Celtics Rotation Questions, COVID Concerns and Kemba's Return

Celtics Mailbag: Lineup questions, COVID concerns and Kemba's return originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The Boston Celtics have now had consecutive games postponed due to health and safety protocols related to COVID-19.

That’s no fun and we’d be lying if we said we had any answers about how the NBA can get to a place where the pandemic is wreaking havoc on its schedule.

But the pause in the action did afford us a chance to dust off the Celtics Mailbag for the first time in the 2020-21 season.

So let’s try to put the spotlight on where the Celtics stand through 10 games and what lies ahead once they’re back on the floor: 

Ooooh, an open-ended query. Here’s the first three things that jumped to mind: 

1. Jaylen Brown’s offseason improvements

I know, I know. We should stop being surprised whenever Jaylen Brown makes marked improvement between seasons. But the Celtics’ offseason this year was like two weeks and Brown STILL came back looking like he spent three months in a jump-shot laboratory.

Brown is shooting an absurd 52 percent on all shots 17 feet and beyond. He’s connecting on 65.1 percent of his shots from the midrange and 42.1 percent beyond the 3-point arc. That’s a notable boost even from his solid bubble playoff averages (53.1 percent in the midrange, 35.8 percent on 3s). All this while his assist rate has nearly doubled from last season while he shows tighter ball-handling and better court vision.

Where Tatum, Brown rank among Top 10 players in East

It cannot be overstated how well Brown has played out of the gates, performing at an All-NBA level through Boston’s first 10 games.

2. Payton Pritchard's rookie impact

With Kemba Walker sidelined to start the year, the odds seemed pretty good that the 26th overall pick in November’s draft would get an early opportunity to show what he could do. We did not, however, envision Pritchard being fourth on the team in total minutes through 10 games, nor did we suspect he’d be a crunch-time contributor with Boston going 4-1 in the five crunch-time games he’s appeared in.

It’s a small sample (5 total crunch minutes) but he’s made a major impact, including a game-winning putback in Miami. Even when Kemba Walker is healthy enough to return, it seems likely that Pritchard will have a bench role for this team.

3. Semi Ojeleye’s impact

There was a solid 36 hours in November where it looked like Ojeleye’s time in Boston was over. He had a non-guaranteed contract and, as the Celtics waited to see how Gordon Hayward’s free agency played out, it seemed likely that Ojeleye would fall victim to roster glut. Then Hayward surprised everyone by signing in Charlotte and the Celtics elected to hang on to Ojeleye for additional depth. It’s a good thing they did.

Now 10 games in, Ojeleye leads the team in net rating (plus-14.1) and the Celtics have an offensive rating of 119.3 in his 156 minutes of floor time. That’s seven points higher than the team’s season average. Can Ojeleye stay above 40 percent beyond the 3-point arc the entire season and be a steady defensive presence? He did shoot 37.8 percent overall last year but simply wasn’t able to carry that success into the postseason.

The bigger question is, when Boston is at full health, does Ojeleye still crack the rotation or can the team confidently lean on Grant Williams in those spots?

Sticking with the surprise theme here early in the 'bag, Romeo Langford was our preseason pick for Celtics player most likely to astonish this season. Boston’s lack of wing depth -- at least if they don’t use a slice of the Hayward trade exception to address it (more on that in a future ‘bag) -- is going to give Langford an opportunity to carve out a backup role behind Brown and Jayson Tatum.

He earned Brad Stevens’ trust last year by playing solid defense but the scouting report on Langford coming out of college was mostly about his offensive potential, particularly his pick-and-roll play.

The Celtics have been working to improve his jump shot but he’s a bit of a forgotten man because of all his injuries. Still, we can see him being part of Boston’s eight- or nine-man playoff rotation. I remember a lot of Will Barton comparisons when Langford got drafted but he’s going to have to really improve his 3-point shot for that to be accurate.

Right now? Very close. But only because the Celtics might have no other choice. Of the eight players Boston would have dressed for Sunday’s postponed game against Miami, Nesmith would have been the only wing.

If there’s a silver lining to the possibility of teams playing games shorthanded, it’s that youngsters like Nesmith will get a chance to play through mistakes. That’s a luxury that most No. 14 picks have on a typical lottery team. But the Celtics have loftier goals and Stevens has always been a bit reluctant to lean on rookies who haven’t proven themselves on the defensive end.

Listen to people talk about Nesmith’s work ethic and you can feel pretty confident he’ll make the strides necessary to eventually earn that trust. But his opportunities to show it on the floor this season could hinge on the availability of others.

Celtics Talk Podcast: Tatum and Brown shine off the court, plus Payton Pritchard Mania still running wild | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube

Walker’s role really doesn’t change. His job is to take attention off the Jays and make the right basketball play. During the bubble playoffs, Walker had already started to defer more to Tatum and Brown. Just look at the trio's usage rates from last year:

Jayson Tatum28.027.5
Jaylen Brown26.823.3
Kemba Walker24.522.5

I wouldn’t expect Walker to play an outrageous amount of minutes, either, especially out of the gates, so there shouldn’t be a shortage of touches for that trio as he works his way back.

Given Brown’s ascension, Walker probably needs to be even slightly more deferential but, as the risk of going full Stevens here, if each player makes the right play and doesn’t force anything, then the Celtics will get plenty of good looks for everyone involved.

Stevens has repeatedly hinted at wanting to bring down the minute totals for his core players -- Brown, Tatum, and Marcus Smart -- so we could see some of Walker’s playing time coming from that group. Pritchard and Jeff Teague will see a dip as well. But the Celtics have so rarely been at full strength that we wouldn’t sweat whether someone is going to fall completely out of the rotation just yet.

Credit to Stevens, he’s a creature of habit. He likes to experiment with lineups and rotations during the season. He’s going to let his team try to play through rough patches even when everyone else in the world is screaming at their television for a timeout. He isn’t about to overhaul his sideline demeanor now. He loves breaking your brother-in-law's toilet. 

Forsberg: How the C's might adjust without Jayson Tatum

But it is fair to be critical when the Celtics are falling into some of the same bad habits that cost them in the bubble -- fumbling away big leads, low-energy quarters. We need a bit more of a sample before we’re ready to declare that these issues fall solely on Stevens -- his players have to make better decisions and take better shots at times -- but clearly it’s on the coach to make sure they don’t continue to linger.

The average height of the Celtics on Sunday would have been about 6-foot-4 if they had played with their eight available bodies. The two-big lineup should be the least of your concerns at the moment.

Stevens has already noted that, when Walker returns, the team will use a bunch more small-ball looks. Early in the year, while the team was initially overflowing with healthy bigs, Stevens gave it ample run to gauge its long-term feasibility and create playing time for all his 5s. The data has clearly suggested the core of this team thrives more commonly with additional shooting.

But Stevens will be ready if there’s a matchup he believes he can exploit with a two-big lineup further down the road (and maybe having a healthy Walker will allow two-big groups to thrive more down the road).

Williams certainly has to continue to develop his offensive game. Part of the reason he’s played a more limited role this year is that the Celtics have an offensive rating of 105.2 in his floor time (more than 7 points below their season average).

All that said, he shot 58.8 percent on 3s in the postseason last year and he’s at 41.2 percent from deep this year. That’s encouraging, but now he’s gotta find ways to keep defenses honest when that shot isn’t falling.

I’m not an epidemiologist and while I’ve heard some medical professionals suggest a break wouldn’t be the worst idea for the league to get its current issues under wrap, I’m not sure if it’s the long-term solution. Even after a short break, wouldn’t the same issues arise if COVID numbers continue to surge -- or even just remain high -- across the country? The problem is that, outside the bubble, there are simply too many variables that teams cannot control. 

We don’t love the idea of simply powering through because the integrity of the product is compromised if a team like the Celtics is trotting out an eight-man roster deprived of stars. And we’re not convinced a bubble is feasible given the costs and logistics.

Mannix: NBA is 'going to continue to push through'

Ultimately, we’re left wondering if smaller changes could be made. Maybe the league revisits how it handles close contacts and how fast those players can resume game activity. Maybe the league expands rosters so teams thinned by health and safety protocols are not forced to over-exert their few remaining players. Maybe the league can find ways to tweak practices and shootarounds to eliminate the amount of close contact that occurs between players.

Unfortunately, there’s no easy answers and, as the past nine months confirm, no quick fixes. Maybe vaccination is a possibility further down the road after those that need it most are accommodated. But the league needs to figure out ways to maximize the safety of its players and maybe find new ways to ensure the product on the court isn’t overly impacted by the absence of affected players.

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