Call it a contender’s conundrum. A pleasant problem, if there is such a thing. Or maybe a dilemma of depth.
Not quite two full seasons into his tenure as Celtics president of basketball operations, Brad Stevens — who is off to an Auerbachian start when it comes to talent procurement in this savvier era, when no one is trading the rights to elite college prospects for Ice Capades dates — has assembled a roster with more than five players who deserve to be on the court when a game’s outcome is at stake.
Having the trustworthy, talented likes of Derrick White and Malcolm Brogdon coming off the bench — at least on the nights when the standard starting five of Robert Williams, Al Horford, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart is intact — is the definition of an NBA first-world problem.
The first Celtics game I remember with any clarity was John Havlicek’s last, on April 9, 1978. I’ve been blessed to watch some extraordinary players and teams — including champions in 1981, ‘84, ‘86, and ‘08 — over the last many, many years since Hondo hung ‘em up.
The ‘81 champs, with Larry Bird and Finals Most Valuable Player Cedric Maxwell entrenched at forward, brought rookie Kevin McHale off the bench for 20 minutes per game. (He started one game.) Gerald Henderson, M.L. Carr, and Rick Robey offered plenty in reserve.
The ‘86 Celtics, a/k/a the greatest team in NBA history to anyone who pays attention, hit the jackpot with the Bill Walton redemption, and what a treat it was to watch Bird and Walton have one magical, healthy season together. Scott Wedman was a dead-eye shooter off the bench and a former All-Star himself with the Kansas City Kings. That makes for an unbeatable top seven. But wasn’t Jerry Sichting more or less a prototype for Payton Pritchard, who picks up plenty of DNP/Too Many Excellent Players Ahead of Him for this team?
The ‘08 Celtics? First of all, how has it been 15 years already? It’s wild that en route to Banner 17, they had to overcome a Hawks team that featured rookie Al Horford. So maybe it hasn’t been that long. That Celtics team had several helpful players coming off the bench — ultimate glue guy James Posey, 3-point bomber Eddie House, essential late-season pickup P.J. Brown, and Phil Jackson favorite Leon Powe.
But this year’s bench group — with White and Brogdon at the forefront, but also Grant Williams, Sam Hauser, Mike Muscala, and even ultimate teammate Blake Griffin (he’s going to have a big playoff moment, I’m telling you) — is the best I’ve seen in green.
It also happens to be something rookie head coach Joe Mazzulla is going to have to navigate with some deftness as the games get more important and the playoffs arrive. Tenure and stature cannot be factors. Those who are playing the best must be on the court when the game is on the line.
More specifically, there are going to be situations in which it is wise to play White over Smart. And Mazzulla is going to have to have the nerve to do it.
We can agree on the baseline truth that Tatum and Brown are the Celtics’ two best players. But their third-best player seems to vary. Sometimes, when there’s a little extra bounce in his legs, it’s Williams. Horford still mixes in a flashback or two, such as when he drilled five 3-pointers in the second half against the Sixers Saturday night. Brogdon is on many if not most nights their third-best offensive threat, and if he doesn’t win Sixth Man of the Year, there ought to be an investigation. Smart has always been the defensive pest, but he’s finally getting deserved accolades for his passing and high basketball IQ, save for the occasional bad shot. He’s going to make a heck of a coach someday, wait and see.
But their third-best player, more than anyone else lately, has been White. He delivered some big contributions last season after coming over in a February trade with the Spurs, including a 21-point performance in a Game 1 win over the Warriors in the NBA Finals. But it did take the understated White time to get acclimated to a team with a lot of big personalities, and he tended to recede into the background — but contributing still — if his shot betrayed him early in games.
This year, he has been a model of consistency and usually a picture of confidence, even if the first shot doesn’t drop. He is the ideal sidekick for Tatum and Brown, a ball-mover, connector, and fast thinker who no longer is shy about creating his own shot. He’s a quick-handed, sly defender who swats shots like a young Dennis Johnson.
I still cannot believe Stevens went out and acquired exactly — exactly — what the Celtics needed last year when he acquired White. He’d better have sent Gregg Popovich a nice bottle of wine after the Spurs sent White to Boston.
White and Brogdon are intelligent, do-the-right thing players. The Celtics are a smarter, more dependable team now because of experience, and because Tatum and Brown have matured into the players Danny Ainge envisioned them being, but also because of the arrival of White and Brogdon.
In Smart, White, and Brogdon, the Celtics have three guards with different but valuable skill sets. Even during Monday’s frustrating loss to the Knicks, when Brown did not play and open threes refused to fall, Brogdon (22 points) and Smart (19) combined to shoot 17 of 31. All other Celtics combined to go 20 of 53. White shot just 4 of 11 but was the lone player among those who played at least 12 minutes who did not have a negative plus-minus.
Unless Mazzulla figures out a way to sneak a sixth player on the court late in games, there will be some tough decisions to make in crunch time.
The easiest solution, if it’s not wholly matchup-based, is to go with who is playing the best game that night. Some nights that will be Smart. Some nights Brogdon, hopefully. But lately, few players anywhere are playing better than White.
This much is certain: The Celtics’ dilemma of depth should be the envy of the league — and if the coach manages it correctly, it could very well lead to Banner No. 18.