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Mailbag answer: what’s up with Daniel Theis?

Daniel Theis has received DNP-CDs in the Celtics’ last two games. Is he out of the rotation?

Boston Celtics v New York Knicks Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Yesterday, we invited you, the readers, to submit some questions regarding the Celtics’ outlook with a quarter of the season in the books and, considering how they’re playing, there’s certainly a lot to talk about right now.

Today, we have a good question from celtiberian, who wants to talk about Daniel Theis in the wake of his consecutive DNP-CDs against the Mavericks and Pelicans:

What happens with Daniel Theis? Is he in the doghouse, or still injured? I think he is as good as Baynes in defensive contributions, and better than him in mobility and game awareness.

It’s fair to wonder, but as far as we know right now, Theis is not in the doghouse and he’s currently healthy. I think what we’re seeing with his recent lack of minutes is more of a symptom of the Celtics’ more-crowded-than-you-may-think front court rotation than anything about his own individual performance.

While we’ve all (understandably) spent a lot of time discussing the playing time of the Celtics’ talented perimeter rotation in recent weeks, the truth is that they’ve developed an equally convoluted minutes crunch in the paint. Between last year’s primary center trio of Al Horford, Aron Baynes and Theis and “small-ball” minutes for players like Jayson Tatum, Marcus Morris and Semi Ojeleye, plus the younger duo of Robert Williams III and Guerschon Yabusele, you can start to see how it gets difficult to simply get everyone on the court.

Overall, I think what we’re seeing with Theis is Brad Stevens employing a heavily matchup-focused approach with who he uses in the front court. Against the Pelicans, Theis isn’t really an ideal option; he’s not quite strong enough to wrestle with human bowling ball Julius Randle, and perhaps a little too slow to chase around Nikola Mirotic, who is basically a wing player. Instead, the team went smaller; Morris picked up the start and the lion’s share of the minutes at the four, and only Horford and Baynes saw substantial run among the true bigs (though Yabusele did pick up some interesting first-quarter minutes, bodying up on Randle for a pair of fouls).

NBA: Boston Celtics at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Against the Mavericks, who lacked energetic center Dwight Powell, it was much the same story. If Powell had played, Theis could have Spider-Man meme’d at him for ten or so minutes, but in his absence, the Mavs deployed only paint-bound juggernaut DeAndre Jordan and the perimeter-friendly Maxi Kleber in the frontcourt. Against Dallas’ surplus of wings, the Celtics again downsized to just Horford and Baynes in the front court, while Morris and Ojeleye split most of the minutes at the four.

This is probably what life will be like for Theis going forward. He’s undoubtedly a useful player, a good rim protector and active rebounder on both ends, capable of giving you 15 efficient and energetic minutes on a given night, but there will be times where the game plan just doesn’t have space for him. While Dallas and New Orleans proved to be those kinds of teams, I’d bet he returns to the court against Tristan Thompson, Larry Nance Jr. and the Cleveland Cavaliers this Friday.

While we’re discussing Theis, another interesting tangential question looms further down the road: will Robert Williams force his way into the rotation this season? If so, where do those minutes come from? The Celtics’ front court minutes crunch could get even tighter before long and unfortunately, Theis just might be the one to lose out on the most playing time if that happens.

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