The Celtics are desperate. They're 11-10, 6th in the East, and falling further and further behind the Toronto Raptors (and the rest of the Eastern Conference) by the day. Their recent struggles have left Brad Stevens searching for an answer and after Monday night's Celtics win over the Pelicans, many think he's found one.
The Celtics had their highest scoring output this season with a starting lineup of Kyrie Irving, Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Morris and Al Horford. After the game, the lineup has generated a lot of praise and has been dubbed the Celtics new "best lineup". It was a great performance, but it overshadows the larger issue. If the Celtics are going to win a championship, they're not going to do so with that lineup.
You win championships with stars and Gordon Hayward and Jaylen Brown, regardless of their play this season, have both proven that they are capable of playing like stars. The Celtics REAL issues aren't going to be solved by taking them out of the lineup.
As a short-term answer, the Morris-Smart starting lineup should have moderate success. The lineup of Irving-Smart-Tatum-Morris-Horford currently ranks as the Celtics 2nd best 5-man lineup this season (min. 7 games), per Second Spectrum. Furthermore, Morris and Smart are both playing better than Hayward and Brown at the moment. Both Brown and Hayward are shooting less than 30% from three this season and have been below average defensively. Morris has been red hot to start the season, by far the Celtics best shooter at 43.2 percent, and even Marcus Smart’s pedestrian 31.3% from deep beats out both Hayward and Brown.
Gordon Hayward has actually played better off the bench for the Celtics. Hayward is averaging more rebounds and assists when he comes off the bench and his true shooting percentage is up as well. Keeping him on the bench might be what’s best for his game at the time being. Meanwhile, the numbers only get worse for Jaylen Brown.
Brown is a member of 5 of the Celtics 8 worst 2-man lineup combinations, per Second Spectrum (min. 7 games):
On top of that, the Celtics 19 made 3-pointers against the Pelicans were their second most made shots from three this season. Their highest total came against the Bucks when they nearly broke the NBA record for 3's made in a game with 24 makes. Do you know what those 2 games have in common? Jaylen Brown missed both with an injury.
Both Brown and Hayward have been dreadful this season, but the Celtics aren't going to be the team they were expected to be if Brown and Hayward are bench players.
Despite his slow start, the Celtics are still enamored with Jaylen Brown as a prospect and view him as almost untradable. The Celtics have reportedly been unwilling to include him in potential trade packages for Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler or Bradley Beal over the last few months. The Celtics, particularly Danny Ainge, see Brown as a future star and demoting him to the 7th or 8th man this season would drastically stunt his development. As a result, the Celtics may be very reluctant to move Brown to the bench and jeopardize his future.
Gordon Hayward's stint on the bench has been somewhat promising, but paying $31 million for a 6th man isn't a good roster management strategy. Eventually, Hayward will have to return to the starting lineup and the Celtics have to rely on him to return to All-Star form because if he doesn’t, the alternative is the Celtics paying $90 million over the next 3 years for a slightly below average 6th man.
If you came out of Monday night's game feeling confident that the Celtics problems had been solved, I've got some unfortunate news for you: they're only just getting started. Figuring out how to get their 5 most talented played to play well together remains the Celtics main problem. Brad Stevens will have a big decision on Friday against the Cavaliers if Jaylen Brown is set to return. Will the Celtics choose the quick fix or do what's best for long term success? How long will Hayward remain on the bench? Will Hayward ever be an All-Star again? Why have Brown and Hayward's shooting percentages dropped so significantly? Those are just a few of the many questions facing the Celtics right now. Their problems aren't behind them. Not by a long shot.
Photo: (Michael Dwyer - AP Photo)