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Sunday, October 27, 2013
Celtics' starting 5 is anyone's guess

By Chris Forsberg
ESPNBoston.com

Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens arrived at the team's Shamrock Gala on Thursday night with his wife, Tracy, by his side and, spotting reporters, he shuffled over for media obligations. When he was told that maybe we'd rather talk to Tracy, he smiled and quipped, "You should, she knows the starting five."

Outside of the Stevens family, the lineup is anyone's guess.

The Celtics employed five different five-man combinations over an eight-game exhibition slate. Avery Bradley was the only player to start all eight games, while Stevens mixed and matched around him.

Avery Bradley
Avery Bradley is just about the only certainty in the Celtics' starting five.

The starting lineup has been a daily topic of conversation, something that Stevens seems to find amusing. Like most coaches, he has often stressed that it's far more important which five players are on the floor to finish the games, but he has remained coy about which way he's leaning in advance of Wednesday's regular-season opener in Toronto.

"I think you're always looking for the best [rotation] for your team," said Stevens. "Sometimes you know that really early, sometimes that develops over time. Sometimes guys show themselves true in roles you never thought that they would. Sometimes you find that by accident. Sometimes you find that on purpose. I've had it both ways.

"The two teams that went to the national title game for us at Butler, the first one [had] basically the same starting lineup for two years. You knew every day what their roles were; you knew every day what they were going to do and what they were, and that was part of it. And then the second one, we might have mixed it up seven to 10 times throughout the course of the season. It took us awhile to find it and so that's just part of it. I think it can go both ways."

Determining a starting five would be a whole lot easier if injuries were not a part of the process. With Rajon Rondo in the final stages of rehab from ACL surgery, the Celtics will navigate the early part of the season without their top pure ball handler. Bradley will be the starting point, but how the lineup shakes down from there remains to be seen.

Stevens paired Bradley with another combo guard for much of the preseason (Jordan Crawford started four games; Courtney Lee three) to help ease those ballhandling responsibilities. But late in the exhibition slate, Stevens found an intriguing pairing when Jeff Green and Gerald Wallace shared the floor. In the final preseason game against Brooklyn, Wallace and Green occupied the swing spots in a lineup that included Bradley and a rookie frontcourt of Kelly Olynyk and Vitor Faverani.

Stevens could elect to simply use the Green/Wallace combo as an early sub lineup, but did hint that it might be in Boston's best interest to think outside the box, particularly with a roster that even Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge admits is not ideally balanced by position.

"The way I look at it is, you look at what fits your team and how can you be different," said Stevens. "Sometimes you look at it and say, 'OK, I'm looking at positions and I've gotta peg somebody or fit somebody into a position.' Then sometimes you just decide that being different might be better. We're trying to decide that. But I think that [Green/Wallace] lineup offers a little bit of different, and I think that might be better for us."

Complicating matters, Wallace received a cortisone shot in a bothersome left ankle last week and sat out two days of practice last week. He expects to be full-go when the Celtics return to the floor on Monday, but bumps and bruises only complicate determining a steady rotation.

Heck, even if you peg Bradley, Wallace and Green as starters, picking the power forward/center combination is no easy task, either, because of injuries. Faverani underwent an MRI last week on a sore back. It was negative, but minor injuries have lingered for him since joining the team this summer. Jared Sullinger is coming off back surgery and must prove he's worked his way back into complete game shape in order to handle a starter's workload.

The safer move, at least early in the season, might be to lean on Brandon Bass, who started six preseason games (second-highest total behind Bradley) and brings a steadying defensive presence. Kris Humphries had a rather unremarkable camp in limited minutes, but will get every chance to re-establish himself as a double-double guy.

Stevens, who himself is adjusting to the NBA level and the longer games, admitted the ideal NBA rotation would feature nine or 10 players. But Boston's roster is logjammed at the shooting guard and power forward spots, meaning the rotation is naturally muddied.

"I think the interesting part is we have a lot of evenness on our team, so what happens on Oct. 30, might not be what happens on Feb. 1," said Stevens. "It's going to change, it's going to be tweaked, then you're going to go through some good times and some bad times, and you end up changing your lineup on that."

All of which suggests that you shouldn't get too comfortable with any combination this season. When Rondo returns -- he's hinted at being back in December -- the lineup will morph. If the Celtics swing any in-season deals, particularly at the February trade deadline, the rotation will be shuffled again.

Downplay it as Stevens might, the starting five is important to Boston. There's not enough pure individual talent here for the Celtics to be a contender and few have pegged them to win more than 30 games this season. The only way they exceed that number is by finding units that maximize talent. Celtics players must extract the best from one another.

To their credit, Boston players have taken the lineup chatter in stride. Most have said they'll abide by whatever Stevens decides.

Maybe Wallace summed it up best. Asked if he likes the idea of sharing the floor with Green this season, he offered, "It don't matter to me who I play with, as long as they play hard."