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Will Courtney Lee find himself running with the starters this season?Each weekday leading up to next Tuesday's opening night, I'll play a game of 3-on-3 with ESPN Boston colleague Greg Payne and CelticsHub's Brian Robb to break down a key topic surrounding the Celtics' 2012-13 season. Today's topic: Boston's lineups.
1. What should the C's starting lineup be on opening night?
Payne: On opening night the Celtics should go with Rajon Rondo, Courtney Lee, Paul Pierce, Brandon Bass, and Kevin Garnett. The last handful of preseason games saw Lee really gel with this group -- Rondo in particular -- and he put on display so many of the things that will help this team win games this season. He'll be a huge asset defensively against Dwyane Wade, and he'll help Boston secure easy baskets in transition, which they'll definitely need to beat Miami. As for Bass, the continuity with this group cannot be ignored. They have the experience together and, even though Jared Sullinger played very well throughout the preseason, he could be a serious weapon off the bench for Boston. The Celtics will see a host of pick-and-roll plays from Miami and the 1-2 punch of Garnett and Bass along the frontline is Boston's best bet to defend those.
Robb: Rondo, Lee, Pierce, Bass, and Garnett. I've been fully on board with the idea of Sullinger taking the power forward slot in the starting 5, but when it comes to matching up with an undersized Heat lineup on opening night, I grew a bit weary of the idea. Forcing Sullinger to match up with an undersized Shane Battier, while being asked to handle defensive rotations against the likes of LeBron James, Wade, and Chris Bosh is a tall order, especially for the first game of someone's NBA career. Bass has seen plenty of success and experience defending this Heat squad, so I'd expect him to get the nod on opening night, along with Lee at shooting guard for defensive purposes on Wade.
Forsberg: You guys nailed it: Rondo, Lee, Pierce, Bass, and Garnett. The Celtics very well may shuffle their lineup at times this season, but there's no reason to get crazy the first night out. Miami's smaller lineup (with Bosh at center) makes it more beneficial for Boston to keep an athletic 4 on the floor. Boston could flirt with the idea of throwing Jeff Green in the mix (in a small lineup with Pierce and Lee), but the familiarity with Bass makes most sense. The Celtics then have a formidable second unit to roll in with Green and Jason Terry off the bench, and Sullinger might be the first reserve in for Garnett.
2. Should Boston use a transitional starting lineup this season?
Payne: I think the Celtics can take a wait-and-see approach for the transitional starting lineup. Coach Doc Rivers certainly doesn't have to decide one way or the other right off the bat. Not only is his frontline deeper than it was last season, but it's more versatile, with the likes of Sullinger, Bass, and Darko Milicic all offering different benefits to the team. I think it's too early to say whether this approach will definitely work. Obviously, the issue of continuity is the biggest drawback, but that's not to say it can't be overcome as the season rolls along. I'm sure Rivers will test these waters, as he should, and see how his team responds.
Robb: Definitely. Having options is never a bad thing in the NBA. Over the past four years, Rivers has had limited viable possibilities when it came to his starting 5, largely due to injuries and depth issues, but the equation has changed. With Rondo, Pierce and Garnett set in the starting 5, there are a host of players that are worthy of being inserted at the shooting guard and power forward starting slots, depending on the matchup for Boston. Rivers having the flexibility to mix and match starting units, based on opponent, is a wise move in my estimation and will also give him an extra motivating tool throughout the regular season to reward particular players for doing their job well. Rivers may very well find a starting mix he likes early and stick with it, but until he does, a transitional starting lineup is the way to go.
Forsberg: Rivers didn't trot out seven different lineups over eight preseason games just for giggles. Much of camp has focused on getting his players to buy into the mentality of one goal and making sacrifices for the greater good of the team. If Rivers and his players can ignore the notion that a team has to have a cement-set starting 5, then it's a chance to see if a transitional lineup truly is feasible when a team has the proper versatility. Why not take some of the wear and tear off Kevin Garnett early in the season by putting Darko Milicic at center (and match up better with some of the bigger frontlines that now clutter the Atlantic Division landscape)? Or put Sullinger with the first unit and see if his skill set best alines with that group, with the potential for the added bonus of Bass' offense giving the second unit a boost. Why not spend the first 41 games seeing what works, then reevaluate before the second half of the season? As long as it doesn't cost the team wins, then there's little harm in experimenting.
3. Opponent notwithstanding, what's the best final 5 to close games?
Payne: We'll probably see the Celtics close a lot of games with Rondo, Terry, Pierce, Green, and Garnett on the floor. This lineup is loaded with offense and versatility, while still offering plenty of defense, which is obviously crucial late in games. While I won't anoint him an elite defender by any means, Green certainly showed some serious defensive potential during the preseason, which will put more faith in Rivers to trust him late in games. More importantly might be Green's ability to get to the rim. Though he took plenty of outside shots during the exhibition season, he showed a renewed interest in attacking the basket, and late in games, an ability to get to the rim and the free throw line is imperative. This lineup offers Boston the chance to score from every spot on the floor, and is experienced enough -- always bolstered by Garnett's presence -- to secure the necessary stops to finish ballgames.
Robb: Rondo, Terry, Pierce, Green and Garnett. Green's spot is the only one truly up for debate in the team's closing 5, but based upon his performance in the preseason so far, it's hard to leave him out of this group. Offense has been the C's biggest problem over the last couple years with their inability to manufacture points, and there is no place that issue has loomed larger for Boston than at the end of close contests. These five players are Boston's best offensive weapons at each of their positions, which should help make the fourth-quarter scoring droughts strictly an unpleasant memory. The one caveat of this lineup however will be the rebounding, particular on the defensive end. Green, Pierce and Rondo all need to bring their hard hats and hit the glass if they still plan on making the stops necessary to close out games.
Forsberg: You guys are all over it again. I think the Avery Bradley (when healthy) and Bass combo might make the most sense around the Big Three at the start of games, but Boston will likely lean on Terry's experience and Green's versatility down the stretch. So long as Terry can be a serviceable defender and Green can help Garnett on the glass, that combination truly does give Boston its best overall talent, particularly on the offensive side, to snap the late-game scoring lulls we've seen far too many times in recent seasons. And, when all else fails, follow the money: Boston will have five of its six most expensive contracts on the floor with the Rondo-Terry-Pierce-Green-Garnett lineup (only Bass, at $6 million per season, would be off the floor; both Terry and Lee will make $5 million this season). That's why you get paid the big bucks.