Divvying up playing time may be the biggest challenge for Brad Stevens
On Sept. 25, the Celtics ended their first day of training camp with a scrimmage. The white team was facing the green team.
The white team was made up of the players who are most likely to start when Boston opens the regular season against the 76ers next Tuesday: Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Al Horford, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown. The green team closely resembled what will be Boston’s second unit: Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart, Aron Baynes, Marcus Morris, and Semi Ojeleye.
For most teams, pitting the starters against the reserves would result in something quite lopsided. And Boston’s starting lineup will include three former All-Stars and two players many believe will eventually earn those honors.
But on this opening day, the white team was actually trailing the green team by 2 points in the final seconds before Irving drilled a difficult 3-pointer to give his squad a 30-29 win.
It was just one tiny slice in the opening hours of this anticipation-filled season, but it was also the first indicator of how deep these Celtics are expected to be. And that depth will be particularly important during grueling stretches of the season, or when injuries pop up, but it could also create some challenges for coach Brad Stevens, because even though there are more capable players at his disposal than ever before, there are not more minutes.
“All 15 guys on every team want to play all 48 minutes,” Stevens said. “It’s just kind of the way that every season goes.
“Obviously, with guys back that have played increased minutes before, that’s maybe going to be challenging to others at times if they play a little bit less and don’t quite do what they did in games at times last year.
“But everybody is going to have their opportunity. Everybody’s going to have enough time to shine.”
Last season, opportunities were opened up by injuries. Hayward probably would have played about 33 minutes per game, but then he was lost for the year after getting hurt in the season opener. And those 33 minutes had to be filled somewhere, so young wings like Tatum and Brown saw an increased workload.
Then on March 11, Irving was lost with a sore knee that ultimately required surgery to remove infected hardware, so Rozier stepped in and averaged a team-high 36.6 minutes during the playoffs, 10.7 more than his regular-season output.
Now, Irving and Hayward are back and healthy, along with backup center Daniel Theis, who missed the final three months of last season with a torn meniscus.
“I’d rather be too deep of a team than not enough,” Irving said. “I’ve been on a few teams where we didn’t have enough talent, and that was scary. I’m happy to be a part of this and learn from this experience.
“Guys are just so talented. We’re going to have to figure out just being ourselves and playing the game the right way.”
Several of the Celtics’ younger players will likely see their roles decreased — even if only slightly. Irving and Hayward are stars, and they will play extensively.
That could pose a challenge for players such as Brown and Tatum, who are looking to continue their ascensions. But they will both start and play big minutes, too. Rozier and Morris could be the two most likely to become frustrated with diminished responsibilities.
Rozier, who has shown he is capable of being a starting point guard, will likely become a restricted free agent at season’s end. So this will be an important showcase year for him. Morris, meanwhile, will be an unrestricted free agent, and he has already mentioned that he has some concerns about what his role will become.
Hayward said there have already been positive, internal discussions about how players will embrace their roles. And he said that the experience some of the younger players got last year will be invaluable this year.
“There’s going to be situations where someone is going to get hurt again, someone is going to be sick, someone is going to be having a bad game, as it does to every team throughout the year,” Hayward said. “For us to have so many guys that we can rely on to go get a bucket or get a big-time stop, that’s huge for us as a team.”
President of basketball operations Danny Ainge, for one, does not think the distribution of playing time will become an issue, because the players realize how talented their teammates truly are.
There is no shame in subbing in for Irving or Hayward or Horford.
“I sense that it’s our job and the players’ jobs to understand that sacrifices have to be made by everybody on the team, some more than others,” Ainge said. “And I think they’ll get that.”