Commentary

Doc Rivers will have lots of options

Versatile and deep, Celtics give their coach numerous lineup possibilities

Updated: October 10, 2012, 10:54 PM ET
By Chris Forsberg | ESPNBoston.com

The Boston Celtics, beset by injuries, utilized 19 different starting lineups last season. If coach Doc Rivers trots out that many combinations during the 2012-13 campaign, it likely won't have anything to do with attrition.

Staring at what Rajon Rondo brazenly has dubbed the most talented team he's been a part of, Rivers admitted Wednesday that his coaching staff has given heavy consideration to utilizing variable starting lineups, mixing and matching players to best match up and attack an opponent.

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One night it might be the 2012 playoff lineup of Rondo, Avery Bradley, Paul Pierce, Brandon Bass and Kevin Garnett. Another night, rookie Jared Sullinger could shuffle into Bass' spot and Courtney Lee could sub for Bradley. Another night might feature Darko Milicic manning the center spot and Garnett shifting back to power forward to limit the wear and tear he absorbs during an 82-game campaign.

"We put a lot of thought into it," Rivers said. "We'll just figure it out."

Rivers is quick to note that no decisions have been made. Training camp, which included a European adventure through Turkey and Milan that might have left the coach jet-lagged and thinking crazy, is less than two weeks old. There are still 20 days until opening night.

But the topic hammers home a recurring theme this preseason: Rivers has options -- options he's never enjoyed before -- and his primary job is to figure out which combinations give this Celtics squad the best chance to compete for a title.

"We have a lot of pieces," Rivers said with a smile when asked if this is the most talented team he's fielded. "We'll see."

Lineup diversity has not been a hallmark of NBA success. Last season, only four teams utilized more starting lineups than Boston and three missed the playoffs.

After limping through the first half of the season, the Celtics didn't right their ship until Rivers shifted Bass into the starting lineup and shuffled Garnett to center. Later, Rivers made the decision to move Ray Allen to a reserve role, which is among the reasons Allen is hoisting 3-pointers in South Beach.

You have to give Rivers credit because he's showing consistency here. Each year, he states his primary goal is putting his team in position to compete for a title, and he sometimes has to make eyebrow-raising decisions to foster that.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Bass
Roberto Serra/Iguana Press/Getty ImagesThe Celtics blossomed last season with Brandon Bass as a starter, but he could be back on this bench.

If that means hurting the feelings of a 16-year veteran such as Allen to strengthen an anemic second unit (and add a defensive presence like Bradley to the first unit), Rivers is going to do it.

And he stressed Wednesday that these moves are being considered with the goal of revamping a Boston bench that mustered a mere two points in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals last season in Miami.

"I'm not worried about our starting lineup; I'm far more worried about our second unit, and that's the lineup we're going to keep moving guys around," Rivers said. "I've said it before: If you can take a starter and put him on the second unit, that's good for the second unit. I don't know if we'll do that, but we may."

That could leave someone like Bass shuffling back to a reserve role. But don't call it a demotion. Keep in mind, that's where the Celtics wanted him when they facilitated the sign-and-trade deal that brought Bass to Boston last offseason. Bass can provide instant offense off the bench, a tantalizing possibility when potentially paired alongside other reserves such as Jason Terry and Jeff Green.

That said, Rivers could move Terry -- a former Sixth Man of the Year -- into the starting lineup until Bradley is recovered from double shoulder surgery. Boston's first team at the end of practice Wednesday featured Terry with Rondo, Garnett, Pierce and Sullinger. If Lee operates better with the second unit, then Rivers won't hesitate to run Terry with the first.

Rondo, who Wednesday also made the hard-to-argue case that this is Boston's most flexible team of his tenure, said it doesn't matter who starts alongside him.

"My job is to play -- whether Doc throws an eighth-grader out there, I have to try to make his job easy and bring the best out of him," Rondo said. "Brandon's handling [a potential backup role] very well. He's mature. It's not set in stone, but he played terrific for us [off the bench]. And I think with that second lineup, he rebounded the ball tremendously in the last game [in Milan], he shot the ball extremely well. So whatever's comfortable for the team, I think he's willing to accept his role, whether he starts or comes off the bench."

Rivers essentially is hoping Bass and his teammates will all buy into the Ubuntu notion of team goals over individual accomplishments. But Rivers knows the danger with egos in the NBA, where -- fair or not -- there's a certain stigma (and often smaller paycheck) associated with a bench gig.

"It's not always going to be roses," Rivers said. "What I try to tell them is that we're trying to play for something as a group and everyone has a role, and we need you to buy into that. Again, some guys that are actually good guys haven't, and some guys that haven't been great teammates in other places have come in here and done it. I wish I knew the formula, but I don't. I just know I don't ask a lot, we just do it and we hope they handle it."

Rivers leans on history as his support system. He'll politely point out that the likes of John Havlicek, Kevin McHale and Bill Walton all starred in sixth-man roles for championship teams in Boston. He can point to any of the 17 banners as proof that individual sacrifice can lead to team glory.

Including the one from 2007.

When the Big Three was cobbled together during the summer of 2007, Rivers asked Pierce, Garnett and Allen all to sacrifice shots and statistics in the hope that it would bring them the championship that had alluded each of them.

The Ubuntu philosophy was adopted during training camp that year when the team trekked to London and Rome and formed a bond that propelled it to the Celtics' 17th world title eight months later.

The Celtics hoped to rekindle that spirit with last week's trip to Europe and, from the post-trip reviews, are optimistic about that venture.

Regardless of how Rivers elects to finagle his lineups, his promise is to give his team the best chance at a title. For Rivers, that might lead to the tagline of this year's squad: multiple lineups, single goal.

Chris Forsberg

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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