The Boston Celtics could benefit from putting Marcus Smart in the starting lineup instead of Amir Johnson
The Boston Celtics have been shifting their lineups all season long, and they have always had a tendency to go towards small ball. With three of their best players being guards, it may be time for the Celtics to try starting the game out with all three of them together. Stevens has always used this lineup, but the fact that it gives them their most talented five man option makes it too intriguing to not try out. Even if it is not the starting unit, this should be the lineup that gets the most minutes together on the court.
Versatility will be the key tp maintaining that lineup, and that is why Marcus Smart is the perfect third guard to start alongside Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley, forcing Jae Crowder to the four and landing Amir Johnson on the bench.
It is no secret that the Celtics love to play small ball, and they love to play fast. The pitfalls of playing like that are giving up too many easy shots on the defensive end, and getting gashed on the boards. The unfortunate reality is that the Celtics really cannot get any worse as a rebounding team. The Celtics will not miss Johnson’s abysmal 4.1 rebounds per game. In fact, the 6’4 Smart is averaging the exact same 4.1 rebounds per game this season, and adds even more with his ability to bring in loose balls for extra opportunities.
The rebounding could suffer a bit, but that is not a big enough of a negative to make starting three guards too risky. On the defensive end, the Celtics will have to adjust to playing a lot smaller, but all the players that need to adjust have flourished in those positions. Johnson has been a strong defender and losing his size will certainly have an impact in the paint. That being said, it is impossible for the Celtics to lose a defensive edge by adding Smart to their lineup. He leads the team in steals and plays with the kind of intensity and aggression that torments players.
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There are a lot of different factors involving the size that could make starting three guards better or worse. They really cannot afford to lose any size but going small could allow them to do a better job of making their opponents uncomfortable, forcing them to adjust to the smaller lineup. The size difference will have both positive and negative impacts, largely depending on who their opponent in.
The bottom line for starting Smart over Johnson is they need to have their best players playing together. If the Celtics want to reach their peak defensively, they need to have Smart and Bradley on the court together with Al Horford and Crowder, and if they want to be at their best offensively, they need more shooting on the court.
Even the most wide open threes are not comfortable for Johnson. He has great reliability in the paint, but Horford’s presence makes his impact in the paint almost insignificant. Smart gives the Celtics not just another shooter, but another distributor. Thomas takes on so much offensive responsibility and having a third guard that can make plays will make things easier on him and everyone else.
Smart is far from a perfect offensive player. He is often too aggressive and takes too many bad shots. That being said, Johnson has no hope of matching his shooting and passing, and the more time Smart spends with the starters, the more capable he will be of improving his shot selection.
The Celtics will always embrace their three guard lineups, and just because that is not their starting unit, does not mean it will not be their most used unit. The Celtics always search for a special boost from their second unit, and taking away Smart threatens that.
The greatest risk in staring Smart is less about what is lost form Johnson, and more about what happens to the second unit without him. Good news is that Terry Rozier is starting to look a lot more comfortable with the ball in his hands. Rozier is not where Smart is yet, but he is starting to build the confidence that the Celtics need to see in order to make him the full time ball handler and offence instigator. With Thomas sidelined the second unit were one of the best aspects of the team, giving Rozier and Jaylen Brown a lot more confidence.
The second unit could also use the front court help. The Celtics have no depth aside from Olynyk and putting Johnson on that unit will hope solidify them on the defensive end. There is value in keeping Smart with the second unit, but it is worth a try to see how it works with him on the starters with Thomas back in action.
With Bradley, Smart, Crowder and Horford on the court together, the Celtics have one of the most unique defensive units in the NBA. Each of those players could guard up to three or more different positions. Putting Smart there gives Stevens a lot more freedom to play around with match ups, and will allow him to fully optimize the defensive talent at his disposal.
Horford has given the Celtics the solid interior defender they need, and has been an absolute beast blocking shots on the inside and the outside. The second unit could use Johnson’s presence in the paint much more than the starting unit, and having the power forward go from 6’9 to 6’7 makes the size loss appear to be a little overstated.
Injuries have made it impossible for the Celtics to settle into a consistent rotation. Stevens returned to the normal starting unit with Thomas back and Smart returned to being the top player on the second unit and a key piece to the small ball lineups. That being said, Stevens has experimented with the starters in the past and small ball should be the next option.