Entering Saturday, there were only nine lineups in the NBA that have played more time together (56 minutes) than Boston’s current starting five (Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Daniel Theis, Tristan Thompson). With no preseason games for Thompson, there was bound to be some growing pains for this group to find their groove once the regular season began. However, through an uneven 3-3 start to the year, one of the few things that have been consistent about this Celtics group has been the double big starting lineup producing negative results on the court.
Boston’s current starting five has the worst net rating by far (outscored by 19.4 points per 100 possessions) of any lineup in the NBA that has played more than 50 minutes together this year. A lack of spacing has hurt the offense (94.7 offensive rating) while the extra defensive bulk has failed to translate into a strong defensive unit (113.7 defensive rating), making this lineup a group that has constantly dug Boston into a hole at the beginning of the game or the third quarter.
In theory, the unit makes sense to try for the Celtics roster that has more depth at the big than wing position for the moment. Starting Theis and Thompson together opens the door for developing young bigs like Grant Williams and Rob Williams off the bench and also takes some of the physical onus off of Jaylen Brown or Jayson Tatum to guard bigger forwards if either were to play power forward.
Those upsides don’t mean much however if they cost the C’s potential wins and that’s what we’ve seen so far with disastrous outings by this lineup against the Pistons and Pacers in extended stints. There have been flashes of brilliance here or there as well but the bad has easily outweighed the good so far.
“To be honest with you, it’s probably been too inconsistent to draw a conclusion,” Brad Stevens said of the grouping. “But maybe that is the conclusion. The first half start (against Detroit) was not due to what alignment we were in or the double bigs or anything like that. It was the fact that we just stunk at the start of the game.
"Second half we started with way more pep and emphasis and we were much better. Go back to the Indiana games, very similar: one half good, the other half not so good. So obviously there will be times that we’ll utilize that, there will be times where we won’t. But that’s not – I thought that the best way to say it is that was five people. That was not two people. And we were not good out of the gate (Friday).”
While it’s a reasonable defense for Stevens for going back to the grouping, the fact is going with Theis/Thompson as double bigs in the starting five is unlikely to work well offensively unless there is Theis is able to find his perimeter shooting rhythm. The German big man has stumbled out of the gate, knocking down 14.3 percent of his 3s through six games, most of them coming in his new role as a stretch power forward. The shift to a new spot on the floor has not come easy for the 28-year-old after playing at center for essentially his entire career in the NBA.
“Obviously it’s been an adjustment for me, but as I’ve said, after last game it’s also an opportunity for me,” he explained. “But we’ve still got to find our spots. Like in general we’ve got to find out spots, we’ve got to run the court and then it doesn’t matter if we’ve got two bigs out there, or one big, or we play with five guards. Like, when we get stops or even after makes we’ve got to run.”
The half-court spacing is not ever going to be pretty with this current starting group with an average 3-point shooter in Smart, a non-shooter in Thompson and Theis not making teams pay when they leave him alone at the arc. The answer to the problem? Theis believes it’s getting aggressive in transition, which should open up more driving lanes for