By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub
The Boston Celtics starting lineup features five players who are either current, former, or projected future NBA All-Stars. There’s only one other team in the league that can make such a proclamation, and that’s the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors, once DeMarcus Cousins gets healthy.
The Celtics under Brad Stevens have routinely featured a strong bench, one that can hang with the opposition’s starters and build leads against a competing second unit. With the return of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, paired with the advancement of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, Boston, on paper, should have a decreased reliance on its reserves. But it’s impossible to forget it was the bench who dragged them to Game 7 of the the Eastern Conference Finals last spring, where Jeff Green, himself making just his second start of the playoffs, wound up being a difference maker for Cleveland. And even the Warriors need contributions off the pine.
The Celtics still need their bench. The question is, “how much?”
Marcus Morris coined the term “Bench With Attitude,” a prideful group chock full of guys who could start for a lot of other teams, to describe their super subs. Morris, Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart, Aron Baynes, even Semi Ojeleye and Daniel Theis can alter the course of a game. And while depth is a good problem to have, it only took 10 games for that problem to manifest in media reports and fan discussion.
No member of the B.W.A. has been more affected by the minutes crunch this season than Terry Rozier. The scoring point guard lit up the box score when Irving went down last March and he shined in the playoffs, submitting an average line of 16.5 points, 5.3 rebounds and 5.7 assists.
With Irving’s return to the fold, the fourth-year guard said the right things coming into camp, focusing on matters within his control and preaching sacrifice in the interest of winning a championship. But for a competitor at the highest level, particularly one who shined on the game’s biggest stage last spring, the restless legs of a bench role may be too much to bear. He’s currently seeing 23 minutes of court time and shooting an uninspiring 36 percent from the field.
Smart got his money to change games with defensive intensity, make “winning plays,” and potentially have his contract included in a blockbuster deal down the road. Morris’ value as a veteran free agent (which he is after this season) would be enhanced by a complementary role on a title contender. But Rozier, a restricted free agent next July, has the most to gain from a showcase season, and it doesn’t look like he’ll find that here over the next six months.
While it makes sense for Danny Ainge to trade Rozier rather than potentially lose him for nothing next summer, that would result in a Rozier-sized hole on the roster. Teams looking to bolster their bench depth for a playoff run are far more likely to offer a draft pick than a similar player in return. Who’s comfortable with Smart as the de facto leader of the offense should Irving’s knee act up? Suddenly, that 23 minutes a night looks like a gaping hole. If the Celtics want to win this year, they’ll keep Rozier around. It’s on Stevens and the player to maximize the impact of his minutes.
Smart has also been affected by the backcourt glut. Signed to a cool four-year, $52 million deal over the summer, his putrid shooting (33 percent overall and just 20 percent from deep) thus far hasn’t helped him stay on the floor. Where Smart previously plied his trade as a closer, logging minutes at the end of close games, Stevens has been more frequently faced with the choice between Smart and a superior offensive player in that situation.
But Thursday’s game against the Suns was a great example of how Smart can contribute. Needing a shakeup at the half, Stevens sent him out there to start the third quarter and Boston started chipping away at a deficit. He later appeared in a situational capacity to dish out his brand of frontier justice in the fourth quarter. In sum, Smart made a difference despite only making 1-of-4 shots in the contest.
Morris averages around 25 minutes a night, down from his time in Detroit, but his bench role hasn’t stunted his production. He’s the leader of the group and can fill multiple frontcourt roles. He also has the green light. Morris continued to take, and make, his shots against Phoenix, finishing with 17 points, including a couple of clutch buckets in the waning seconds and during overtime.
Baynes continues to see occasional duty as a member of the starting five, usually deployed against beefy, old school centers. Similarly, Semi Ojeleye appears to be a gun for hire, grabbing major minutes against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks last week, finishing +9 for the game and going 2-of-4 from beyond the arc.
As much as a specific set of fans may want to see more of Baynes, of Ojeleye, of a healthy Theis, even more of Marvin Barnes acolyte Robert Williams III, the expectations for those players have been properly calibrated. It was always going to be about Rozier, Smart and Morris – three cogs in Boston’s run last spring, the three bench players with the highest usage, and, in the case of Rozier, the one with the most to gain financially from a solid season.
The math gets more complicated when Hayward’s minutes edge north of the 25 per game he’s currently averaging. While an increase in Hayward’s workload is expected to be gradual and a return to the offensive and defensive force he once was isn’t assured, it’s a best case scenario for Boston that Hayward’s play merit more exposure. But that exposure comes at a cost.
In the meantime, Rozier, Smart and Morris continue to jockey for opportunities to shine. For a team expected to challenge for the Eastern Conference crown, Boston hasn’t gone on a run yet. Those players could certainly contribute to such a surge, but there remains a delicate balance of minutes to go around.
Boston’s overall success will have as much to do with chemistry as it does All Star-level talent. Stevens must walk that fine line to merit his ranking among the top coaches in the league and to get to his first NBA Finals.
With a Finals-ready roster, comes a new problem. As mentioned, it’s fine for now, but it’s also something that could ultimately have a positive or negative effect on the team’s postseason aspirations.
Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. You can follow him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.