BOSTON -- Even before his team gathered for the start of training camp this week, Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens cautioned reporters against reading too much into the team's early camp lineups.
Stevens has pledged to mix and match at times -- particularly when the team dives into a busy stretch with four exhibition games next week -- all with the goal of trying to determine the pairings the Celtics will lean on when the regular season tips later this month.
The absence of point guard Rajon Rondo adds a layer of difficulty to the task, but Stevens seems pretty confident that he's got an early read on his potential lineups.
"I think that I've got a pretty good idea about who the top eight to 10 guys are right now," Stevens said. "But how they all fit -- starters, subs and who complements who -- I'm still feeling out. It's a lot like, there's some guys that are clearly in our best offensive lineup, there are other guys who are clearly in our best defensive lineup and there's probably going to be some mixing and matching."
The Celtics engaged in two intrasquad scrimmages as part of the team's annual open practice in front of season-ticket holders on Friday night at TD Garden. Stevens said his assistants drafted the rosters and one starting unit featured Evan Turner, Marcus Thornton, Jeff Green, Jared Sullinger and Tyler Zeller on the Green squad; the other had Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley, Gerald Wallace, Brandon Bass and Kelly Olynyk on the White team.
While Stevens said it might be "hard to break the code," you don't need a decoder ring to envision a starting lineup that might feature a mashup of those two lineups, something like Smart, Bradley, Green, Sullinger and Zeller. In fact, the biggest question might simply be whether the team prefers to lean on a true big such as Zeller or go with a less traditional look by employing a frontcourt combo of Sullinger and Olynyk that played well together last season. Turner, Thornton, Bass and Wallace all seemingly project as top bench options.
Part of this puzzle is determining how the new faces fit with the returning pieces. The Celtics have an idea and game film to understand how a Sullinger/Olynyk lineup might work, but only game reps might reveal how adding someone such as Zeller to the frontcourt mix will affect each frontcourt partner.
"We've got to figure out who of the new guys fits and how they best fit and go on from there," Stevens said. "But we've got some very significant players on our roster, when you talk about Zeller, Smart, Thornton, James Young and Evan Turner, who are new. You're very much projecting it instead of knowing it."
An imperfect roster doesn't make Stevens' decisions any easier. The Celtics are again logjammed at spots, particularly power forward, and Stevens must not only figure out who to start, but how to spread the minutes to keep all his players happy. Evenness is a curse and a blessing; Stevens will be aided by players who distinguish themselves in preseason game reps.
Stevens has offered high praise for Smart and Young. For Smart, that's not much of a surprise, but Young could state a case to stick around (rather than, say, toil in the D-League) despite deep depth at the swingman spot.
"I'm very pleased with where the two rookies are as far as their progress and development in just a short amount of time," Stevens said. "They've invested a lot of time individually before they got into practice, then I've been impressed with new guys. Each of the new guys have done things that makes you say, 'That will help us.'"
The players seem to understand the situation, and each one is simply trying to put his best foot forward in hopes of stating a case for playing time. Asked about any preferences with whom he teams up front, Olynyk noted how flexibility could be a key to earning minutes.
"The most valuable players are the guys who make everyone else better and the guys who can play with everyone else," Olynyk said. "So that's the kinda guy you strive to be."
The Celtics have 20 players in camp, and even with injuries thinning numbers a bit (Vitor Faverani and Joel Anthony have been limited in the early days, while Rondo is out with the broken hand), Stevens has been honest about opportunities for the players at the back end of the roster.
"We've been very up front with guys that, especially the training camp invites, that we need the top eight to 10 guys to get reps," Stevens said. "We communicated that. Hey, we've got to play at a very high level early on to compete. We want our guys to be as ready as possible. The guys that are in that range are getting the most reps right now."
The Celtics currently have 16 guaranteed contracts and a total of 17 players essentially competing for 15 spots. Some further maneuvering is needed to avoid eating another contract.
But the focus at the moment, at least from Stevens' perspective, is finding the right mix with those top 10 players. The back end of the roster will sort itself out. If the Celtics are to take the next step in the their rebuilding progress, then Stevens has to figure out how to best mix and match those top guys.
Then, he'll have to do it again when Rondo comes back, but that's not such a bad problem to have.