Al Horford declared Saturday that he wants to be in the Celtics’ starting lineup and the idea of pairing him with Robert Williams in the starting frontcourt is gaining traction.
The Celtics failed miserably when they tried the two-big lineup last season with Williams, Tristan Thompson, and Daniel Theis. So Brad Stevens eventually ditched the plan.
But with Horford’s versatility, his ability to defend adequately the center and power forward positions, and to shoot the 3-pointer makes him an intriguing possibility. The Celtics, however, acquired former Minnesota swingman Juancho Hernangómez with the thought of making him the starting stretch four.
“I think with Al’s stretch and some of his versatility he has, we can get away with it,” coach Ime Udoka said about starting two traditional centers. “If you look across the board, there’s still teams that play double bigs. And then the teams that try to downsize , their small-ball fours whether it’s P.J. Tucker or the (Scottie Barnes), there are guys (Horford) could actually guard and do well with. But offensively I think he compliments Rob very well.
“We will stagger (their playing time) as well but Al brings a lot to the table and I don’t think it’s as much of a problem as people seem to think playing two bigs.”
The Celtics are working to develop rotations and it appears either Horford or Hernangomez, who played limited minutes Saturday, will get the nod along with Williams, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart.
The loser of the Hernangomez-Horford competition, along with Dennis Schröder and Josh Richardson, are locked into the second unit, with Grant Williams, Peyton Pritchard, Aaron Nesmith, Enes Kanter, and Romeo Langford vying for likely final two spots in the rotation.
Langford flourished in a starting role in place of Brown (COVID-19 protocol), scoring 13 points in 18 minutes. What’s more, all of the candidates vying for playing time have flourished in training camp, making the decision difficult for Udoka and his staff.
“We do have a good amount of depth,” Udoka said. “And that’s veterans coming off the bench as well as young guys who have stepped up, so we do feel confident in 12, 13 guys. As to start to formulate the lineups, it’s more who plays well together and complements each other. It’s only a benefit to have that versatility, different guys but we’re still challenging them throughout the rest of the preseason to step up and show us what they can do and that’s the case with Romeo and Peyton.”
Weighing on Williams
Grant Williams said on media day that he decided to lose weight in order to increase versatility. Williams played heavier last season because he became the team’s backup center with constant injuries to Robert Williams and Thompson. He wanted the weight loss to help him play more of a small forward/power forward role. It’s been effective so far.
Udoka said Williams approached him shortly after taking the Celtics job about what the third-year forward needed to do to earn a more defined role. Lose weight was at the top of the list.
“He’s not a traditional big and some of the things we’re doing defensively, I think (weight loss) helps him guarding, moving his feet better,” Udoka said. “Against us in Philadelphia in the playoffs a few years ago, he was really a big piece for them at the small-ball (center) and the way he shot the ball took us out of coverages.
“Numbers wise I don’t think he was as good last year from three but those are the things I stressed with him.”
Schröder missed Saturday’s preseason win over the Toronto Raptors with knee soreness but Udoka said it was just precautionary, and he should be ready for the season opener against the New York Knicks. Schröder is likely to come off the bench as a backup to Smart at point guard, but could play pivotal minutes in the fourth quarter.
Meanwhile, Brown continues his COVID-19 quarantine. He is targeting a return to the floor a few days before the Oct. 20 opener. Brown tested positive on Friday, meaning a 10-day quarantine would allow him to return to practice on Oct. 18.
The Celtics’ final preseason game is Oct. 16 and the team plans at least three workouts leading up to the opener.
Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.