Boston Celtics Three Guard Dilemma


There is something to be said about the current state of the Boston Celtics guard rotation. There doesn’t seem to be an incorrect way to play the three best guards on the team. Head coach Brad Stevens is pushing all the right buttons to get the best out of his trio of Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley and Isaiah Thomas. Still, when all are healthy, who should be the starters and who should be coming off the bench. My train of thought seems to be in the minority of Celtics fans, so I decided to debate my rotation idea with Hoops Habit Boston Celtics writer Eric Laboissonniere who disagrees with me. We sent emails back and forth to have a conversation on who should start for this team.

CM: So I certainly got a lot of people talking after I made my declaration that I believe the Celtics should return Isaiah Thomas to the bench. Many writers weren’t exactly thrilled losing his playmaking ability with the first unit. While I definitely understand that train of thought (and I do think I’m nitpicking), I do believe the Celtics are better off starting both Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart. Even if Bradley and Smart aren’t “feeling it” offensively, they still bring tenacious defense to the table. Marcus Smart against Houston had four points (which certainly seems like he had a bad game), but he had a plus/minues of +30! Thomas will never have a game like that unless he scores a lot (without any misses). I just think his defense can become a liability against good teams, especially come playoff time. So that’s why I think I’d return Thomas to the bench when everyone is healthy.

EL: I do see your point, and I mean lets face it; when Smart and Bradley are starting for the Celtics, the backcourt defense is at its finest. Thomas obviously has more experience than any of the guards coming off the bench, but watching him start these past nine games has been a delight.

Thomas creates his own shot, and facilities for others by driving or executing the pick-and-roll. He does have some problems on defense but when he starts, the Celtics tend to avoid those early game shooting slumps, which always puts the team in a tough spot.

Make no mistake Isaiah Thomas is the team’s best player on offense. And quite possibly best on the team. Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

CM: It’s true that Thomas is the team’s best facilitator and passer. Which is needed to win basketball games consistently. However, his slow starts worry me (for the future). Sure his last game against the Nets (in Boston) he caught fire, but it was after he started 0/6. What happens when he’s 1/14 and then tries to just get his points. The team could be winning regardless, but I think if Thomas doesn’t score, the team doesn’t do so well. I’d rather have him become like Jamal Crawford type. He isn’t exactly considered a scrub.

EL: Thomas puts us in games though, that we have no business being in because of his hot streaks. Smart and Thomas as a starting combo is the most ideal right now because of how well Bradley is playing off the bench.

CM: So what’s the team’s net rating with him on the floor vs. with him off the floor? Cause you’re right, just from last year Thomas put the Celtics squarely back in the playoff hunt. What was their record after the trade deadline? They won over 20 games I think. Only the Cavs had a better record in that span last year.

I’m wondering how the team does defensively with Thomas on the floor, to see how Brad Stevens mitigates his defensive lapses. If Kevin Garnett was back on this team, and younger, then that would be a way to make things work. Having a defensive anchor to help out on defense makes things much easier. Sadly the Celtics don’t have that (I don’t care what the numbers say about Kelly Olynyk), so I worry about what the team might do with Thomas out there against an opponents better players.

EL: Yeah, the Celtics could not really compete last year in the playoffs without Thomas. Now that Smart is injured, it will be interesting to see Bradley start or maybe Evan Turner. Also, on a side note, I need more R.J. HUNTER!!

Even though C.J thinks Thomas should be benched, he still believes that he is their best offensive player. Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

CM: It’s true that Smart’s injury makes a lot of my bickering moot, but we are veering away from the issue at hand. I do think it will be important for Brad Stevens to figure out who should start and who should come off the bench. Bradley was doing well off the bench, but I actually think he’s too good for that.

Sadly the numbers don’t necessarily back my theory up on offense. The Celtics as a team take the worst hit on offense when Thomas is off the court. Not only does he have the best PER on the team, but he is vital in nearly every category for the Celtics.  The biggest drop I noticed was in the three-point shots made and the team’s plus/minus. Heck, even the number of rebounds are down when Thomas is off the floor. The team is third in defensive efficiency, so it’s not like Thomas has hurt them yet (if he will at all).

EL: Who would have ever thought the Celtics would have a top 5 defense this season even with Thomas in the lineup?

Bottom-line, Thomas needs that spot.

CM: I’m starting to come around on that sentiment of thinking after looking at the players defensive rating. Thomas’ defensive rating (going by’s numbers) is at 102 per 100 possessions. Avery Bradley is at 100, and Smart is at 98. Thomas’ defensive box plus/minus is the worst out of the three at -2.6, but Avery Bradley’s is also in the negative (at -0.2). So his defense hasn’t made that big of difference yet. Is it early in the season, yes. But If I’m making my case for benching Thomas, I have to take the numbers at face value now.

Have I come around on my theory, not quite (although I’m not as vehement as I was earlier). I think Thomas hurts the team in more intangible ways if he continues to start. I do think he might take time away from Smart’s development, because he looks like the worst guard out of the three. However, I wouldn’t want a backcourt of Thomas and Bradley due to Smart’s potential. The only way he reaches that is if he plays, which mean Bradley will probably come off the bench. I’m not thrilled about it, but if the team wins, I’ll stay out of the team meetings.

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*Statistics courtesy of, ESPN Hollinger Stat, and

Huge thank you to Eric Laboissonniere for taking the time to debate and help out with this article. You can read him on, and follow him on Twitter @EricLab2910

C.J Maffris is a writer for He thinks the guard rotation for the Celtics could become a huge issue down the road. Feel free to debate with C.J on Twitter @SeaJayMaffris