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Roster set, Celtics must now determine roles

There will be some difficult decisions for Celtics coach Brad Stevens once training camp arrives.
There will be some difficult decisions for Celtics coach Brad Stevens once training camp arrives.STEPHAN SAVOIA/ASSOCIATED PRESS/FILE 2015

Now that Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge has handed coach Brad Stevens a multiskilled roster, it's up to Stevens to determine roles and responsibilities.

That's what happens when your roster is loaded with players of similar talents, lacking a superstar. The Celtics are going to be an entertaining team to watch but divvying up playing time might be an issue.

It's even difficult to name the starting five. Here's a guess: Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, Amir Johnson, and David Lee. Sounds pretty good until you ask what happens with Jared Sullinger, who has trimmed down and will be healthy entering training camp; Kelly Olynyk, who showed flashes of potential during the playoffs; and Isaiah Thomas, the sixth man who wants to start.

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Meanwhile, where does that leave Evan Turner, Jonas Jerebko, and Tyler Zeller? For Stevens, it will be determined by training camp performances, but there are roles players may not be crazy about.

First, Johnson and Lee have to start. Both are established veterans and staunch rebounders. The Celtics have to begin games with an interior presence at both ends. Lee is not a great defender but he can score. Johnson is not a great scorer but he can defend and protect the basket. Stevens has to see how those two will blend and it was apparent during Monday's news conference that the two are beginning to bond.

"Well, what's going through my head is a lot of pick-and-rolls," Lee said of Stevens's system. "I know he wants a lot of pick-and-roll and keep the floor spread. I'm sure I'll play some [power forward] and also some [center]. I've had a brief conversation with Coach and Danny Ainge about what they want from me and why they brought me on. Part of it was the things I can bring on the court and the other part of it was also leadership and the fact this is a young group.''

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With Johnson and Lee set in the frontcourt, Crowder should get the first opportunity to join them. He was better statistically coming off the bench last season and offered the reserves a boost, but Crowder earned a significant pay raise and deserves an opportunity to get starter's minutes, at least initially. He signed a five-year deal to potentially become a franchise cornerstone, so he should get the nod.

Bradley had his best statistical season last year, and he and Smart give the backcourt a defensive presence. Bradley is not a traditional shooting guard because he doesn't shoot a high percentage from the 3-point line nor does he get to the free throw line often enough. Bradley attempted just 1.2 free throws per game last season, low for a shooting guard.

So Stevens should bring Thomas off the bench but offer starter's minutes. In 21 games with the Celtics, Thomas attempted 137 free throws, or 6.5 per game. That will be a critical factor late in games.

Turner has the versatility to replace Smart, Bradley or Crowder, and that's the role he should fill. The starting lineup suffered at times on offense when Turner struggled from the field. Bringing him off the bench can maximize his versatility, which is his best asset.

There will be some difficult decisions for Stevens once camp arrives and Sullinger can make things interesting if he reports in premium shape. His numbers are impressive when on the court, but he has been prone to tire in the fourth quarter and became alarmingly enamored with the 3-pointer the past two seasons.

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Sullinger's role is to be determined because of his health and desire. He will be a restricted free agent next summer and his future as a Celtic could be determined by how he fares before the season even begins.

Olynyk can play center when Stevens prefers a smaller lineup and he can play power forward when Stevens wants to stretch the floor. Olynyk can intimidate teams with his shooting ability but 1) he has to actually shoot the ball; and 2) he has to actually make shots to stretch defenses.

Despite maddening stretches of inconsistency, Olynyk posted solid numbers in his second season — shooting 47.5 percent from the field and nearly 35 percent from the 3-point line — but he shot just 41.8 percent after the All-Star break, and then came his tangle with Kevin Love during the playoffs.

Olynyk, like Sullinger, is a wild card. The Celtics have made subsequent acquisitions to the frontcourt, and that should serve as a challenge to Sullinger and Olynyk.

As for the rookies, Terry Rozier will get an opportunity to back up Smart at point guard and Jordan Mickey could get occasional minutes at power forward. Second-year swingman James Young could be back in the NBADL unless he surprises in training camp. He didn't wow the organization with a summer league performance that included yet another injury.

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With such depth, the Celtics will be a dangerous team come the beginning of the season, and Stevens and Ainge will have to hope that team chemistry prevents any gripes about roles and playing time.


Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.