Brad Stevens is well aware of the impossible chore in front of him: Find enough minutes to keep all of his players happy. Heck, just getting some guys on the court will be a challenge. So who exactly emerges with rotation roles when the regular season tips next week?
The Celtics coach believes players can force that issue by showing they can consistently impacting winning.
“Whoever adds value to winning at the highest level,” Stevens said when asked about how his early season rotation might look. “And there’s inevitably a cutoff where some guys that, if you have a really good team and they’re playing really well, then there’s usually guys that could add value to winning that don’t get the same cracks as others. That’s just part of it. It’s an unfortunate part of it.
“We’re not going to base [roles] on what’s been done, we have to base it on what’s going on and what’s happening, right? So whoever is adding value to winning will play and hopefully we find the right groups.”
On the heels of an underwhelming preseason, Stevens essentially suggested that the Celtics will not go into the season with any preconceived notions about who should play based on past performances. If a player can show he deserves to be on the court right now, then Stevens is going to find minutes.
Alas, there’s only 240 of them to go around each game night. So who gets them?
ROTATION READY: Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Al Horford, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart, Marcus Morris, Aron Baynes
Stevens has never been one to overload his starters with minutes and, with the expectations for a long season and with key contributors working their way back from injuries, we should see minutes throttled even lower this season. It’s telling that Irving played a team-high 32.2 minutes per game last season, and even that was near the lowest of his career. It seems fair to assume that Brown and Tatum could creep towards the mid-30s most nights but Irving and Hayward will be managed, especially out of the gates.
Stevens needs to make sure his “Bench With Attitude” is actually the “Bench Without Attitude” and keeping starter minutes low should allow the sixth-year coach to find more court time for his core reserves in Smart, Rozier, and Morris.
Baynes is a fascinating situation. Even in starting 67 games last year, the bruising big man was ninth on the team in minutes per game (behind Greg Monroe, in a small sample) and rarely played much beyond an eight-minute stint at the start of each half. If Celtics lean on smaller lineups this season, it might further trim Baynes’ floor time. And yet Baynes was so good defensively that Stevens admits he simply has to find minutes if Baynes can set the defensive tone the coach so desperately desires. Remember that no individual player in the NBA had a better on-court defensive rating than Baynes last year.
FIGHTING FOR MINUTES: Daniel Theis, Guerschon Yabusele, Semi Ojeleye
Theis is hindered maybe only by the fact that he’s working his way back from knee surgery. Stevens was effusive in his praise of Theis this week, noting, “We need him if we’re going to be at our very best. We need him available and to be able to anchor our defense, roll to the rim, do a lot of the things that he brought to us last year.” Maybe most telling, was that Stevens added, “I thought he would have played a bigger role in the playoffs, considering our lack of depth at the end of the season.” As Theis shakes the rust from meniscus surgery, his minutes could elevate.
In the media’s small glimpses of scrimmage work, we’ve seen Yabusele make eyebrow raising plays and Horford revealed this week how Yabusele hit a game-winner for the bench mob during a recent scrimmage against the first-teamers. It makes you wonder if Yabusele is knocking on the rotation door and yet it simply feels like it’s going to be hard for him to dance his way into consistent minutes. Yabusele’s personalty — with his arrow-firing-and-dabbing celebrations — leave fans wanting more but it might take injuries to open the door to minutes.
It’s wild that the Celtics could thrust Semi Ojeleye into Game 7 of a playoff series and ask the then-rookie to defend one of the league’s most unique offensive threats in Giannis Antetokounmpo. And, yet, as he braces for his sophomore season, Ojeleye is still going to have to fight for playing time. Ojeleye didn’t help his cause with a poor offensive showing in the preseason, shooting a cringeworthy 19 percent overall and making just 3 of 17 3-pointers (17.6 percent). In fairness to Ojeleye, no one on the Celtics roster knocked down 3-pointers consistently in the preseason but, despite his obvious defensive talents, he has to be a threat offensively in order to get consistent time.
DEEP DEPTH: Robert Williams, Brad Wanamaker, Walt Lemon Jr., P.J. Dozier
Williams has an athleticism that’s such a departure from Boston’s other big men that it’s understandable why fans want to see more of the rookie. But the reality is that he’s better off gobbling up minutes in Maine and developing his game in the G-League shadows. There will invariably be opportunities for Williams to showcase his abilities during the NBA season but the expectations for him should be low.
Let Shane Larkin and Phil Pressey be a reminder that Stevens will find time for spunky third-string ball-handlers who can change the complexion of games when sporadically called upon. Stevens’ early scouting report on Wanamaker: “He’s a really bright guy. He’s played basketball for great coaches all over the world in a lot of different situations and you can tell that he reads situations really well. He’s going to adjust as times goes on to the NBA game and the different challenges that come along with that. I’ve been really happy with him. And great guy, total team guy.”
With so much depth, Boston might not have to lean on two-way players quite the way they did last season. Still, Lemon and Dozier both had notable preseason moments and Boston’s third-teamers played harder than their rotation colleagues.
LIMBO LAND: Marcus Georges-Hunt
Celtics like what they’ve seen from Georges-Hunt, a mid-camp pickup. It the NBA were to void Boston’s deal with Jabari Bird based on his domestic violence charges, it might open an avenue for Georges-Hunt to muscle onto the roster. But the fact that the Celtics are tip-toeing the luxury tax line might make it more worthwhile to keep an open roster spot while examining potential moves later in the season that could ensure they get below the tax line and limit repeater rates further out.