Boston Celtics Bench is the X-Factor for 2015-16 Success


The Boston Celtics finished the preseason with a 6-1 record after beating the Philadelphia 76ers 81-65 on Friday night. Although the game was sloppy, it was another game with the same starting unit that appears to be set heading into the regular season.

The Celtics started Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley at the guard spots, Tyler Zeller in the middle, and Jae Crowder and David Lee at forward. That leaves expected contributors Isaiah Thomas, Evan Turner, Jared Sullinger, Amir Johnson, and Kelly Olynyk (once he serves his one game suspension for the Kevin Love incident in the playoffs last year) coming off the bench.

In addition, the Celtics have rookies Terry Rozier, R.J. Hunter and Jordan Mickey on the roster, with both Rozier and Hunter are expected to contribute as rookies. Rounding out the roster are James Young and Jonas Jerebko.

With an interesting mix of youth, scoring ability, untapped potential, and size, the Boston Celtics are in position to use their depth to their advantage and deep bench is the X-Factor for their success in the 2015-16 season.

While the starting lineup appears set, there is no guarantee it will be set in stone over 82 games. The Celtics have two players who are key components to the team success coming off the bench. Isaiah Thomas did excellent work coming off the bench to be the team’s leading scorer last season, but if the team continues to struggle and fall behind early–as happened far too often last year–Thomas could be in the starting rotation.

In addition, Amir Johnson has flashed scoring ability in the preseason in addition to his strong rebounding and defense. Johnson has never averaged more than 10.4 points per game in the NBA and he is part of a crowded frontcourt with veteran David Lee and Tyler Zeller starting ahead of him. However, if Johnson continues to add offense to his complete defensive game, he should eventually force his way into the starting lineup.

Guards Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley will start the season as starters, but with both of them having limited offensive firepower the Celtics could eventually opt for a guard who can do more on offense.

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Terry Rozier showed more offense than expected, but his minutes are most likely to come in Maine for the D-League. That goes for fellow rookie R.J. Hunter and even James Young, as the young players need to develop but minutes will be at a premium at guard.

Even coming off the bench, Thomas will get a lot of minutes. Improved play in the preseason–particularly in the pick-and-rolls–by Marcus Smart and he has shown that his improvement seeing the court and generating offense should give him more time at the point. Avery Bradley is a favorite of head coach Brad Stevens and with his stifling defense he should get plenty of playing time.

David Lee and Tyler Zeller are the starters up front and Lee’s ability to pass and have the offense run through him is an element the offense sorely lacked last season. Amir Johnson will push the duo for playing time and the Celtics coaches still need to find time for first round draft picks Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk. Somehow Jonas Jerebko is going to have to get on the court amid this logjam in the front court.

Sullinger needs to hustle his way into the playing time rotation by improving on defense and cleaning the glass. When Sullinger was injured or disinterested last season, the Celtics were routinely hurt by giving up too many offensive rebounds and not getting enough second chances on their own end of the court.

Sullinger (and Lee) can help limit possessions just by being average at pulling down rebounds, but Olynyk and Zeller are just never going to be bangers under the glass.

Jae Crowder starts at the small forward position but while his hustle and defense makes for a solid contributor, the Celtics are going to need scoring from that spot. Boston can go small with three guards or big with three bigs. Evan Turner should get minutes at both shooting guard and small forward and he can be a solid bench contributor. His ability to score could get him in the starting lineup ahead of Crowder eventually, but he will need to continue to play well and add instant offense from the bench.

Whether the player is starting or not, Celtics head coach Brad Stevens’ most difficult task will be getting all 15 players to buy into sacrificing starting or playing 35+ minutes a game in order to maximize team success. NBA players know that every game they play is effecting a future contract and not playing or starting will have a negative impact on their future earnings.

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Players such as Tyler Zeller, Jared Sullinger, Evan Turner, and David Lee are in the last year of their contracts (Zeller and Sullinger can be restricted free agents if the Celtics make a qualifying offer) and may not be interested in coming off the bench, playing less minutes, and not maximizing a contract year. In addition, Thomas and Johnson are being paid like starters and may feel disrespected coming off the bench.

So far, it has been tranquility at the Celtics’ training camp and no one is causing any disruption over playing time. Of course, the season has yet to start. Even so, the Celtics are exceptionally deep and have a young, hungry team which should be able to weather any injury issues which may pop up due to their depth. Also with their depth they should stay fresh late in the game and late in the season.

Now they just need that to translate into wins in 2015-16. With the veteran and young player mix, the deep bench is the X-Factor that should launch the Boston Celtics into the playoffs in the Eastern Conference.

Next: Boston Celtics: Takeaways Preseason Game vs. 76ers

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