The Boston Celtics are running it back to make another run at the Finals. The roster is pretty heavy on forwards, but you can never have too many.
The Boston Celtics will enter the 2018-19 season with an almost identical roster to the one that fell just short of an NBA finals appearance last May. Assuming good health, the Celtics will play out the season bearing the expectation of winning the Eastern Conference. The depth chart may look a little clogged, but here’s the good news: you can never have too many forwards in today’s NBA. All that matters are buckets and defense, and the Celtics have plenty of lineups that can provide both.
|Point guard||Shooting guard||Small forward||Power forward||Center|
|Kyrie Irving||Jaylen Brown||Jayson Tatum||Gordon Hayward||Al Horford|
|Marcus Smart||Terry Rozier||Gordon Hayward||Al Horford||Aron Baynes|
|Terry Rozier||Kyrie Irving||Marcus Morris||Jayson Tatum||Daniel Theis|
|Jabari Bird||Semi Ojeleye||Daniel Theis|
End of the bench: Jabari Bird, Robert Williams, Guerschon Yabusele, Brad Wanamaker
The idea of positionless basketball throws a wrench into the idea of having a depth chart organized by position. Players are often listed as the position they play on offense, but it’s arguably more important to construct lineups based on where they play on defense. In some rare cases, it’ll be pretty straightforward. Aron Baynes is a center who will cover centers. Everything else is pretty malleable. Kyrie Irving will play some offense off the ball, but is still going to be limited to covering other point guards. Most everyone else can’t be constrained to a chart.
If Jaylen Brown was drafted five years ago, he’d be a lock to play small forward. But it’s 2018, versatility trumps everything, and small forwards can play shooting guard now. And, as seen with where Hayward is listed, they can play power forward as well. Al Horford would be seen as a pure power forward in another era, but the rise of small-ball makes him a viable center in most matchups. Semi Ojeleye will play center in super-small lineups. Marcus Smart can guard any position. Defensive assignments are often dictated by size and height, but lateral quickness, athleticism, and acute awareness are just as important.
The Celtics made the most out of a bad situation last year by developing the rest of their young talent with Hayward sidelined for the season and Irving missing the end of the season. This allowed the most important development, in my opinion, on the front of defining roles for players in order to get the most out of them. Marcus Smart became an exceptional distributor, adding some much-needed offense to a skillset that’s anchored by defense. Smart is often referred to as “Boston’s Draymond Green, which is fair, but his development as more of a true point guard likens his role to that of Rajon Rondo’s, back when he was dishing to Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett. Smart might give you 15-20 points on a good day, but his improved passing makes him a perfect fit alongside an array of shooting threats.
Irving and Rozier offer a little flexibility in how they can be used by playing as primary ball handlers or off-the-ball shooters. Don’t let anyone tell you that Irving is too ball-dominant for any lineup. Brad Stevens’ offense provides more open shots than any player knows what to do with, and Irving will be more than happy to take some of the workload off and take a few three-pointers on the wings. Rozier, to a lesser extent, will do the same. The Celtics also like to run backdoor cuts for guards to get easy looks at the rim, like Jabari Bird does here:
A misconception about the NBA today is that it’s all about three-pointers and dunks. Per Synergy, the Warriors scored more points off cuts (1,466) than spot-up shots (1,361) last season. The Celtics have a lot of great offensive tools of their own, but were 16th in points per possession. They also scored far more on spot-up shooting (1,898 points) than any other type of offense (next highest was transition offense with 1,272 points). A truly great offense wouldn’t have this problem, so it’ll be interesting to see if the Celtics can collectively do more off the ball and not rely on bail-out shots at the end of the shot clock, even if they could consistently knock them down (0.867 PPP when shooting with four or less seconds left, third in the league).
Odds, Ends, Ojeleye
There is an important extinction I want to make here. There is a difference between playing limited minutes and playing garbage minutes. Semi Ojeleye might not play at all until the fourth quarter of some games, and he might only log six minutes, but those six minutes could have him playing center in a super mobile, super small line up to create matchup problems for the opposition. If his jump shot looks as clean in the regular season as it did in the summer league, he could steal minutes away from Marcus Morris (please don’t kill me, Mook). If not, he should remain in his current role of defensive secret weapon.
Aron Baynes played about 18 minutes per game on average. This frees up time for Daniel Theis, and possibly some wiggle room for Robert Williams to see the floor. I can’t predict Williams’ minutes having never seen him play an NBA game, but I think his first preseason minutes will answer the all-important question – can he play defense? If yes: minutes! If no: no minutes. Pretty simple.
Jabari Bird is pretty good – It’s unfortunate that he gets the short end of the stick because I truly believe he is NBA ready. I shouldn’t get carried away over some throwaway games to end last season, but I think he’s got the complete package. Explosive, smart, precise, and under the mentorship of Kyrie Irving. For every bit Bird improves, I suspect Rozier will as well, so there’s just no way I see Bird ascending the depth chart this season. If the Celtics find that a big payday for Rozier doesn’t fit into their future (he won’t take priority over Brown, Tatum, Irving), then Bird will be ready to go.