All I’ve seen on Twitter for the last few weeks is something along the lines of, “assuming there are no more moves, the starting lineup for the Boston Celtics this season will be Kyrie Irving–Jaylen Brown–Gordon Hayward–Marcus Morris–Al Horford. The bench needs Marcus Smart.” This, coupled with the multitude of takes that imply that Jaylen Brown will start for the Boston Celtics this season have permeated the larger groupthink of the Celtics’ online community.
It makes sense to a degree. When Avery Bradley went down for a long stretch last season, Marcus Smart’s stint at “shooting guard” didn’t go as well as hoped (for a few reasons), and the entire team suffered. To combat this, Brad Stevens experimented by putting Jaylen Brown in the starting lineup until Bradley returned. That was one of the best stretches of the season for the Celtics, so automatically, fans turn to that for guidance in conforming to the general idea.
Here’s the thing, though: it’s a new team, and it’s a new year. The Boston Celtics swapped their star point guards last month, sending out Isaiah Thomas and more (a big “more”) to get back Kyrie Irving, a player the team believes to be a superstar. With Irving in the fold, the team has a clear top-3: Irving, Gordon Hayward, and Al Horford. Two of those three players are new to Boston. In fact, 11 of the 15 players on the roster this upcoming season will be new to Boston. There are still two empty spots in the starting lineup.
Before we look at how Smart fits with the starters, let’s debunk the idea that the Cs already have a clear first five.
Fact (again): It’s a new season
The 2016-17 season was the first time in Brad Stevens’ career when we, as fans, knew with absolute certainty what the starting lineup would look like. There was a lot of returning chemistry, so Stevens was careful to not mess with that too much. He simply replaced Jared Sullinger with the much better Al Horford (can’t overstate this). As mentioned previously, Stevens doesn’t have to worry about messing up team chemistry now because, well, there is no chemistry to mess up. Stevens has the luxury of experimenting.
In fact, that’s what led to Stevens inserting Brown into the spot in the first place. It’s a well-known NBA coaching fact that to replace a starter, sometimes it’s better to keep the bench unit in tact by replacing that starter with a player who gets irregular minutes. That’s what Stevens did with Brown. He did it again in the playoffs by inserting Gerald Green to beat the Chicago Bulls (what a sentence). This keeps the bench together, and if you watched last season’s Celtics, you saw how important that was for the team.
Myth: Jaylen Brown is ready
He’s not. When evaluating Jaylen Brown, the player in 2017, we can’t project his future self onto his current self. Let me just put it on the record here that I believe that Brown’s floor will be a borderline All-Star. His ceiling is a two-way star in this league who could potentially be a top-10-15 player; he’s oozing with potential. However, in 2017, Brown is nowhere near either. Yes, he’s athletic, but he’s still raw. Yes, he was a decent shooter last season, but he’s still a net negative. He was a rookie who did many rookie-like things such as frequent bad passes, getting lost on defense, and many other mental lapses. Now he’s a sophomore who shot 37% in Summer League. He’ll be phenomenal one day; he’s just not right now.
That’s fine! But over an 82-game season for a team hoping to be a title contender this season, there isn’t room for those kind of errors. It would be better for Brown’s development if he continued to be staggered with starters playing off the bench (the slow route), and it would also be better for the team for him and Jayson Tatum to get used to playing with each other for a majority of their minutes.
Myth: Smart would hinder the starters’ offense AND the bench needs his…offense
Doesn’t that sound silly (and oxymoronic)? It’s been well-documented how Smart is not a good shooter. That doesn’t mean that he’s a bad offensive player. His screening, passing vision, improved pick-and-roll skills, and post presence are all ways that he contributes positively to Boston’s offense.
Pairing Smart with Kyrie Irving opens up Boston’s offense in a few unconventional ways. For one, his post offense is one of the team’s best offensive options, especially if he has a small-ish guard on him. Here’s an example of a play where he takes advantage of his size with Kyrie Irving guarding him:
From just this play, Marcus Smart in the post allows for a wide open Jonas Jerebko 3-pointer, but imagine if he had Kyrie Irving cutting to the basket instead of the smaller Isaiah Thomas. Jerebko hit the 3-pointer, but if that’s Gordon Hayward or spotting up, that’s even more automatic (or an almost clear path to the basket with Horford waiting there for him). And of course, there’s the obvious mismatch that Smart has for the post shot.
Smart is best used as a lead guard as opposed to playing as a shooting guard. I kid you not, he’s better served as a power forward if he’s not able to be on ball. Obviously not a long-term solution for him to play at the four, but we all saw what he did to Paul Millsap last year. Here’s a display of what his defensive versatility offers the starters regardless of position:
Marcus Smart’s defensive ability and strong
combat muscles facilitate an easy switch onto the “bigger” Tristan Thompson; although, Thompson couldn’t do anything with The Cobra guarding him. With the starting power forward/center position in flux as well (I don’t think it’s clearly Marcus Morris), putting Smart in with the starters helps in a big way on both ends.
Here’s another example of how Smart can be used with the opening five:
In the clip above, we saw Smart deftly manage the pick-and-roll with Horford culminating in a difficult cross-court pass to Jaylen Brown who knocked down the 3-pointer. The passing vision should help a Celtics team whose starting lineup should have ample shooting to go around with the exception of Smart (who could still eventually be a good shooter).
Boston’s best pick-and-roll players need as many minutes with Al Horford as possible. Marcus Smart thrives in that play type when he has a versatile big setting the screen. For example, here are his numbers with Horford this season:
Fit with Uncle Drew
Smart doesn’t have to always be the primary ball-handler. The Celtics wouldn’t have put all of their eggs in the Kyrie Irving basket if that was their endgame. However, running a few sets with Smart being primarily on-ball opens up doors in the offense. It allows the Celtics to field two tremendous off-ball threats in Irving and Hayward to command defensive attention. It also allows Smart freedom to run two-man plays with Horford. Additionally, even when Smart is off-ball, his post presence and screening ability are valuable offensive assets.
Can Marcus Smart and “Uncle Drew” co-exist? Absolutely. In his minutes with Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart was a measly +20 last season. With Isaiah Thomas, though, Smart was a very good +110. Brad Stevens has shown that he can balance ball-handling duties to give his offenses a versatile look, and starting Smart would do just that.
Eventually, Jaylen Brown will be a starter. In fact, by the end of the year, we could be looking at an Irving-Smart-Brown-Hayward-Horford lineup. That would be extremely unconventional, but it would be starting their best five guys if Brown’s development goes as planned.
The five who start the game aren’t as important as the five who close it; however, optimizing the talent in the first unit* is a good way to try to keep up with the teams ahead of them in the NBA’s power scale. There’s no need to handicap themselves; Smart is one of the best five players on the team, and he will fit. It’s that simple.
Now the next question is . . . who starts next to Al Horford?
*You can throw this entire article out the window if Terry Rozier and Shane Larkin don’t provide enough ball-handling off the bench. If the bench is severely lacking, then the obvious move is to keep Smart there. However, if Rozier develops and Larkin can provide minutes, the bench should be fine.
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