was surrounded by the usual starting five (Horford, Thomas, Crowder, Jerebko/Johnson). The Celtics went 11-2 with those lineups, including seven straight wins in February after Stevens replaced Marcus Smart with Brown at the 2.
Brown’s individual numbers also benefited by playing alongside better players, particularly his outside shooting.
As a starter: 24.7 mpg, 45.9% FG, 40.4% 3-pt, 10.4 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 1.4 apg, 1.2 TO/G (20 games)
As a reserve: 14.7 mpg, 45.1% FG, 30.1% 3-pt, 5.4 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 0.6 apg, 0.8 TO/G (58 games)
The sample size for the starting minutes was limited, but you have to imagine Brown would get plenty of open looks from downtown playing alongside the likes of Thomas and Hayward. He clearly benefited from playing with superior offensive players like Thomas and Horford last year.
The bench unit would be loaded: Slotting in Brown with this group would push three 30-plus-minute players from last season (Smart, Crowder, Marcus Morris) to the second unit. That development would likely allow Stevens to breathe a huge sigh of a relief since those are three rotation players you can count on most nights, something Stevens hasn’t had off his bench since he’s been in Boston. Throw Terry Rozier into that mix, along with whatever young big emerges to win some minutes, and you have a tough second unit that could keep the onus off the starters for big minutes.
Will Brown show enough defensive consistency to handle starting guards? While the 20-year-old wing has the tools to guard smaller, faster players than most members of the Celtics roster, it’s not clear yet whether he can do it consistently. Brown’s minutes were up-and-down for large sections of his rookie season, and that was largely because he made plenty of mental mistakes on defense. Whether it was losing his man on a switch or failing to rotate, Brown did not always earn Stevens’ trust, and that was fully evident in the first round of the playoffs when he was benched against the Bulls for most of the series following Game 2. Mistakes are common for rookies in the NBA though, and Brown’s were just under the microscope more because of the team he played on. If he can figure things out in year two, this won’t be an issue, but the challenge will be much greater if he’s going to be asked to cover elite guards for 20+ minutes every night.
Will there be enough floor spacing? If the Celtics go with two traditional bigs in their starting lineup, Baynes is going to hurt the C’s spacing already with his lack of 3-point shooting. Throwing Brown into the mix with Baynes will give opposing teams two potential players to sag off of on the perimeter. The jump shot was better than expected from the Cal product (34 percent) in his rookie season, but it was very streaky at times (although it was superb during his starting minutes). The larger sample size has to be trusted more though, so if Brown can’t hit his open looks consistently, Boston’s offense with this unit could be worse than expected.
Will the veterans be miffed? I don’t expect this to be an issue, but it’s worth talking about here. Crowder and Morris have been full-time NBA starters for a couple years now, and it’s safe to guess they won’t be thrilled taking a seat while a 20-year-old gets his chance. Both would still be expected to play big minutes and probably plenty of crunch-time minutes too, but I’d be curious to see how both guys reacted to the demotion. If the Celtics win right away, I wouldn’t expect it to be an issue, but if Brown struggles out of the gate, Stevens might have to do some damage control.
Verdict: Will we see it opening night?
It all depends on Brown. I would bet this is the lineup that Stevens wants to go strictly from a matchup standpoint, since Brown is the best two-way option (better floor spacer than Smart) he has who can also handle defending athletic smaller guards at the 1 and 2. However, in training camp the 2016 No. 3 overall pick is going to have to prove he can handle the enhanced responsibilities that come with starting to convince Stevens to leave Crowder, Morris and Smart on the bench. Will his outside shot be falling? Will his defensive lapses be a thing of the past? If he can show some sustained consistency in both of those departments, this could very well be the lineup we see on opening night.
You can check out Part 1 of the lineup series by clicking here.