Hackett: Brad Stevens has a roster problem, but thankfully we have a solution

Jim Hackett
February 21, 2019 - 7:43 am

Celtics rotation issues? Problem solved.

So I did a little research over the NBA All-Star break. Rather than watch an All-Star Game I have absolutely no interest in or a dunk contest I have less interest in, I spent some time exploring something I am interested in and that is the state of the Celtics. All year the Celtics have seemingly played better when missing one of their key rotation guys. It's sure felt that way and given all of the daily talk of their rotation issues, I decided to check the facts.

After an early loss to the Raptors, Charles Barkley famously declared "They have too much talent." A rather simple take on its face and certainly early in the process to make such a statement, but was he wrong? The numbers back him up.

The Celtics stand at 37-21, good for a .638 winning percentage. Not bad given their atrociously slow start, but certainly well below expectations. Now, when removing one of their key rotation guys named Irving, Horford, Hayward, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Morris or Terry Rozier the Celtics are 29-8, good for a .784 winning percentage. Woof! That's a big difference, an improvement of 23 percent to be exact. If you're wondering why I excluded Jayson Tatum or Marcus Smart from my analysis, that's because Tatum has played in every game and the Celtics are 0-1 in the one game that Smart missed. That is no surprise to me as Marcus Smart has been a key cog in the Celtics winning DNA for several years.

Here's how it breaks down:

Kyrie Irving – The Celtics are 9-2 in the 11 games that their superstar guard has missed. 9-2! Now I'm not someone who subscribes to the theory that the Celtics are better off without Irving, I think that's silly to be frank. The guy is a legitimate top ten player and superstar. However, there is something to say about the glut of talent that Brad Stevens is clearly having trouble orchestrating as he tries to find that consistent mix with just 24 games remaining in the season.

Al Horford – Like Irving, he's had some big games that have fueled key victories, last week's road win in Philadelphia is certainly top of mind. However, also like Irving, when he's off the court the Celtics have found a way, sporting a 7-3 record in the 10 games that 'Big-Old-Average-Above Average-Al' (choose your nickname) has missed.

Coincidence? I think not.

Gordon Hayward – We are starting to see signs of the player that the Celtics pursued aggressively and signed in the summer of 2017, but like his teammates Irving and Horford, the Celtics haven't missed him while he's been out. Hayward has missed five games this season and the Celtics are 4-1.

Jaylen Brown - Wash, rinse, repeat. In the five games that Brown has missed, the Celtics stand at 5-0. Brown has probably had the biggest step backward to date of all the key rotation guys. Finding and sustaining his specific role on this team has been an inconsistent work in progress.

Marcus Morris – Morris is more of a glue guy who does know his role and has seemingly accepted it. The numbers during his absence are nearly even. The Celtics are 3-2 without the fiery Morris, but the point remains, when you take one player out of the rotation, the result is usually positive.

Terry Rozier – Rozier has lost the most since the 2018 playoffs, where his elevation in play helped carry the Celtics deep into the Eastern Conference Finals. This year, rumors of Rozier's dissatisfaction have been surfaced since early November. Despite his decline in minutes, he's only missed one game; the February 13th victory over Detroit. Kyrie Irving missed this game too and interestingly, Marcus Smart gave one of his best performances of the year scoring 16 points including a couple of big three-pointers. He also dished out 5 assists.

29-8 when one of these key rotation players doesn't play. To borrow some poker jargon, this is a tell.

The trade deadline has passed and the roster for this season is not changing. With that said, I think it's time for the Celtics to game-plan a little more strategically. The reality is that the Celtics have a 10-man rotation. When you add Aron Baynes and Daniel Theis to the core eight, Stevens is literally rotating up to 10 players a night. That's not counting the occasional Semi Ojeleye and Robert Williams sightings.

Maybe it's time for Stevens to approach these games differently and he need look no further than the Super Bowl Champions just 30 miles south. In any given week the Patriots will feature a player that you may not see in a significant role again for weeks. See Chris Hogan, Cordarrelle Patterson or Rex Burkhead as examples. Heck, you can add Gronk during several weeks prior to the postseason.

Point being, if your team is winning nearly 80 percent of its games when one of your core players is sitting, maybe it would be smart practice to find a reason to do so in every game from here on out. The numbers don't lie and like Sir Charles alluded to back in the fall, there certainly isn't any shortage of talent. It may take some persuasive selling for Stevens to pull it off, but I'd say citing the facts would be a good place to start.