More so than at any point in the last five years, this season the Boston Celtics have struggled to find a reliable rotation—new pieces have entered the organization, and roles have yet to be figured out. If you're searching for ways to cast blame on the Celtics' overall dysfunction, look no further than their permeable starting lineup.
What was once set in stone has suddenly turned into a weekly guessing game, with any finished product now miles from being realized.
Before diving in to discuss whether Jason Terry or Courtney Lee is the better fit to be on the court for the opening tip, let it be said that this question will soon be rendered a moot point.
Based on his incredible impact last season beside Rajon Rondo, Brandon Bass, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, third-year guard Avery Bradley will be inserted into the starting lineup once he’s cleared to return from two offseason shoulder surgeries.
But in the meantime, the Terry or Lee question is an interesting one. Let’s first summarize how each player has individually performed in a Celtics uniform before taking a look at how they’ve played with the starters, and, more importantly, how the starters have played with them.
Excluding Andrew Bynum from the conversation, a solid argument can be made that Courtney Lee has been the most disappointing offseason acquisition in the NBA.
After scoring 11 points on 5-of-6 shooting in the season opener against Miami, Lee’s next four scoring totals by game went like this: seven, two, four and six.
He was playing hesitant, unsure basketball while the team struggled to a 2-3 record. After scoring six points against the Sixers, Lee was replaced in the starting lineup by Terry for Boston’s next game against Milwaukee. He failed to score.
Lee was the new piece, the sore thumb. It may not have been fair, but at the time, Doc Rivers' decision to place him on the bench was best for the team.
A lot goes into wins and losses apart from who starts the basketball game, and according to a slew of statistics, when Lee is on the floor beside Rondo, Bass, Pierce and Garnett, the Celtics are very, very good.
They’ve shared the court for just 35 minutes, but their per-48 numbers are above the team’s average in several basic yet significant categories, such as rebounds, assists, steals and blocks.
Also, they're shooting the lights out.
The unit’s true shooting percentage is 65.7 percent (as a team, Boston’s is 55.4 percent), they score 1.22 points per possession while giving 0.991 and grab a quarter of all the offensive rebounds available (still below league average, but seven percentage points higher than what the Celtics are doing as a team).
On both offense and defense, second-chance points, points off turnover, points in the paint and fast-break points are all higher (or lower) than the team's average. Overall they haven't played much together, but looking at the numbers it's impossible to say Lee doesn't fit.
Right now Terry is in the starting lineup, and he should be. He’s shooting 39.7 percent on three-pointers (his best since 2007), boasting a true shooting percentage of 63.3 percent (a career best) and is getting to the line more than he did last season on about three fewer minutes of action per game.
He was inserted into the starting lineup in Milwaukee on November 10, and it’s no coincidence that the win Boston came away with that night stands as one of the team’s two or three most important of the season. The Celtics needed Terry, and he responded.
But this wasn’t how it was supposed to be, and there’s more than a good chance this won’t be how it ends. Terry is an above-average offensive player, and utilizing a scoring ability such as his off the bench is a weapon most teams wish they had.
Doc Rivers wants to use Terry with his second unit. But he also wants wins, and thanks to his overall consistency, Terry is the safer bet.
The most used five-man unit the Celtics have deployed this season is Rondo, Bass, Pierce, Terry and Garnett. They’re scoring 1.05 points per possession (a top-10 offense on par with the San Antonio Spurs) while giving up .093 points per possession (a defense that would be best in the league by a staggering three points per 100 possessions).
Who Should Be In The Starting Lineup Moving Forward?
Either option, honestly, is solid. Both can shoot and both can create off the dribble. So far Terry has played beside the other starters for more than 100 minutes more than Lee.
A discrepancy this large can’t be ignored, but when you factor in defensive intensity with his glowing numbers running amongst the starters, Lee should be given another shot in the starting lineup.
The clip below encapsulates the type of impact Lee can have to kick off a basketball game. He's fast, has quick hands and feet (making him a nightmare for opposing players driving at him in isolation) and is more than capable of knocking down a jump shot or finishing at the rim.
Looking at the big picture, who starts at shooting guard until Avery Bradley gets healthy is not the difference between Boston winning the championship or falling in the first round. But if they want to re-establish themselves as a defense-first organization while remaining a fast-paced offense capable of matching up well against nearly every team in the league, Courtney Lee should not be coming off the bench.