A team in a playoff race generally doesn’t look to tinker with its starting lineup when just 10 games remain in the regular season. Brad Stevens is not your typical NBA head coach, and he’s exploring all potential possibilities with his starting unit as the Celtics enter the home stretch of their playoff push.
“We have had that discussion [about changing the starting lineup] almost everyday,” Brad Stevens admitted at practice on Saturday.
Boston is still holding on to the No. 8 spot in the Eastern Conference after Friday’s ugly 96-92 win over the New York Knicks, but the team’s margin for error in the playoff race remains razor thin. The Brooklyn Nets trail the Celtics by just a half game, while the Indiana Pacers (one game back) and Charlotte Hornets (1.5 games back) are also within striking distance.
After a hot streak earlier this month, Boston’s team performance has been very up-and-down in the past week, and a lack of production from the team’s starting unit is a major factor. A lineup of Marcus Smart-Avery Bradley-Evan Turner-Brandon Bass-Tyler Zeller has several notable flaws.
There’s a lack of floor spacing (Bass/Zeller are not reliable 3-point shooters). No one gets the free throw line with great regularity. Zeller struggles to defend shooting big men on the perimeter. Bass lacks the size to hold his own on the glass against bigger front lines.
All of these limitations have translated into a starting unit that digs Boston into a hole most times it’s on the floor. The group’s net rating in 221 minutes of action on the floor together this season indicates that the team has been outscored by 11.2 points per 100 possessions. That puts it among the league’s worst starting lineup.
To be fair, the talent in the team’s lineup simply can’t match up with more formidable groups around the league, but Stevens is aware of the group’s struggles and is keeping an eye on it.
“We always get back to the same three or four points to be honest,” Stevens said about the starting group. “There’s certainly a discussion that can be made [on changing the lineup], but our starters have started off games pretty well for the most part recently. We’ll keep a pulse on it. I didn’t think Friday’s game [against the Knicks] was a great matchup game for Tyler [Zeller] once Lou Amundson went to the bench. That’s why he didn’t play as much, but he’s going to play a huge role for us tomorrow and moving forward.”
Stevens also noted that messing with the starting group might hurt the strong chemistry that the team’s second unit (featuring Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and Jonas Jerebko) has developed.
“The first six minutes of a 48-minute game you want to start as well as you can,” Stevens said. “But you also want to create rotations that you like and keep. If your second unit is really playing at a high level, you have to figure that in that if you mix it up, your second unit might not play at a high level.
“That’s something to consider, too. I think we go into halftime and talk about matchups and talking about ‘Hey, we’re struggling to do this, this, and this, we need to change one guy, that might change it for us.’ That’s why a lot of times we’ll tweak the lineup at the start of the second half.”
Don’t expect any shifts in the lineup for Sunday’s game against the Los Angeles Clippers, but the success of Boston’s starters is something to keep a close eye on in the weeks ahead.