Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens has been presented with a rather impossible task: Find enough playing time for the 15 rotation-caliber players on his roster.
It sounds like a good problem to have, but it's actually far from ideal. In the aftermath of last week's trade that delivered Rajon Rondo to the Dallas Mavericks, Boston owns an unbalanced roster that's heavy on evenness and thin on separation. There were hardly enough minutes to go around before the swap and now Boston has added three new faces that each deserve a chance to be part of the team's nightly lineup.
That trio of Jameer Nelson, Brandan Wright and Jae Crowder was on the court Tuesday night as the Celtics nearly rallied all the way back from a 27-point, fourth-quarter deficit before falling to Orlando 100-95 at the Amway Center. While Stevens called the fourth-quarter charge a bit of "fools' gold" given the way the Magic likely got lulled into downshifting a bit, Nelson's solid point guard play spearheaded Boston's run and the 32-year-old veteran played 30 strong minutes in a starting role.
When at full health, the Celtics have 15 players who can state a case for floor time. That mix includes rookies who need playing time to develop and veterans with potential to increase their trade value before February's deadline. And in the post-Rondo era, no individual player is so talented that Boston absolutely must have him on the court.
Case in point: During Tuesday's rally, slumping third-year big man Jared Sullinger was merely an observer as he sat out the entire second half. Sullinger is marred in a slump, particularly at the offensive end, and endured his second scoreless game in six outings. Just when it looked as though he was returning to form, Sullinger has taken a step back the last two outings. He reportedly left the locker room Tuesday before it opened to reporters after playing just nine minutes for the game.
Meanwhile, Jeff Green, who had been playing some of the best and most consistent ball of his entire career before the Rondo swap, has gone quiet recently. Green scored only four points over 25 minutes on Tuesday night, his first single-digit scoring effort of the season.
The Celtics came out slowly against Orlando, shooting 9.1 percent (2 of 22) in the first quarter, and that helped the Magic open a 23-point lead by halftime. Leaning on some of the newer faces in the second half was an obvious decision for Stevens, but one that was highlighted when Boston twice rallied within a possession in the final quarter while leaning on the recent imports.
"It was good for me to see [the newcomers] play," Stevens told reporters after Tuesday's game. When asked about determining a new rotation, Stevens added, "[It's] still going to take a lot of time. ... I think one of the things that I'm going to eventually be looking for is clear answers and I don't think that we leave this road trip with those."
Boston still has too many ball-handlers and undersized big men. Some of the Celtics' bench players have identical skill sets, which makes it tough to even slot guys for situational play.
It's obvious that the Celtics must tweak their roster sooner than later, if for no other reason than to save Stevens' sanity as he tries to carve out a primary 10-man rotation. It'll be easier after the trade deadline passes in February, when Boston won't have to worry as much about the need to showcase players and the team's season prognosis will be a bit clearer, maybe allowing Stevens to lean heavier on younger bodies without the fear of potential growing pains.
For now, Stevens' job is challenging. The Celtics soon will get both rookie James Young and veteran Marcus Thornton back from injury and will have to consider ways to get them both floor time. For Young, it might mean more time with the Maine Red Claws of the D-League, at least initially.
These are the challenges of rebuilding a roster on the fly. Boston's overall parity only hammers home the importance of having star presences, something the Celtics clearly lack at the moment.
Everything else you need to know from Tuesday's game ...
• Young closer to return: Young participated fully in the team's off-day practice on Monday, but remained inactive for Tuesday's game. Stevens said that Young, sidelined the past two weeks with a right shoulder subluxation, will see team physician Brian McKeon when the team returns to Boston with hopes of getting the go-ahead to return to game activities. The Celtics' crowded depth chart could land Young back in the D-League for reps until there's time available with the parent club.
• Nelson's return (Part II): After spending the first 10 years of his career with the team, the Magic honored Nelson during his first regular-season visit to Orlando. Nelson got a tribute video during a preseason game in Orlando in October with the Mavericks, and the crowd (and JumboTron) saluted him again on Tuesday night.
• No Rondo, no problem for Zeller: Maybe the person expected to be most affected by the departure of Rondo was third-year center Tyler Zeller, who had developed immediate chemistry and thrived with Rondo in the pick-and-roll and running the floor. Zeller hasn't missed a beat without Rondo, however, going for 22 points in each of his last two games. Zeller had a double-double Tuesday while adding a team-high 10 rebounds over 29:26.