The Celtics first preseason game tips off Monday at home vs the Charlotte Hornets. They play a total of just four preseason games- two with the Hornets and two against the 76ers. This means an even shorter time period for this team to get on the same page. As a result, the first unit might get more minutes than expected.
First, let’s take a look at the potential starters. This team will be starting four new players, and not all the positions are locked up yet. We can count on Irving, Hayward, and Horford starting. The general consensus expects inserting Jaylen Brown and Marcus Morris in the lineup, but both have question marks.
Jaylen Brown vs. Marcus Smart
Brown is just young and will be challenged. A lot of people like Marcus Smart as the do-it-all sixth man. I agree, but Stevens won’t just give Brown the starting nod; he’s going to have to earn it. He will do this with defense. “We need Jaylen to be an elite defender this year,” says his coach. The length this lineup would have two to five would be remarkable with a 6’7 player being the second shortest on the court. This makes it tough for offenses to get in the paint and it and closes up the passing lanes. Additionally, switches would be seamless, making screens less effective for opponents.
Smart’s ability to initiate and run the offense could keep him in his role as the sixth man. Brown isn’t there yet, and would thrive alongside the play makers in the first unit. The shoe just fits for Brown to start and Smart to lead the second team. Smart will probably pick up some starts, though. He’ll be the first man inserted in if anyone 1-4 misses any time.
Keep an eye on whether Smart’s shot has improved with all the work he has put in this summer. If his offensive game takes a big step forward, he will be tough to keep on the bench. Even if he doesn’t typically start, I would bet he finishes games more often than not.
Marcus Morris vs.. Justice?
Morris finds himself in a unique situation. He should start now that Crowder is gone. However, he has a criminal case pending and hasn’t been with the team during the trial. Even if he is available for the first game I doubt Stevens thrusts him into the starting lineup without any practice with the team.
This makes for an interesting situation until Morris joins the team. Stevens will likely go small and start both Smart and Brown in the meantime. This extends his deadline on choosing a starter and allows him to see which is a better fit in the first unit.
BENCH: WHO STEPS UP IN PRESEASON?
Panning out the starters will be interesting, but the bench remains more of a question mark for this team. We know Irving and Hayward can play, even Marcus Morris. But what about Yabusele and Theis? Can Larkin and Rozier carve out roles or will this team focus more on length and versatility? This option points to more young talent in rookies Jayson Tatum, Semi Ojeleye, and Abdel Nader.
Plenty of opportunities exist in preseason for unproven players to try and find their way into the rotation. Preseason offers time to see who is ready to step up to handle more responsibility on the court. The Celtics are counting on improvement from key players, but also on some new guys fitting in as well. Let’s take a look at what the bench could bring to the table.
Although he’s just a 19-year-old rookie, a lot of weight could fall on Tatum’s shoulders to carry the offense for the second unit. His ability to score anywhere from the floor with a deep arsenal of moves will come in handy. If he can provide solid defense, he could move into the starting lineup over a guy like Jaylen Brown. Tatum is more comfortable handling the ball, and would give the starting lineup possibly even more versatility than Brown.
Like Smart, I think Tatum fits better in the second unit, even if his talent might outshine that of some starters. He thrives in isolation and is known as a ball stopper, not someone who traditionally moves it like this team wants to do. The second unit is shaping up to be more of a half-court offense that uses more designed sets and plays at a slower pace. This will be beneficial to Tatum’s game if they give him the ball and let him work.
The first unit will play at a higher pace, getting out and running in transition. Tatum could thrive playing at a higher pace as well, but the way this team is constructed, we need a guy like Tatum in the second unit who can go and get a bucket on his own.
Although comparable to former Celtic Jared Sullinger in terms of measurements (both around 6’9, 260, 7ft wingspan), fans will be pleased with Yabu’s explosiveness and mobility. He has earned the Dancing Bear nickname because of his quickness despite his size, something that should help him on both ends of the floor. A floor stretcher on offense, he shoots more than five threes a game (at a 36.4% clip last year in China). With his ability to drive and finish at the rim as well, he already has a pretty versatile offensive game.
The CBA isn’t a league known for its defense, but this highlight reel shows how well he can move for his size. We never, ever saw Sullinger jump or move like this. The biggest hurdle for him this year will be finding his spots; when to drive or cut, and when to run to the line for an open shot. If he can use his explosiveness to make a difference on the glass, we could see the Dancing Bear crack the starting lineup eventually. While many question whether his game will translate, early rumblings about Yabusele are all positive.
At 6′-10″ 260 lbs, Baynes is a true bruiser and takes up more space in the paint than anyone else on the team. There isn’t much to look for here, as we already know what the vet brings to the table. He will play much like Amir Johnson: in short spurts to rebound, defend, and set screens. He might even pick up a few starts in the process. Stevens could insert him at C against teams bigger in the front court, allowing Horford to slide over and play the four a bit more. Look to see if the two have developed any type of chemistry since Baynes got to Boston.
I’m very interested to see Theis in preseason. He is very fluid and seems to have a good feel for the game, much like the guy he will be playing behind, Al Horford. Still, nobody knows whether his game will translate from overseas. He averaged a solid 9.6ppg & 4.6 rpg on his way to three consecutive German League Championships. He was also named German League Best Defender last year. His versatility as a big should translate if he can keep his efficiency high (60% FG, 41% 3pt).
Terry Rozier vs. Shane Larkin
I love the pickup of Shane Larkin, if for no other reason to give Terry some healthy competition. Rozier has been comfortable in his limited role for his first two seasons. He did increase from 8 mpg to 17 in his second year, also averaging 17 mpg in the playoffs through 2 seasons. He has proven to be ready when called upon, but hasn’t been pushed by someone behind him on the depth chart until now. Will it push him further, or will he fall behind?
Larkin has played in big moments already. He has picked up multiple starts for both the Knicks and Nets in his three-year NBA career. In that time, he posted averages of 10.1ppg & 5.9apg. Last season, he played overseas in Euroleague and improved his game even further, averaging 13.3ppg. Many believe he is ready for an NBA comeback. Just turning 25, he still has a lot to prove.
“He really floats- he is an athlete. He can push tempo, but also change gears. He’s got a pace to him where he understands the other four guys he’s playing with. I’m a big fan of Shane Larkin,” says Stevens of one of the least talked about off-season acquisitions.
The flip side of this is Terry Rozier. He only knows one gear, and that is top speed. Rather than floating to the open spots on the floor, he jolts around with the ball. A lot of times he runs into spots that aren’t open. This is the biggest criticism of Rozier’s game- he expects the team to play at his pace, not wanting to slow down to the pace of his teammates. If he can figure this element of the game out, he could be a great player. He has the intangibles, and he isn’t afraid of the big moment.
While Larkin gets the nod offensively, Rozier is a better defender. Learning behind Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart for two years has helped him turn his defensive skills into a big asset for this team. If he can keep the turnovers down and show further improvements defensively, he should usually come off the bench before Larkin.
The Celtics are transitioning into a team that wants to be as versatile as possible and can switch 1-5. This hurts the chances of undersized guards like Larkin and Rozier getting many minutes. There will still always be situations where Stevens sees a spot where one could be useful.
Semi Ojeleye vs. Abdel Nader
These two guys both fit the mold that Stevens wants in wing players that can switch 1-5 defensively and play both ends of the floor. Like Larkin and Rozier, you are getting offense with one and defense with the other. Nader already has a pretty polished offensive game. He is another guy like Tatum that you can call upon to get a bucket by himself. The 2nd unit is slim in scoring, so it is possible he cracks the rotation on nights the starters are struggling to score.
Ojeleye has less offensive moves, but can shoot well (42.4% 3pt on 5 att/game), and has the ability to bully opponents on the inside with his large 6’7 240 frame. If he uses his size to rebound and defend, he will get minutes. Coach Stevens has already given his defense high praise, saying he might be one of the best defenders on this team already. If he can bring that intensity along with a decent shot, he should typically come off the bench before Nader.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
The trends here are versatility and defense. The Celtics will no longer struggle to score as they have in the past. This will allow Stevens to focus more on putting his best defensive lineup on the floor, without sacrificing much offense. Even when using guys that are prone to defensive errors like Kyrie, he will pair them with lengthy players that can clog the lanes and make it tough for offenses to move around and get easy buckets.
The projected starting five of Irving-Brown-Hayward-Morris-Horford has much more length 1-5 than last years starters. While many argue this team gave up a lot of defensive hustle and grit, I would argue they added length to make up for it. This is something you can’t teach. If these guys all buy in, they have the defensive ability to be elite on that end of the floor. It will just be a much different look.
OUT WITH THE OLD, IN WITH THE NEW
The old look was Bradley and Crowder getting up into players, making them uncomfortable and forcing turnovers. The new look will be more traditional defense, not having to make up for lack of size with hustle plays. Stevens has never had a team with the ability to switch like this team will. This should go a long way defensively.
It will be interesting to see the different lineups Stevens tries in preseason. He isn’t one to roll out the same lineup night in and night out. Rather, he plays to matchups, and I would expect to see a few different starting lineups this season. Preseason will be a good time to assess who can step in to certain roles and contribute. We should see everyone on the roster at some point in preseason, so there will be a lot to sort out. If one thing is for sure, it is going to be FUN. Let the games begin!