Nick Giannino column: Celtics still trying to nail down rotation; who's most likely to make cut?

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Oct. 28—BOSTON — We're still in the very early stages of the 2021-22 NBA campaign.

For the Boston Celtics — and, realistically, many teams across the league — that means the coaching staff will be playing around with lineups and rotation strategies for the next few weeks. With so many capable candidates for both reserve and starter minutes making up the C's roster, first-year head coach Ime Udoka certainly has his work cut out.

The Celtics have used four different starting lineups in their first five games. Now obviously, much of that has to do with injuries and guys missing time for various reasons, but it's still unclear what the opening unit will look like on a regular basis moving forward (presuming everyone is healthy).

The most practical first five is likely the one Udoka deployed against the Washington Wizards Wednesday night at TD Garden: Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Al Horford and Robert Williams. That gives Boston a talented interior defender, rebounder and lob threat in Williams, and an experienced vet in Horford to man the front court and stretch the floor around the three no-brainer mainstays of Tatum, Brown and Smart.

But what about the bench? Here's where things are leaning through two weeks.

The sixth man

First and foremost is newcomer Dennis Schroder. The spry guard has been solid in averaging nearly 15 points, five rebounds and six assists. He's had success in the starting lineup, going for 23-6-8 in a recent win over Charlotte, but he's likely better served in the sixth man role.

Schroder is quick, nimble and knows how to weave his way into the paint for easy buckets. He'll provide instant offense for the second unit and will likely be on the court to finish games, regardless whether or not he starts. Schroder was once again the first man off the bench Wednesday night.

Assuming Schroder receives regular minutes — spoiler alert, he will — that leaves three, maybe four more guys to fill out the rotation.

The other guys

Josh Richardson: Boston isn't paying this man nearly $24M over the next two years to have him watch from the sidelines. The 28-year-old is a proven defender and career 36 percent 3-point shooter. At 6-5 he has good length for his position, which allows Boston to use him in multiple spots defensively. If he can remain consistent, Richardson will see heavy minutes off the bench.

Grant Williams: At 6-foot-6, 236 pounds, the burly Williams has been a versatile defender in each of his previous two seasons in Boston — but has left plenty to be desired offensively. Fortunately, it appears he worked tirelessly on his shot over the offseason. He's knocked down 10 of his 17 attempts from distance so far and seven of his nine shots from inside the arc. Williams capped out at 4.7 ppg. a season ago, but if he can continue to knock down shots at an increased rate he'll be hard to sit.

Second-year guard Payton Pritchard was a diamond in the rough for Boston a season ago under now-General Manager Brad Stevens, but he's been shaky at best to open 2021-22. Perhaps he's having a tough time adjusting to playing with a mask on after taking a hand to the face in the preseason. I still firmly believe Pritchard's high IQ, ability to run the offense and hit threes is enough to land him a spot in the rotation — only time will tell.

Then there's Romeo Langford, a 2019 first-round pick with tremendous upside. The 6-foot-4 shooting guard has yet to scratch the surface of his full potential, but has looked good in two games before sitting out the last three with a calf injury. He's been plagued with various injuries to start his career, so staying healthy will be of the utmost importance.

Another potential candidate to fill minutes is Aaron Nesmith. The second-year wing isn't off to a great start, having gone scoreless in each of the team's first three games before a DNP-coach's decision against Charlotte. But he turned in some strong performances last season and is still probably one of the team's best shooters.

"We told him to take his time, slow down and play like he did in the summer," Udoka said of Nesmith. "With Romeo being out, there's opportunity for him there. So he just has to slow down and take the shots that he always has."

Perhaps the biggest question mark is Jabari Parker. The former second overall pick (2014) played a small role down the stretch for Boston last season and was picked back up before being waived, then signed again before the 2021-22 campaign commenced. There's no denying Parker's ability to get buckets; he averaged better than 20 ppg. in 2016-17 with the Bucks. Injuries and concerns surrounding his defense have ultimately derailed his once promising career, but it appears he's on the fast track to proving himself once again.

Odd men out

It's unrealistic to say that Boston will implement a 12-man rotation moving forward. That means somewhere around half of the aforementioned reserve role candidates will be forced to sit on the bench and cheer on their teammates.

It also means that fringe roster guys Juancho Hernangomez and Bruno Fernando likely won't see the light of day in non-blowout affairs. Returnee and fan favorite Enes Kanter will also be hard pressed to find minutes, although it's not far fetched to believe Udoka will throw him in there in the right situation or when he simply needs a rebound.

Tatum and Brown will undoubtedly carry the load for Boston, and rightfully so. But every good team needs a strong surrounding core, and the Celtics will certainly need some time to figure out their best mix.

Nick Giannino, a staff writer at The Salem News, covers the Boston Celtics for CNHI Sports Boston. Contact him at ngiannino@salemnews.com and follow him on Twitter @NickGiannino_SN.

Contact Nick Giannino at NGiannino@Salemnews.com. Follow him on Twitter @NickGiannino_SN.

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