Despite many fans feeling the Boston Celtics’ center rotation is a bit lacking, Robert Williams III is making a strong case for himself as a legitimate answer at the pivot.
I am ready to eat some crow in regards to the Boston Celtics needing another big man. I went on at length and concocted several elaborate trade scenarios involving trading one of our prized wing players for an upgrade in the front-court. The rationale was that getting one all-encompassing solution at center would help alleviate some of the tactical burden involved in getting rotations right. However with the way the front-court rotation has been playing, perhaps that was a little alarmist.
The play of one Robert Williams has been the main reason I have changed my though process. He’s been, in a word, unbelievable thus far. He’s blocking shots and protecting the rim at an extremely efficient rate, putting him near the top of the league thus far.
The second year center for the Boston Celtics still has some mental lapses now and again, as is expected with most young big-men. However, with him his mistakes are always ones of aggression and trying to make plays, not of missing assignments or blown coverages. I think he’s leading the league in goal-tends (NBA does not keep these stats), however it’s hard to get mad when he’s punching the ball into the 14th row like Leonel Marshall spiking a volleyball into the next dimension.
Not only has Williams found his place defensively, but he seems to have blossomed into the aggressive rim-runner we had hoped he would be. Despite a relatively small sample size it seems like within 90 seconds of him checking into any given game he’s catching a lob off a pick-and-roll and slamming it home.
At the very least, this will keep defenses honest and unable to hedge ball handlers, and will open up pull-up opportunities for players like Kemba Walker and Marcus Smart. It also is just a spectacle to behold, watching someone of that size fly through the air like that. I am predicting at least one Deandre Jordan on Brandon Knight level posterization by the end of the year.
If Williams can keep up the pace, he’s making the case to be their de-facto center moving forward. He’s still only 22-years-old and is under a team-friendly contract for at least another two years. And, all things considered, he’s kind of the perfect big man for this team when factoring in that they might have four max — or near-max — players on the roster once Jayson Tatum gets his extension done next summer. In terms of bang for your salary buck, Williams at this point is an absolute steal.
And, ultimately, the way this roster is set up for the future, the argument can be made that the center position really isn’t going to be that important. They have a plethora of scoring talent at wing and guard locked up for the foreseeable future. Plus the way things are moving around the league, the center position in the NBA is kind of in limbo at the moment. Gone are the traditional back to the basket forwards that were so important to putting together a contender. At center they really just need a rim-protector and rebounder, and so far Williams checks those boxes.
Williams has not been alone in anchoring the front-court. Daniel Theis has also been excellent thus far. He has been a steady shot blocker and rebounder, and has proven he can handle the defense funneling attacking guards and wings to him at the basket.
And, although he’s no Aron Baynes, he’s still a competent three-point shooter and is, at least, effective enough to keep opposing big men from loitering beneath the rim. Which is essential for penetration-heavy guards and wings like Walker, Jaylen Brown, and Gordon Hayward to have their way inside 10-feet. Rookie Grant Williams has also been quite effective in spurts despite being undersized.
Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart deserve a lot of credit in this endeavor as well. Many have dreamed of the ‘small ball lineup of Walker, Marcus Smart, Brown, Tatum, and Hayward and, at this point, it at least seems plausible for certain stretches. Tatum has really taken another step defensively, and is showing that he can move up a position to guard forwards and some centers.
We knew Brown was athletic enough to guard forwards, and at a high level. And what more can be said about Marcus Smart that hasn’t already been said. He can guard virtually any player on the court, and is able to hide a lot of defensive matchup issues that might arise when the Boston Celtics go small. He and Brown stuffed 7-3 Kristaps Porzingis in a proverbial locker last night, to the point where he was basically unplayable down the stretch.
The third center in the rotation, Enes Kanter, has been injured for most of this stretch, however he is slated to return some time in the next week or so. Unfortunately, I fear re-inserting Kanter might throw a wrench into what’s been working for the front court thus far, namely rim protection. He is a completely ineffectual post defender and even as a veteran is far behind Williams and Theis in that regard. I’m not ready to write him off entirely (yet), I’m just not sure this team really needs any more scoring from the front-court. But, with Gordon Haywards absence yet to be felt offensively, we will have to wait and see how that plays out.
Winning eight in a row and sitting alone atop the NBA has a way of masking the stink of any kind of roster issues. Winning is truly a cure-all. So, at least for now, I think the Boston Celtics fanbase can un-bookmark the NBA trade machine from Chrome and writers can file their front-court bolstering trade pieces away for another day.
At least until December 15th, when we can legally trade Kanter.