The Celtics entered last season with an abundance of talent, leaving coach Brad Stevens with difficult choices to make when distributing playing time, and sometimes leaving deserving players sulking about their roles.
This year, the hierarchy has been much more obvious from the start, and Stevens has made it clear that there is a collection of five players who will simply play more and be tasked with doing more than the others.
That group consists of Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, and Jayson Tatum. All five are averaging more than 30 minutes per game, with Daniel Theis the next closest on the team at 21.9.
But with the season nearly one-third complete, the Celtics still do not really know what they are capable of when all five of these players are available at once.
“Selfishly, I’d like to have everybody back,” Stevens said, “so that we can start to throw together our rotations and play guys together and try different things with regard to getting groups out there.”
Smart on Wednesday is expected to miss his fourth consecutive game because of an eye infection. Before that, Hayward missed 13 games because of a broken hand. Before that, Brown missed three games because of an illness.
“Usually you have to deal with a couple of those things over the course of the season,” Hayward said. “But it seems like for whatever reason we’ve dealt with that and haven’t had our full squad here. It’s hard not having everybody.”
The Celtics’ primary five have played in the same game just five times all season. Boston went 4-1 in those games — the lone loss coming on opening night against the 76ers — and outscored opponents by a total of 66 points over that span.
Those five players are not expected to start together. Smart came off the bench when all five were available earlier in the season.
But Stevens has envisioned the possibilities that could come from unfurling them as one speedy, defensively versatile, shot-making unit. So far this season, the core five have shared the court for just five minutes. And even when they are not all on the floor simultaneously, their mere presence will unlock so many more options and combinations.
“I’d like to have three of them on the court at once,” Stevens said. “There’s no reason we can’t do that at all times. Obviously some games are going to be different, where you want to look at different things. Say we want to play some new guys a little bit more with certain guys, or try different rotations. We can do some of that. I would like to get to the point where we can feel good about being able to keep three of those guys on the court at once.”
The good news for the Celtics is that they might not have to wait much longer. Smart’s eye infection is not believed to be a lasting issue, and the other four players are healthy entering Wednesday night’s game in Dallas.
“We just are really dynamic,” Tatum said. “We have a lot of guys that can do a lot of different things. I’m excited for everybody to get healthy. It’s going to be fun.”
Hayward flashed a wide smile when he thought about what the 17-7 Celtics might look like on the court when their top weapons are finally together again.
“It’s definitely exciting thinking about when we have our full squad, what we can do,” Hayward said. “We’re kind of just waiting for that day to come where we can all be healthy for extended periods of time. Initially when people come back there’s just an adjustment period. Then the more you play with each other the better usually you get and the chemistry is building and things like that. So we’ve got to have everybody back before we can start that.”
Celtics center Vincent Poirier will undergo surgery to repair a broken right pinkie and is expected to be sidelined for about six weeks. Poirier, who has played a total of just 44 minutes this season, suffered the injury when battling for a rebound with Theis during Monday’s practice. With Poirier and Robert Williams (hip) out, Stevens said the Celtics could turn to rookie forward Grant Williams and two-way contract center Tacko Fall for some frontcourt depth.