Tomase: The Celtics lineup is in need of repair and here are some ways to fix it

John Tomase
November 14, 2018 - 1:19 pm
Jaylen Brown

Steve Dykes/USA Today Sports

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Watching the Celtics fall behind by 16 a night before mounting furiously futile rallies on a 1-4 West coast trip made it clear that change is needed.

At this point last year, without Gordon Hayward, the Celtics were 11-2. Now they’re 7-6 and middle of the pack in the Eastern Conference.

There are many reasons. Their defense disappeared out west, with the Nuggets and Jazz topping 115 points and everyone else breaking 100. Their 3-point shooting volume does not correspond to their 3-point shooting accuracy. Their overall offense looks stagnant.

So what can Brad Stevens do about it? Here are some possibilities.

First and foremost, it’s time to remove Jaylen Brown from the starting lineup. The third-year guard is a key piece, but he’s lost at the moment, particularly offensively, where virtually all of his shooting percentages are down at least 100 points from last year. He’s shooting just .364 from the floor and .275 from 3-point territory, with his free throw percentage holding steady at an unacceptable .645.

Brown appears to be the primary victim of a deep roster struggling to share the wealth. What seemed like the proverbial Good Problem to Have has turned into a legitimate issue. The Celtics will never be confused with the Warriors, but when their offense is humming, they’re fun to watch, swinging the ball all over the floor until someone finds an open look.

That selflessness has been missing this year, with a bunch of guys out to get theirs, whether it’s Brown driving recklessly to the basket, Jayson Tatum settling for contested low-percentage mid-range jumpers, Terry Rozier trying to cram starter’s production into 21 minutes a night, or Marcus Morris shooting two out of every three times he touches the ball (and thank god for that, by the way, because the expected odd man out has been one of the team’s best two-way players).

Brown’s strengths last year – knocking down open 3-pointers and otherwise picking his spots offensively – have disappeared. Meanwhile his weaknesses – poor ball-handling and decision-making – have been exacerbated. That’s a bad combination.

Sending him to the second unit could ease the pressure he’s putting on himself to remain a starter and also create more shots for him as an anchor rather than a complement. In the long-term, the best Celtics lineup includes Brown closing out games, so the goal should be rediscovering that player.

The starting lineup, meanwhile, could use one fewer scorer. Hayward and big man Al Horford are solid facilitators, but with Tatum and Irving needing shots, the Celtics would be better served with a defensive/energy-focused fifth joining that group.

Some have suggested guard Marcus Smart, who has been outspoken in his team’s disappointing lack of urgency. Smart has only attempted five shots a game thus far, so he’d be OK ceding his offense to others. The starters could use his intensity, particularly after watching Denver’s Jamal Murray and Utah’s Joe Ingles explode for career nights.

Everyone knows the Celtics are a better defensive team with Smart on the floor, but you might be surprised to hear they’re better offensively, too. He makes good decisions, particularly in the pick-and-roll, and he keeps the ball moving. He’d be a strong option.

Another choice is Aron Baynes. All of Australia started most of last year and rated as one of the best defensive players in the league. It’s not because he’s a gifted shot blocker or traditional rim protector, but because he’s a master of positioning and a great help defender. His physicality would allow Horford to shift to power forward, where he’s more comfortable.

A third option is swapping Morris into the starting lineup for either Brown or Hayward, but this strikes me as sub-optimal, because a lot of the opportunity issues we’re discussing with Brown would apply to Morris, who’s a true gunner.

I’d swap Baynes for Brown, personally, because it worked last year, it eases Horford’s physical load, and it reinforces the team’s defense-first identity.

The elephant in the room is Hayward. He’s a liability on both ends as he returns to form from last season’s devastating ankle injury. In the big picture, though, the Celtics must give him every opportunity to find himself, because pre-injury he was a top-25 player capable of impacting games on both ends of the floor.

Stevens is easing off his minutes restriction – he played 31 the other night – and the more Hayward plays, the more not only does he regain his footing, but the better his teammates understand what he’s trying to do on the floor.

Hayward appears most comfortable as a facilitator and mid-range jump shooter. Opposing defenses are playing him to pass off the dribble because he’s not yet a threat to attack the rim with authority. He’ll need to regain that skill before he’s truly viable.

That said, the Celtics team most capable of competing for a title features Hayward at crunch time. The same goes for Brown. The goal for Stevens should be righting the ship in the short term while keeping an eye on this ultimate goal.

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