The Boston Celtics are three weeks and three games into their preseason schedule and this seemed like a good time to dust off our list of five training camp storylines to watch and see where the Celtics stand as we inch closer to the start of the regular season:
1. How -- and when -- do you play all these guys?
It didn't take long for Celtics coach Brad Stevens to identify pairings that work well together. The Celtics ran with the same starting unit in two games overseas and found that the passing of veteran big man David Lee could ease the load on second-year point guard Marcus Smart. Isaiah Thomas and Amir Johnson have put up quality numbers when sharing the floor and the two work particularly well in the pick-and-roll. From there, it's just been a matter of filling in spots -- like having a floor-spacing big like Kelly Olynyk with Thomas and Johnson, or a rolling big like Tyler Zeller next to Lee. But what has to be most encouraging to Stevens is that he can throw out a random pairing -- like he did Wednesday when Johnson and Zeller started together -- and the Celtics maintain a high level of play.
Injuries and rest have allowed Stevens to get most of his guys ample playing time during the preseason. What's unclear is how playing time will be divided up when everyone is healthy. What we know is that Stevens plans to utilize a 10-man rotation most nights and play only four bigs. Lee, Zeller, Johnson and Olynyk have gotten the early calls leaving Jared Sullinger's role a bit foggier. Jae Crowder, Evan Turner and Jonas Jerebko will eat the minutes at the swingman spot, while the backcourt will be helmed by Smart, Thomas and Avery Bradley. The lingering question is whether someone like rookie R.J. Hunter can state a case for minutes with his 3-point shooting talents (an area that Boston lagged in last season). Stevens has emphasized that nothing has been cemented and has four more exhibition games to tinker.
2. How does Sullinger look?
Expectations were high for Sullinger because 1) He's entering what amounts to a contract year, and 2) He spent a well-documented offseason trying to shape up his body after being challenged by Boston brass. What we've seen early in camp is a player that's struggled to distinguish himself in an overstocked frontcourt. Sullinger had a nice debut in Milan, putting up 14 points in 15 minutes, but is 3-of-14 shooting for 10 points in just 23 minutes the last two games. That included a forgettable 12-minute appearance in Brooklyn on Wednesday.
It's much too early to write off Sullinger, but it's clear he's going to have to do more to earn minutes when all of Boston's other bigs have made strong cases for those top four spots. Sullinger is still only 23 and he's shown he's one of the most talented players on the roster when healthy. While he's acknowledged the competition and downplayed his concern about it, you get the sense that Sullinger might need to simply avoid overthinking things and let his natural talents take over. He's in the spotlight, however, and every game will be overly scrutinized.
3. Is Smart ready to run the offense?
Smart sat out Wednesday's win over the Nets -- Boston's only game against NBA competition thus far. He played well in two games overseas while averaging 9 points, 4 assists, 3 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game (all while committing just two turnovers). The Celtics played extremely well while he was on the floor (plus-35 in plus/minus over his 43 minutes of court time). Smart seems to benefit from having slick-passing Lee on the first unit and the Celtics are able to funnel their offense through the big man. According to Synergy Sports' stats, Smart has finished only two plays in the pick-and-roll (once missing in traffic early in the Milano game; then getting fouled going to the basket in the third quarter against Madrid), so the jury remains out on now much he's improved in to attacking as a ball handler. The Celtics have enough playmakers (Lee, Turner among them) that can help Smart as he develops at point guard.
4. Can Perry Jones make a push for a final roster spot?
Watch Jones in Boston's pregame layup line and you can see why he's so intriguing: On a team thin on athleticism, Jones oozes it from a 6-foot-11 frame. Translating his talents to game action -- and doing it consistently -- has been the challenge. Jones had to leave the team overseas last week to attend the funeral of his cousin back in the United States. He's played only 17 total minutes while posting 4 points on 2-of-6 shooting. He's used his length well, defensively, but he hasn't had much of a chance to really separate himself.
The story really hasn't changed for Jones. The Celtics would like to carry him on the end of their roster and develop him (he's only 24 years old and has shown bursts of potential), but unless there's another move to clear out the logjam up front, Jones still faces an uphill battle for that spot. Some Celtics fans, frustrated by the lack of progress from second-year guard James Young, have wondered if Jones could edge Young for a final roster spot, but we've maintained that the Celtics are encouraged by Young's development, particularly on the defensive end, and are not going to give away a 20-year-old mid-first-round pick as easily as some believe.
5. After success going small, will C's go big again?
Given the team's depth up front, Stevens has noted that Boston might be more traditional this season than it was last year. The difficulty there is that it was Boston's smaller lineups -- groups that often featured the likes of Jerebko and Crowder at power forward -- that had the most success during Boston's second-half surge. It appears the Celtics have enough versatility with their big men that they can mix-and-match while trying to create matchup issues (all with the potential to throw a smallball curveball on occasion). One of the luxuries Stevens has this season is depth and versatility throughout the roster and he'll certainly use it. While prudent not to overreact to early returns, the Celtics have looked particularly crisp on the offensive end and it's alleviated most fears about any regression while moving away from smaller lineups.
With two weeks and four more exhibition games before the start of the season, what are we watching for now? Three quick things:
1. Stellar Zeller?: The 25-year-old big man has earned solid reviews from Stevens, particularly for his scoring prowess at the start of camp. Can Zeller maintain that starting job as Stevens finalizes frontcourt pairings?
2. Rookies in focus: Hunter has created some serious buzz with his shooting and pure basketball IQ. The team's other first-round pick Terry Rozier got set back a bit this week with a knee injury that will force him to miss two games, but he's also shown glimpses that make you wonder if he can make a case for stealing some guard minutes.
3. Young and the restless: Can second-year swingman Young settle down on the offensive side and give himself a chance to compete for floor time? Young seems to press at times when shots don't fall, but he can't let his confidence wane when it happens.