Some Celtics players don’t see themselves as role players — and that’s the problem
Positionless basketball is all the rage in the NBA, the idea that players are no longer typecast based on traditional job descriptions and expectations for guards, forwards, and centers. The Celtics have learned the hard way that while you can preach positionless basketball you can’t play roleless basketball. That leads to listless basketball, the Celtics’ brand of hoops thus far.
A Celtics team that was supposed to be the East Coast answer to the Golden State Warriors started the season with the same record through 20 games as the Orlando Magic (10-10) before defeating the New Orleans Pelicans on Monday night to pull back above .500 more than a quarter through the season. The progeny of the parquet have struggled to wrap their arms around the expectations for their team and their individual roles on a team with such a passel of starting-caliber NBA players. The problem for coach Brad Stevens isn’t pick-and-roll defense. It’s picking roles for his players and getting them to buy into the idea that doing less individually equates to more success collectively.
The Celtics have more than enough talent to prevail over Toronto, Milwaukee, or Philadelphia in the East. What they don’t have is enough sacrifice and acceptance of roles to this point. They don’t know their player pecking order after Kyrie Irving. There is jockeying for position, for shots, for plaudits. There are reserves such as point guard Terry Rozier proclaiming on podcasts that they don’t see themselves as a sixth man when that’s exactly what their role needs to be.
If the Celtics want to be the Warriors they have to embrace roles like the Warriors do. Of course Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Andre Iguodala are capable of putting up bigger numbers on a nightly basis than they do with Golden State, but they accept their roles. The Celtics will be a collection of talent instead of a contending T-E-A-M until they do the same.
Stevens took a huge step toward rectifying this issue when he inserted Marcus Smart into the starting lineup against the Pelicans with Jaylen Brown out with a bruised tailbone. It’s not a coincidence that the Celtics found hoops harmony with Smart and Marcus Morris in the starting five alongside Irving, Al Horford, and Jayson Tatum. Smart and Morris are bench players who understand the roles they’re required to play on the Celtics, even if they once chafed at them a bit.
Morris made it known last season that he wasn’t pleased with being a reserve, but this season he embraced the role with elan, christening the bench with the catchy cognomen BWA (Bench with Attitude). Morris is an edgy power forward who stretches the floor with knock-down shooting (43.2 percent from 3-point range this season). Smart is the competitive conscience of the Celtics, a basketball crash-test dummy who flings his body on the floor without hesitation and speaks his mind without reservation. He’s also an outstanding multipositional defender and high-level processor of play who despite his shooting shortcomings has a knack for facilitating quality offense.
These are players who know who they are and what they are in the NBA.
The starting lineup the Celtics trotted out in New Orleans has defined roles. It also has a plus-25.1 net rating, generating 121.7 points per 100 possessions while allowing just 96.6 points per 100 possessions. The Celtics’ overall team offensive rating is 105.5 and the defensive rating is 103.1. Morris is part of the top three Boston quintets in offensive rating for groups that have been on the floor for 20 or more minutes this season. Smart is part of three of the top five.
No wonder Irving expressed his desire for Smart to remain in the starting lineup following the Pelicans game.
The Marcuses make a difference. On Wednesday, Stevens declared Morris the team’s most consistent player this season. He lauded Smart’s energy and intensity, expressing that he wishes he could employ them both in the starting lineup and off the bench at the same time. That’s not possible, unless Smart gets cloned. But it’s not a coincidence that Stevens seems happiest with his role players in what has been a trying season.
Stevens is not without culpability in the Celtics’ slow start. He channeled a Little League dad mentality with Gordon Hayward to start the season — my kid is going to play no matter what. Stevens and the Celtics seemed to have a hard time reconciling the Utah Jazz do-it-all All-Star player they signed with the Hayward who is working his way back from last season’s gruesome ankle injury. The name on the back of the jersey is the same, but the player is not.
The Celtics have to treat Hayward like the player he is right now, which is one worthy of a bench role, not the player he will be when he fully returns to form 40-some-odd games into the season.
Kudos to Hayward for being willing to accept a bench role, starting with the Nov. 20 game against the Hornets. Not a lot of players of his pedigree or salary would sign off on that switch. Some of Hayward’s teammates need to follow his lead. The Celtics might be a better team with both Hayward and Brown playing off the bench.
One of the biggest shocks of the NBA season, along with the play of Doc Rivers’s Clippers, is that the Celtics’ dream five of Irving, Hayward, Brown, Tatum, and Horford not only didn’t click, but faceplanted. Boston’s ostensible Fab Five fell flat and flatlined, lacking passion and purpose, two elements that Smart and Morris don’t long for on the court.
Eventually that five will display better chemistry through experience.
In hoops hindsight, the problem for the Celtics is that all five of those players do their best work on the offensive end. There is not a Draymond Green or a Kevin Garnett in the bunch to impose his will without scoring. Compounding the issue is that Tatum and Brown are young players actively testing and finding their limits in the league, still trying to make their marks.
It’s often older, veteran players who are more willing and equipped to figure out how to tone down their individual lights enough to allow the team to shine brightest. Like guiding a car’s steering wheel, it requires constant adjustments, and it’s something Brown, Tatum, and Rozier didn’t have to do in the playoffs last season as they fired away without Irving and Hayward, propelling the Celtics to the brink of the NBA Finals.
Boston’s bumpy start to a possible banner season provides you with a greater sense of appreciation for what Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen accomplished in their first season together. Harnessing the spirit of ubuntu, the New Big Three showcased instant chemistry and instant selflessness. Allen was the one who had to sacrifice the most, yet he always answered the call when asked to step up.
That’s the altruistic spirit the Celtics need to discover.
With Friday’s game against the Cavaliers commencing a stretch of nine games that sees the Celtics play just one team that entered Wednesday with a winning record, now is a good time for the Celtics to role play.
Once the Celtics define and accept their roles they can get on the roll we all anticipated they would be on from the start.
Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.