In the NBA, depth is usually a positive thing. Six months and eighty-two games ensure injuries are going to happen and you’re rarely going to want to play your best players more than 2/3 of the game, even on a healthy team. Having players who can step in and play solid basketball when your top guys are winded or out is crucial for winning games.
Danny Ainge is getting plenty of credit for the talent upgrade that the Thomas trade has provided, but one of the underrated benefits of that trade (and the Prince-Jerebko/Datome trade) is that it gives Brad Stevens a chance to use the available talent more consistently and predictably going forward. Thomas’ acquisition and the departure of Marcus Thornton establishes a clear pecking order in the backcourt for the first time since the Rondo trade.
Dealing Prince eliminates duplication at a position where it was unnecessary and provides Stevens with a unique new weapon in a spot where the Celtics were suddenly in need of firepower with Jared Sullinger on the sidelines. Let’s take a look at how these moves helped Stevens consolidate the Celtics rotation.
This Celtics’ season has been characterized by player movement, especially for the previous two months since the Rajon Rondo trade. The Celtics have had 22 different players take the floor for them this year, more than anyone but Philadelphia and Minnesota. Not only have the players themselves been turning over constantly, the roster churn has forced the remaining players’ roles to evolve along with the roster. Evan Turner, for example, started the season as a relatively standard backup small forward, providing a little bit of everything but was not relied on for anything. The Rondo trade forced Stevens to use Turner as his PG primary ballhandler and distributor, with an added scoring load when Jeff Green was dealt to the Grizzlies.
Now with the Thomas trade, Stevens is in a position to take some of that ballhandling, distribution, and scoring load off of Turner’s shoulders, allowing him to contribute more efficiently. Turner is the most drastic example, but much of the rest of the team has seen their roles expand, contract, and change with their teammates constantly changing around them.
Stevens has also struggled somewhat throughout the year figuring out which players are best for each role. With Ainge providing him with several similar players who were capable of filling various roles on the team, Stevens felt obligated to give them each some playing time. Stevens did his best to incorporate all the tools he was given, but the result was the Celtics best players were surrendering minutes to get everyone involved. As you can see below, the post-Rondo/pre-Thomas Celtics were an egalitarian squad, with more than half of the roster getting more than 15 MPG. The Thomas Celtics have the best players playing very heavy minutes and the complementary pieces filling in the occasional gap.
CONSISTENCY & ORDER
Bringing in Isaiah Thomas adds a clear 3rd guard to a rotation that was trying to utilize Smart, Bradley, Pressey, Young, and Thornton each for more than ten MPG. Thomas not only takes Thornton’s minutes, he marginalizes Pressey by being better in essentially every way. With Pressey’s minutes up for grabs both Smart and Bradley can stay on the floor for longer periods with fewer disruptions of the shooting and defensive presence they bring to the table. Finally, the absence of Thornton (and going back further, the Green trade) opens minutes for a volume wing scorer. James Young is slowly growing into that role and hopefully will get more minutes and shot opportunities as the season continues.
The small forward rotation gains similar clarity from the trades. We spoke earlier about the role clarification for Evan Turner. He’s still starting but having a second competent ballhandler/distributor has freed him up to be more productive and contribute on the boards – and has been the 3rd best on the team in +/-.
Prior to the break, Tayshaun Prince had been playing well as a defense-first small forward that could slide over to PF in a pinch. The only problem? Prince duplicated everything we had been getting from Jae Crowder. By dealing Prince, Crowder’s role became clearer and his minutes more consistent.
Jae has been playing quite a few minutes as a small-ball power forward with Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk out. Interestingly, the move inside has Jae shooting more from the outside, mimicking Sullinger’s role in the offense.
FRONTCOURT – THE FINAL FRONTIER
It looks like it’s going to take Stevens a little longer to shake out the frontcourt rotation given Sullinger’s foot injury. As noted above, Jae Crowder has been pulling in some of Sully’s minutes. Kelly Olynyk will probably take some of those back over the next few weeks. Jonas Jerebko is the potentially confounding factor here – his breakout game against the Knicks makes it tough for Stevens to relegate him back to spot minutes in the short term. This seems like a situation that will sort itself out as Olynyk, Zeller, Bass, Jerebko, and Crowder are all fairly streaky players. Stevens has shown an affinity for riding the hot hand in specific games. It may make sense to let each game sort itself out in the frontcourt rather than developing the sort of clear pecking order that has emerged in the backcourt.
Barring a waiving of Shavlik Randolph and an unexpected free agent pickup, Ainge is done tinkering with the roster and the roster is set moving forward. Ultimately, there are 240 minutes going to be played by Celtics in each of the remaining 27 games. The early returns on the Isaiah Thomas-era are showing a focus by Brad Stevens on getting most of those minutes to be played by his best players. As a Celtics fan, I’d love to see that trend continue as it appears the team benefits from a shorter rotation. Keeping roles and minutes consistent for young players like Marcus Smart and James Young should positively impact their development.