A finally healthy core creates big-man position problem for Celtics

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Chris Forsberg
·5 min read
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Forsberg: Healthy core creates 'big' issue for Celtics originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The Boston Celtics finally have a healthy core but the tradeoff for getting a glimpse of the Kemba Walker-Jaylen Brown-Jayson Tatum troika is a squeeze at the already complicated big-man position.

The Celtics essentially have 48 minutes now to split between Daniel Theis, Tristan Thompson, and Robert Williams, this while still trying to figure out which player(s) in that group best complement the team’s core 4 (Walker, Brown, Tatum, and Marcus Smart).

Thompson has struggled acclimatizing to his new team and the Celtics are giving him every opportunity to work through those bumps in the road with hopes that his championship experience can aid this team. Theis has shown the value of continuity and chemistry, thriving since Kemba Walker’s return and slotting as the starter in Wednesday’s debut of the green’s latest Big Three. Alas, early foul trouble and defensive tentativeness limited his playing time to little more than 12 minutes in that game.

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Then there’s third-year big man Robert Williams, who is left chasing scraps of playing time but often offering intriguing glimpses when he is on the court. Williams now leads the NBA in offensive rebound percentage while collecting 16.9 percent of all Boston’s misses while on the floor. For the season, Williams is grabbing 6.1 rebounds in just 15.3 minutes per game, all while shooting 72.1 percent.

Celtics coach Brad Stevens tinkered with two-big lineups early in the season, in part to create as much playing time as possible for his big-man stable, but there are few obvious answers moving forward. Theis has earned the right to start with his recent play but early whistles often limit his defensive aggression. Thompson, after signing for the full value of the non-taxpayer midlevel exception, has seen opponents shoot a staggering 57.9 percent against him, or 10.8 percent above those players’ expected output per the NBA’s defensive tracking data.

All this while we’re left yearning for the Celtics to go all in with Williams and at least figure out what they’ve got. He might very well sink in bigger minutes and he’s rarely stayed healthy enough to build off any bit of momentum. But, with a healthy core and two veteran bigs, Stevens is going to be hard pressed to find even 10-15 minutes per night for Williams if Theis and Thompson split the available 48.

The data from the first 17 games doesn’t offer much in the way of guidance on how Stevens should handle the big-man rotation. The early struggles of the double-big lineup also makes the data noisy. Given that Walker just returned, we honed in on the performance of Boston’s bigs when paired with the Tatum/Brown combo this season and the defensive numbers for Thompson and Theis are underwhelming.

Celtics centers when paired with Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum:

Center

MIN w/Jays

OFF RTG

DEF RTG

NET RTG

Tristan Thompson

163

115.2

114

1.1

Daniel Theis

171

109

112.8

-3.7

Robert Williams

31

124.6

70.8

53.8

Williams’ numbers surely pop but in a super small sample but we wouldn’t use them to suggest that Timelord is any sort of answer. That said, we’d surely like to see more of him with lineups that includes the Jays to get a better idea if a positive impact is sustainable.

Celtics fans had high hopes for Thompson given his potential to add an experienced back-line presence. There are instances where he plays terrific defense only for an opponent to make a tough shot over him — DeMar DeRozan’s pull-up jumper in the final minute against the Spurs a good example.

The Celtics have a $28.5 million trade exception to tinker with their roster moving forward. The guess here is that it’s more likely that the team will seek wing depth, or someone that can offer 4/5 versatility, than look to upgrade the center spot. And to all of those sliding in our mentions, no, Andre Drummond is most certainly not the answer at the big-man spot (and he doesn’t fit into the trade exception anyhow).

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At the start of the season, we wondered about Theis as a potential trade option because he’ll be a free agent after the season and it’s hard to envision how the team can splurge to keep him at much above his current price tag ($5 million). That possibility required the team being able to lean on Thompson and Williams, maybe with a healthy dose of Grant Williams at smallball 5 mixed in, too. But, at least for now, Theis’ play and Thompson’s struggles make it more likely the team rides it out and figures out Theis' future after the season.

Ultimately, the answer here might be that this is just going to take time. Having the core finally healthy will give a better idea of who fits best alongside them. But if Stevens is going to experiment with lineups, we’d like to see him pick spots to get a longer look at Rob Williams. Maybe find an opportunity to give Thompson a night off and get a longer look at Williams in longer stints with the core.

Nearing the quarter post of the season, there hasn’t been enough separation amongst the big men and there’s a lot of lingering questions about who the team can lean on most. A healthy core has complicated matters but having the team’s stars back might eventually help Stevens solve this ‘big’ riddle.