Jae Crowder and Jaylen Brown will be the key to small ball success for the Boston Celtics
Last season, the Boston Celtics did a great job of making up for their lack of size with phenomenal small ball lineups. They have after looked for versatility in their defenders and athletes, and that gives them the flexibility they need to be undersized on the defensive end. Last season, it was Jae Crowder and Evan Turner that had the most responsibility, with expectations to guard true bigs in the four. Nothing will change for Crowder this season, but it is rookie Jaylen Brown that will be the key to replacing Turner’s defensive versatility.
The addition of Al Horford could makes the Celtics much less dependant on the small ball. Last year, they often went to that lineup out of necessity. The Celtics would get abused on the inside and with no other options, small ball lineups were the only way to get effective lineups on the floor. Marcus Smart also deserves a lot of credit. His size advantage was even worse, but he has no problem moving around and guarding wherever Stevens needs him.
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Horford gives them an option that makes small ball less of a necessity. The Celtics still have a stronger back court than front court, and certainly a deeper one. That being said, With Horford, Amir Johnson and Kelly Olynyk, the Celtics could have some deadly two way combinations with size in their front court.
What Horford does, however, is make their potential small ball lineups even better. The Celtics still need one big to play the five and with Horford’s fluid ability to run the floor and get the ball moving, he makes their small ball lineups even more intriguing. Horford should have no problem playing at this higher pace, and should expand what they are able to do in any lineups. That being said, Crowder will remain the most important player to defensive success with those lineups. Horford will make his job easier on the inside, but their best potential defensive front court combination is Crowder playing beside Horford, and the Celtics should flourish even more than last year with their small ball.
The Celtics have little to worry about for that first small ball lineup. The Celtics saw the success last season and there is no reason to believe Crowder will regress in his ability to be a shut down undersized defender. The second unit, however, has a lot more uncertainty with regards to potential small ball combinations.
Turner established a great level of trust with Stevens on both ends of the court. Turner had the size to accommodate it and was sound enough on the defensive end to be in that undersized position. He was no Crowder, but he was the next best option at the four in small ball lineups. Without Turner, Brown will have to quickly establish a level of trust if Stevens is going to use small ball lineups as frequently as last year. Smart can fill that role too, but the Celtics will be in a much better position if Smart can stay in the back court, with Brown taking on the additional size.
Fortunately, Brown is in a strong position to have as little adjustment as possible in terms of being a small ball four. His biggest problem may end up being who is playing the five beside him, but Brown undoubtedly has the physical tools to excel as an undersized defender.
Brown certainly has the strength, size and explosiveness to give a lot of power forwards problems, and his aggressiveness will be able to set the tone on the defensive end, the way Crowder does in his small ball lineups.
Brown has the added benefit of playing with Smart who makes everything easier for everyone on the defensive end, but it is hard to imagine the second unit being successful in small ball situations without Brown being strong on that end.
There is no doubting that Stevens will waste no time figuring out how quickly Brown is ready for that role. So far, everything has looked good in the preseason, but that will not be enough. Even if he is definitely physically ready for the NBA, a transition period cannot be ruled out, particularly if he has the added responsibility of guarding the four on a defensive unit that may not have much help beside him at the five.
Defense has been the calling card of this Celtics team and that is amplified in small ball lineups. The Celtics love to play fast and that is when they are at their best. Having that versatile defender that allows them to account for the lack of size is the most important thing in establishing a small ball combination that can be trusted.
Brown has come into this offseason and done all the right things. Players go on about his intensity and work ethic and he has the kind of physical tools that Stevens can do a lot with. He has the potential to be right up there with Smart and Crowder in terms of defensive versatility, and that is the key to expanding their lineup options when Crowder is not there.
With Crowder there is a great assurance that small ball will be a key for the Celtics this year. Losing Turner does not take away their best small ball options, but it threatens a lot of them. Brown is the one that has to restore those options. Brown needs to make sure Stevens is comfortable giving such a young talent so much defensive responsibility. If Brown establishes that trust, their their small ball options will have the high end talent to compete with anyone in the league, and the depth to blow away any other second unit.