The vast majority of NBA teams would love to be in the position that the Boston Celtics find themselves in as the 2018-19 NBA season approaches. Aside from the treasure trove of future draft picks still pouring in after the fantastic work of Danny Ainge, the Celtics have a loaded roster and the team’s collection of talent looks even better with the presumption of health for Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. As a result, the “wise guys” in Las Vegas (and off-shore) install the Celtics as the favorites to reach the 2019 NBA Finals out of the east and, even if they should receive quite a challenge from the likes of the Raptors and Sixers, it is easy to see why Boston would be in the driver’s seat.
However, the Celtics do have a potential “problem” in that, well, they might have too many good players.
If that seems insane, that’s because it is. Obviously it is never a bad thing for an NBA team to have an abundance of starter-quality players, but there are plenty of questions to be asked about the roster. What happens to Terry Rozier after his “breakout” playoff performance? Did the Celtics really just pay Marcus Smart a boatload of money for a full-time bench role? What about Marcus Morris? It absolutely helps to have one of the best coaches in the NBA and Brad Stevens has earned the benefit of the doubt to the highest degree on being able to manage a roster. Still, there are bits of uncertainty as to how he might deploy this particular roster, even as the pieces available should provide both effectiveness and versatility.
Despite Jayson Tatum’s stated willingness to come off the bench, there is very little doubt that Boston’s best lineup should be the one that begins each game. Al Horford is an All-Star center, Tatum and Hayward are high-end forwards, and the backcourt of Irving and Jaylen Brown makes too much sense. The Celtics are the envy of many in that they are testing the notion that teams can never have too many wings and, while there might be some size issues in deploying three wings instead of a “traditional” power forward, the uptick in skill is undeniable.
Beyond that, it would be wild to see any of the five players referenced above coming off the bench in a legitimate reserve role, although the same could be said for Smart, Morris and (to some extent) Rozier. Smart is a starting-caliber player in the NBA but, for the Celtics, he is a specialist that brings his elite-level defense and switchability to the table. There are offensive questions with Smart to say the least but, when paired with players that can space the floor, he can serve as an on-ball threat on occasion with at least the willingness to fire away from long range.
If anything, the presence of Smart lessens the “need” for an overqualified backup point guard, but the Celtics have Rozier locked up at a bargain-basement rate for this season and he’ll be around. There might be some incentive to “sell high” on Rozier but Boston is looking to win the title this season and, if nothing else, the former Louisville guard showed enough during his starting stint in the postseason to make Boston’s brass believe they can win big even if something happens to Irving.
Elsewhere, Morris is a starting-level forward on many teams (sound familiar?) and he provides versatility, the ability to switch and a shooting stroke that netted 37 percent from beyond the arc last season. He also gives the Celtics another body to throw at high-end forwards around the league and, like Smart and Rozier, provides quality insurance for injury on a number of fronts.
The Celtics have a defined top nine players: The eight that have been mentioned and Aron Baynes. There is no question that Baynes is the most limited asset of the bunch but the veteran was quite effective last season and Boston thought enough of his play to invest in free agency. Baynes is the pure backup to Al Horford at this point but, given Horford’s ability to play the four when needed, Baynes could see more extended deployment if injuries occur at the forward spots.
Boston’s nine-man rotation is likely the deepest in the league, even if other teams (i.e. the Warriors) have better talent at the very top of the roster. The Celtics do have other pieces, though, and that could be Stevens’ biggest challenge when trying to keep things running during the long regular season.
Semi Ojeleye showed flashes as a rookie, played real minutes in the postseason and has impressive defensive tools given his strength profile. Again, he would be a key rotational cog for many teams but, in Boston, there are nights in which he may not see the floor. The same could be said for Daniel Theis, who was a rotation player for much of the season before suffering an injury that paved the way for players like Ojeleye to step forward in the playoffs. If Boston wants to send defense-first lineups on the floor to tread water, using this particular duo would make sense. Add in the prospect of Brad Wanamaker (freshly signed from Europe as the third point guard), Guerschon Yabusele and rookie first-round pick Robert Williams and you have quite a full roster.
In the end, Boston’s roster does make sense, especially if everyone buys in from a role perspective. That is, of course, the great unknown, but simply starting the best five players together should do wonders and there isn’t the kind of concern from “playing small” that there may have been a few years ago. If anything, the frontcourt trio of Horford, Tatum and Hayward opens doors to all kinds of defensive possibilities and, on the other end, it might be virtually impossible to guard the Celtics when everyone is on the same page.
Players like Smart, Rozier, Morris and Ojeleye may not have the kind of responsibility that they would easily garner elsewhere but, with the prospect of a legitimate championship push on the horizon, there should be enough minutes to go around in January and February to keep everyone happy. Depth is a very good thing when it comes to navigating the 82-game grind and the Celtics have an abundance of it, along with a mix of a superstar point guard, young talent that has only begun to scratch the surface of their potential, and the right coach to make it all come together. That’s a scary proposition for the rest of the East.