Finding the Perfect Rotation for the Boston Celtics

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Finding the Perfect Rotation for the Boston Celtics
Brian Babineau/Getty Images
Boston's odds-and-ends roster is tough to make a rotation out of.

The Boston Celtics' rotation is still being worked out by head coach Brad Stevens.

Less than an eighth of the way through the 2013-14 season, it is alright to still be playing 10 or 11 guys regularly, especially on a team like this. 

Stevens gave 10 players double-digit minutes in the team's recent loss to the Charlotte Bobcats. Worth noting is that that came with Jared Sullinger out injured. Right now, Stevens simply hasn't hammered out who his best eight or nine guys are and what combinations work best for extended periods.

Down the road a bit, he may be aided by Danny Ainge in making a move to thin out the roster or by bringing in a player head and shoulders above the others playing his position. However, this isn't the forum for Omer Asik trade ideas.

Right now it is up to Stevens and his coaching staff to start trimming this roster to find the perfect rotation.

Point Guard

The rotation has to start at the point. For a basic scheme, the point guard is going to the point of attack on offense and defense. Stevens appears to have found a comfortable, if inconsistent starting backcourt of Jordan Crawford and Avery Bradley.

He entered the year dealing with the same issues Doc Rivers faced toward the end of 2012-13. Bradley is not a capable ball-handler for extended periods of dribbling. Crawford, on the other hand, is and has always been a quality ball-handler.

Because of his immaturity and reputation, Rivers opted to use Terrance Williams in a bigger role last year instead of Crawford. However, Stevens made the quick switch this season. Now Crawford is responsible for initiating the offense. This has done a multitude of things for Boston. The team has scored 100.2 points per game over its last five contests, which is roughly the timeline for the personnel switch.

Starting obviously with Crawford, the ability to have the ball in his hands has allowed him to get back to what he has always done best—create. Crawford was a primary ball-handler in college at Xavier and in the NBA with the Washington Wizards. However, with Stevens and Rajon Rondo in his ear, that creating has become more well-rounded than regular ill-advised shots.

Crawford also works well with Bradley because he is a capable outside shooter. One of the ongoing issues with Bradley and Rondo as a starting unit was that neither had a particularly accurate long ball.

Shooting Guard 

Putting the ball in Crawford's hands has allowed Bradley to think less on offense. He is an entirely instinctive effort player. Bradley plays best when he lets his athleticism and instinct take over.

Playing off the ball has allowed him to get back to making crafty backdoor cuts, running the floor following possession changes and spotting up in the corners. He's just 3-of-12 on corner threes, but that should improve with more consistent opportunities.

Crawford is still a work in progress. His assists are coming on very basic, obvious play designs. They are also inflated by some streaky-shooting teammates and Boston's overall pace. It will take some more time to develop a sense of where those teammates like the ball, and getting Avery and Jeff Green corner threes should be high on that list.

Defensively, that tandem could be a lot worse. Obviously, Bradley is an outstanding individual defender who must always be accounted for no matter where the opposition is on the court. However, Crawford is a weak defensive player overall. Some of that is effort, but a lot is coaching. Crawford is plenty athletic and has legitimate size for an NBA guard, but he didn't defend elite players in college, and it wasn't a priority in Washington.

Backcourt Reserves

The rotation behind those two features another capable ball-handling distributor in Phil Pressey and a shooter/slasher in Courtney Lee. Pressey is painfully small on the floor, which hinders his effectiveness. There just isn't any way Stevens can allow him more than eight to 12 minutes on a regular basis without being burned. 

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Lee is probably a better overall player than Crawford, but he has too much redundancy with Bradley. The two can't play together easily. Defensively, those two combined are fantastic—once they worked out the kinks—but offensively, it's never seemed to work.

You can't really have an NBA offense that features two off-ball guards, unless you've got a LeBron James/Paul George type on your roster. Do keep in mind, though, if Rondo returns and Bradley still isn't getting that three-ball to fall with some consistency, Lee could leapfrog him into the starting lineup.

Small Forward

For better or worse, the Celtics have to play Jeff Green as their starting small forward. Sometimes that is maddening, but other times it seems like a privilege to watch him work. Thus, it's going to be the issue for a long time, as Green has three years remaining on his healthy contract.

Green's inconsistencies make it difficult to nail down exactly what type of rotation works best around him, making him not the best choice for a player to build around. When you can't be sure whether you are getting 20 points and four rebounds, 14 points and eight rebounds or eight points and no rebounds from your main offensive option, it is tough to fill in a rotation.

Green's defense is similarly hit or miss. He can make some stands that have him looking like an elite perimeter stopper, but other times he'll lackadaisically let his man behind him for putback dunks or not close out fast enough on a three-point shooter.

Small Forward Reserve

The current minute ratio features Green getting 33.4 and backup Gerald Wallace getting 29.4. For now, there is nothing wrong with that. This version of the Celtics needs Wallace on the floor for 30 minutes or their defense could get scary bad.

Stevens was wise to move Wallace out of the starting lineup, giving the team a bit more of a traditional look. Coming off the bench, Wallace isn't expected to be the offensive player he was with the Brooklyn Nets. He doesn't have that in him any more, which is obvious after watching him for five minutes.

What he can still do is defend the perimeter with consistent effort and athleticism. While Crawford learns the ropes at that end, Wallace is a necessary figure for that many minutes. However, with Rondo's return, don't be surprised if Wallace's minutes are a major casualty. With two above-average perimeter defenders in the backcourt, Stevens can experiment a little more with his frontcourt options or three-guard lineups.

For now, though, the small forward position is what it has to be.

Power Forward

The rest of Boston's frontcourt is also in a bit of a questionable period. Beyond Sullinger's minor injury, he isn't in game shape just yet. A summer of surgery recovery left him a bit heavier than I think he wants to be. While that added size may actually be helping him offensively, it has exacerbated his speed and leaping problem at the other end.

Because of that conditioning, Sullinger still can't be playing starter's minutes and has been held to 19.7 per game. Do keep in mind that those minutes have been incredibly productive in offensive terms.

With so many changing pieces and the struggle to find a capable leader, Brandon Bass has been a necessary stand-in for the starting five and overall rotation. Ideally, I still believe Bass is a reserve specialist, but he has improved enough defensively and has two or three solid offensive moves. He has also developed really good hands around the hoop. That helps him grab loose balls and turn them into easy dunks.

For the time being, Bass is alright where he is. As Sullinger gets healthier and healthier, their minutes should begin sliding toward a more equal share.

Center

The problem is that those two can't play together. They are clearly Boston's top two bigs right now, but neither are big enough to handle traditional centers or athletic enough to handle small-ball centers.

That means guys like Kelly Olynyk and Vitor Faverani are necessary for Stevens right now. Admittedly, both have shown to be capable in their roles thus far. However, Boston hasn't exactly faced a murderers' row of offensive big men.

Look at the Celtics' next six games. Now think of how Olynyk and Faverani are going to fare against those quality offensive centers.

Upcoming opposing frontcourts
Portland Trail Blazers LaMarcus Aldrige Robin Lopez 11/15
Minnesota Timberwolves Kevin Love Nikola Pekovic 11/16
Houston Rockets Dwight Howard Omer Asik 11/19
San Antonio Spurs Tim Duncan Tiago Splitter 11/20
Indiana Pacers Roy Hibbert David West 11/22
Atlanta Hawks Al Horford Paul Millsap 11/23

NBA.com

Both players are high-energy rebounders. They are using outstanding effort to maximize production in limited minutes. Neither is deserving of 30 minutes a night, which is the Celtics' inherent problem.

Stevens has to play too many guys, because not many are deserving of big minutes. He is limiting the damage that could be caused by the overextension of role players, by playing 10 or 11 of them each night. That keeps their stats looking solid enough, and obviously, it also won the team some games.

When Rondo returns to 100 percent, Stevens will be able to thin out his roster a bit. He'll have a player deserving of 35-plus minutes a night. The frontcourt is a trade or draft pick away from that ability, though.

There may be no perfect rotation for this version of the Boston Celtics. Stevens is dealing with an imperfect deck.

 

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