By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — It’s hard to take anything away from an NBA preseason game, but Celtics head coach Brad Stevens may have given us a hint at his regular season starting five on Sunday night.
Despite being one of their prized free agent signings this offseason, center Enes Kanter was on the bench to start Boston’s exhibition opener against the Charlotte Hornets. Third-year center Robert Williams got the start, though Kanter saw 20 minutes of action — the most of any big on Boston’s roster.
While the man known as Time Lord won’t be starting when the regular season rolls around, there’s a strong possibility Kanter will be coming off the C’s bench.
“Kanter can do things and has some things he does really well that, I think, is just unique. He’s obviously going to play,” said Stevens. “We’re trying to figure out if it’s best with the starting unit or best to bring him off [the bench] so you can play through him a little bit more on the block and those types of things. That’s probably the case, if we continue to start all those guys on the wing. We’ll see how that goes the next couple of weeks.”
Stevens certainly loves his guards and wings, which makes having an old-school big man like Kanter on the floor a tad bit detrimental. Kanter is a physical bruiser who plays with his back to the basket, doing much of his damage around the rim. That skillset would be better served on Boston’s bench unit, which other than Marcus Smart, will include a mix of rookies and youngsters, many of whom aren’t particularly known for their offense. Kanter would have plenty of opportunities to put the ball in the hoop playing alongside the likes of Smart, Carsen Edwards and Grant Williams, opportunities that likely won’t exist if he shares the floor with Kemba Walker, Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Playing with the starting group would require Kanter to change his game, and Stevens is not about to ask that out of an eight-year veteran.
“I’m not dumb enough to say ‘Enes, run back — don’t rebound.’ I’ve made some bad decisions in my time, but I’m not that bad,” the head coach joked.
So who will be logging the starts for Stevens if Kanter comes off the pine? Some Celtics fans would argue that Tacko Fall should not only start, but play all 48 minutes. That’s why they are fans and not the head coach. On Tuesday, Stevens leaned heavily toward Daniel Theis as his starting center, mostly for his experience in the system. Theis didn’t play on Sunday, but was able to practice on Tuesday without any restrictions. He could see his first action of the preseason Friday night when the C’s visit the Orlando Magic.
Theis is a nice role player and he does have experience with Hayward, Tatum and Brown, but he certainly doesn’t scream “STARTING NBA BIG MAN.” He runs the floor well and can pop the occasional three, but there are some serious concerns about how he’d match up against other starting bigs, especially much larger centers like Joel Embiid.
The ceiling is high for Williams, but he needs some more seasoning. He’ll likely start the season in Maine, which will allow him to log some quality minutes that he probably won’t see in Boston. Stevens also said that Williams tweaked his groin before Tuesday’s practice, and will be undergoing an MRI in the near future.
Stevens’ other option at center is Vincent Poirier, who could bring some brute force and defensive intensity to the starting five. Poirier played less than six minutes in the preseason opener, but the 7-footer showed that he’s willing to do the dirty work in that brief appearance. He is solid on defense and on the glass, and could get some starts when Boston faces those hefty bigs. Poirier spent some time on a few Summer League rosters over the last few years, but looks ready to make his mark in the NBA after backing up Rudy Gobert during the Basketball World Cup. The Celtics are low on rim protection this year (really, really low), but Poirier could be a solid source.
“He was good. I thought he played hard and was in the right spots defensively,” Stevens said of Poirier. “He led our coverages well, and when he was in, I felt good about our pick-and-roll defense.”
The regular season is still a few weeks away, and Stevens has three more preseason games to figure out his big man rotation. It will be an interesting juggling act by the head coach as he tries to find playing time for Kanter, Theis, Poirier, Williams and, potentially, Tacko.
And Stevens made it clear that just because one big will be out there to start games doesn’t mean that large human will be logging the most minutes of the group.
“I don’t think it’s going to be very complex. It’s going to be whoever does their job most consistently and makes those guys around him better will probably play the majority of those minutes,” Stevens said Tuesday.
Sounds pretty simple, actually.