It’s been 132 days since the Boston Celtics were unceremoniously bounced in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Basketball returns to TD Garden on Sunday night when a new-look Celtics team hosts the Philadelphia 76ers in their preseason opener.
It’s the start of three games in four nights for a Celtics team that is gushing with talent and potential entering the 2023-24 season. But a whole bunch of questions linger as this group starts a new quest with familiar title hopes.
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Will we get any firm answers over the next few days? Probably not. But maybe we’ll get some hints and start answering the questions that linger entering the new campaign.
Here's what we’ll be looking for clues on:
What is the starting five?
Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla warned everyone Saturday not to read too much into lineups, especially in Sunday’s opener.
"Absolutely nothing. Please," said Mazzulla. "I know you guys aren’t going to listen to me, but whatever I do [Sunday] -- I almost thought about starting someone way off the bat just to throw you guys off but I was talked out of it. So don’t read anything into it.
“You have to have an understanding that we have eight, nine starters. And one of the things I thought (was) the strength of our team last year was when guys were out -- like, I remember the game at Toronto and we had like three or four guys out and we won. And at Milwaukee we lost at the buzzer with four guys out. So the season just breeds challenges and opportunities, and we have a lot of, lot of good players. And whether I start one one game and not one game, we just have to be ready for that and just know each decision makes the most sense for us to win.”
Here’s what we do know: Boston has, arguably, the best top six in the NBA. And that means, wild cards and rest situations notwithstanding, at least one really good player is getting squeezed from the starting five.
Will Boston start big with both Al Horford and offseason acquisition Kristaps Porzingis sharing a frontcourt with Jayson Tatum? Will Boston go small(ish) and trot out an All-Defense backcourt of Derrick White and Jrue Holiday?
You can make an argument for both looks. Boston’s lack of depth at the center spot, having just dealt away Robert Williams III, combined with the age of Horford and health of Porzingis, might suggest starting small. But even at 37, it’s hard to imagine Horford in a reserve role given how he’s thrived with this core.
White embraced a hybrid role last year, more often elevating to starter in place of injured teammates, but moving him to the bench would be slightly awkward after Mazzulla declared him the starting point guard in July. The addition of Holiday makes it easy to explain away a change, and White is the sort of pro who wouldn’t squawk about it, but he’s overdue for an uptick in total playing time based on the team’s success with him on the court.
Mazzulla continues to insist that it comes down to maximizing Boston’s overall talent.
“What's the strength of our roster? How do we maximize each guy, and then what makes the most sense in each situation?” said Mazzulla. "So I think the thing this year is like, every time we make a decision, because we're so good and so deep, there's always going to be like, ‘We should have done this and we should have done that.’ But at the end of the day, you can only play five guys and we're gonna put the five best guys in that particular situation. And they have to work to execute as best they can.
"So it's just coming up with anticipating what makes the most sense in each situation and then how do we take advantage of that.”
Which role player is ready to kick their way into the top seven?
The Celtics don’t need an answer to this question until mid-April when the playoffs start but it would be helpful if someone forced the issue sooner.
While the Celtics most certainly need some steady minutes from their depth pieces to navigate the grind of an 82-game regular season, there might only be a robust playoff role for one player. So who will it be?
Sam Hauser, Payton Pritchard, and Luke Kornet will get every opportunity to show they deserve consistent floor time. Hauser thrived at the start of the 2022-23 season and was a plus/minus darling before some inconsistencies diminished his role later in the year. Pritchard, after being stuck deep on the ball-handling depth chart last season, has a chance to eat minutes behind White and Holiday this year. Kornet, particularly if Boston regularly rests its primary bigs, will have a robust role.
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Even with Tatum and Jaylen Brown likely shouldering much of the wing minutes, offseason signees Oshae Brissett (and maybe Lamar Stevens, too) will vie for the bulk of backup wing minutes. They will both have to evolve their offensive toolboxes, though their defense-and-grit focus could distinguish them.
Ultimately, it’s on Mazzulla, too, to show that he will trust those players and not overburden his stars. That’s easy in the preseason; not so much when the games really matter.
Hauser and Grant Williams saw their roles evaporate late last season. Pritchard yearned to be traded to a team with a bigger opportunity. Ultimately, Mazzulla has to empower that group, even if only one of those players might ultimately emerge as a postseason presence.
Are Celtics better ready to handle Mazzulla’s timeout strategy?
A consistent theme last season was Mazzulla’s unwillingness to call timeouts when his team lost its way. Mazzulla steadfastly declared that he wanted his players to learn how to navigate adversity. But even he got a little quicker with stoppages in the playoffs while often trying to save his team from itself.
The talent upgrade this season could eliminate some of those painful five-minute stretches where Boston couldn’t buy a bucket. There’s little reason that a team should ever go on a big run given Boston’s defensive potential. But, invariably, both things are going to happen. How will Boston players respond if Mazzulla lets them play through their struggles?
Mazzulla has suggested he has to have his crew better prepared for those moments. It probably won’t be perfect immediately but we’re eager to see exactly what sort of balance is struck with the coach’s somewhat unique philosophy and how his players handle that.
Does Boston have enough big man depth?
Big man availability was a concern even when Williams III was on the roster, and while Time Lord wasn’t a beacon for games played, his departure thins the depth chart and puts more of an onus on Horford and Porzingis to stay healthy.
Celtics brass have been bullish on Kornet in each of the past two seasons and believe he can be the ideal depth option.
“[Backup big] starts with Luke. I thought Luke really did a great job last year,” said Mazzulla. "I think he’s an underrated player and I don’t think people realize how effective he is. He’s a guy that’s always in the right spot defensively, and he’s a guy that makes the right play on the offensive end, and he makes the right screen read almost every single time and creates two-on-ones for us, and he can guard our defensive system very well and communicate it.
"So, we’re gonna heavily rely on Luke because of what he did last year and how he carries himself, and then the preseason is an opportunity for the other guys to see who can fall along those lines of what Luke does for us.”
Still, if Horford and Porzingis need to rest, particularly on the second night of back-to-backs, Boston needs to be able to really lean on its big-man depth.
Maybe Kornet alleviates that concern. Maybe a big hits the free-agent market as teams cut down. Or maybe the team will wait and explore an in-season trade for a depth option. Three preseason games in four nights is going to give us a better idea of what Kornet, Wenyen Gabriel, and two-way big man Neemias Queta can bring the team.
What is the closing five?
This almost certainly won’t have an answer until the real games start as we don’t see Boston’s stars logging heavy fourth-quarter playing time in these preseason games. But it is one of the bigger questions to pin down.
For now, Mazzulla is, again, preaching flexibility.
"Matchups, second night of back-to-backs, are we winning or losing? Do we need a certain lineup out there because we have to score at the end of the game or do we need a lineup out there because we have to get stops at the end of the game and our offense will take care of itself?” said Mazzulla. "I think one thing we learned is we can’t just have a fastball and I think some of the lineups we put out there at certain times will give us curveballs that we need when it matters most.”
The Celtics never quite found a closing lineup that worked last season, whether because of injuries or inconsistent play. Having Holiday as a more willing playmaker in closing time could help Boston find more consistency with that group. White showed he needs to be on the court more in end-of-game situations and there should be ample opportunity for the Celtics to go small with a single big in those situations.
But, much like the starting group, that makes it tough to figure out who isn’t on the court. Is one of Horford or Porzingis an odd man out at times at the end of games?
Having to figure out who won't play is probably easier than most teams that are sweating who can play in those situations. But let the 2018-19 season be a reminder that it’s important for players to embrace sacrifice and potential dips in their personal stat line for the betterment of the team.
The search for some answers starts Sunday night.