The Boston Celtics are about to enter the 2017-18 season with only one starter, Al Horford, remaining from the previous year. Even after securing the first seed in the East and making a conference finals appearance, general manager Danny Ainge brought back just four players from the previous season. While this year’s rosters as strong and as deep as the last, we still don’t know who will be in the starting lineup outside of the obvious “Big 3” made up of Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, and Al Horford. With so many new additions, how do we decide who should get the last two starting spots?
The most natural answer is to pick the next two best players and insert them into the lineup. The trio of Irving, Hayward, and Horford fulfills the traditional NBA requirement of having at least one guard, one forward, and one center (I’m using the word generously here) in your starting lineup. From there, you can fill in the next two spots based on need and talent. Despite the “defensive identity” that we associate with the Celtics (whether or not it actually exists), the most offensively capable players typically get the nod, hence the common expectation that Jaylen Brown and Marcus Morris will be named as the other two starters. Still, one could make the case for Marcus Smart to start to replace the defensive presence lost by Avery Bradley (note: Bradley’s defensive stats were not great last year in addition to missing 27 games) as well as Aron Baynes, whose size could be needed should Al Horford be spared the burden of playing center. Before picking a lineup, let’s look at how Smart, Brown, Morris, and Baynes could potentially fit in with the new Big 3.
The case for Jaylen Brown
Statistically, there is almost no case to be made. In his rookie year, Brown played just over 17 minutes per game and was relatively inconsistent on both sides of the ball. Occasionally, there would be stretches of several games where coach Brad Stevens kept Brown on an even shorter leash. Here’s the thing, though- when Brown played well, he played really well. Sporadic flashes of greatness will only get you so far, but Brown was seemingly providing at least one highlight reel play each game, and he showed so much promise while he did it.
This video sums up Brown’s first year perfectly. Above all else, Brown has a talent for finishing plays through contact, a skill that most NBA players simply don’t have. Add that to the step-back midrange shots, loud dunks, blocked shots, full court bounce passes, and timely three-pointers and you have the perfect swiss-army knife to fill out a starting lineup. No matter how close Brown comes to his All-Star expectations, you can stick him in any space not occupied by Hayward and Irving and still get the most out of him, which is a huge plus.
The case for Marcus Morris
Morris brings reliable scoring to a young roster. While the expectation is that Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum will blossom into brilliant two-way players, their best years are probably still well ahead of them, so the Celtics will need experienced players like Morris to fill the gap. Morris is not known for efficiency, as he scored 14 per game last year on 12 shots, but I expected he will benefit greatly from the Brad Stevens offense that allowed Jae Crowder to become such a coveted asset. The spacing of today’s NBA is perfect for three-and-D wings, and Morris will get plenty of open looks while defenses collapse on Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward.
Defensively, Morris is sort of a larger Jae Crowder. He’s not a lock-down type of player but he’s the right size (6’9”, 235 lbs) to be able to cover multiple positions, namely small and power forwards. Morris’s 2.4 defensive win shares last year almost matched Crowder’s 2.5, and while his offense doesn’t compare to Crowder’s, the addition of Irving and Hayward will take some pressure off Morris to create any offense on his own, especially in a five-out lineup. The other frontcourt option the Celtics have is Baynes, who offers similar defensive capabilities, but less versatility on offense.
The case for Marcus Smart
The most common argument I’ve heard for Smart is less about what Smart offers as a player and more about what the Celtics lost in trading Avery Bradley to the Detroit Pistons. The loss of Bradley supposedly leaves the Celtics unable to guard the unguardable. The league is laced with all-star level point guards, and the Celtics surrendered their ace in the hole, the perceived best on-ball defender in basketball. Who will guard John Wall in a potential playoff series rematch, or Isaiah Thomas in a revenge series? Or Stephen Curry in the finals?
The glass-half-full answer is Marcus Smart. Whether you prefer the eye test or a table full of stats, you’ll find that Smart is a defensive upgrade over Bradley. According to basketball-reference, Bradley has been negative in defensive box plus-minus for the past three seasons, while Smart has been positive in each of his first three seasons. In fact, Smart has usurped Bradley in just about every non-shooting statistic since he’s joined the team. Not to understate the value of reliable scoring, but the Celtics added far more scoring than they’ve lost this summer, allowing Smart to anchor the defense without any pressure to power the offense.
The glass-half-empty answer is nobody. I mean, there will ideally be a defender in the vicinity of those players at all times, but the reality of today’s NBA is that those point guards, among many others, are going to put up numbers every night no matter what. Meaning, the Celtics have no pressing demand to have Smart in the lineup at the cost of offense if the boost in defense won’t ultimately make a noticeable difference. This makes the offensive versatility of Brown and Morris all the more appealing. Keep in mind, though, that Smart will play 30 minutes per game regardless and likely be a part of the team’s “closing” lineups.
The case for Aron Baynes
Baynes could take over the Amir Johnson role of being a starter that only plays 15-20 minutes per game. The Celtics are lacking size, and Horford supposedly doesn’t want to play center. (I have yet to encounter an actual quote where Horford specifically says this, and he left Atlanta just as they added a center to join a team that was thin at the center position. I think he’s fine playing center.) Whether or not this is true, Baynes offers one of the few things the Celtics don’t have much of, and that’s brute force. He’s no defensive dynamo, but he pulls his weight, and it wouldn’t hurt to have a bigger body on the Tristan Thompsons and the Dwight Howards of the league.
The versatility of playing Jaylen Brown and Marcus Morris with Irving, Hayward, and Horford is too good an opportunity to pass up. The length that Brown offers over Smart could be valuable if Jaylen plays the two-guard position (which he has experience with already). Smart has grown into becoming a productive playmaker off the bench and is better suited to close out a game than to start it. The Celtics can get the ball rolling with Irving, keep it rolling with Smart, and ultimately close out the game with both, as there’s no better way to hold a lead then to let Smart loose on whatever offensive threat could stand in the way of a win. While Morris offers less size than Baynes, his outside shooting would allow the Celtics to start the game with five three-point shooters on the floor, which seems ideal for Brad Stevens’s system.