The season is still young but there are already narratives being repeated in the media in an attempt to define this year’s Boston Celtics. First of all, this team is the photographic negative of last year’s squad. Secondly, they are exceeding most people’s expectations. Finally, however, the Achilles heel is the center position and that flaw will prove fatal in the playoffs if they don’t make a move to improve the middle.
That may be true. Certainly they’ll have to face some rather large human beings in the playoffs and it is hard to “hide” a positional weakness over the course of a seven game series.
Enes Kanter is a known quantity; big on rebounding but simply incapable of defending at a high level. Daniel Theis has played remarkably well this season, but he’s likely to get pushed around by bigger players. Robert Williams has the size and athleticism to hang with anyone, but is as likely to bite on a pump fake as he is to add to his blocked shots. Vincent Poirier is around for depth but may not be ready to be a big factor in the rotation.
The rest of the options involve going small (Grant Williams, Semi Ojeleye) or abandoning the position outright (Smart has created his own “stretch 6” position). Brian Windhorst does a nice job explaining how Stevens has used creativity to work the roster imbalance to his advantage.
But the question remains, can that strategy work in the playoffs or are the Celtics simply (once again) a piece away from being legit title contenders?
Many think that the missing piece is a center and a trade is the solution. As often is the case, working out the details of such a trade is the real challenge.
The reality is, the Celtics don’t have easy options even if they were determined to upgrade in the middle. While one could have some fun with the Trade Machine, Boston has made it clear to anyone who has asked that their core players are absolutely not available. That includes, sources said, both Hayward and Smart, players who have been floated as possible trade chips in the past.
Take all those players off the market and you are left with very few salaries with which to match up with the kinds of impact bigs that might be on the market in February. You aren’t getting Kevin Love, Nikola Vucevic, or even Tristan Thompson without including Hayward or Smart (and other pieces).
There could be deals for guys on smaller contracts, but most of those guys are either still on their rookie contracts (and thus still seen as an investment by the team that drafted them) or somehow fatally flawed in their own way. So you need to consider long and hard about how much of an actual upgrade those players would be to the ones we already have on the roster. There’s always the buyout market, but its anyone’s guess who might become available and if they’d even agree to join the Celtics over teams out West.
Danny Ainge is always open to making moves but even he seems skeptical that something is going to materialize.
“It’s always about who,” he said. “It’s not, like, how tall they are. It’s not like you can just go find any 7-foot guy and put him out there and all of a sudden you’re going to be better. It depends on who that is and whether they’re better than Marcus Smart guarding the center.
Perhaps the more likely scenario is that the Celtics roll with the current roster and see what happens. After all, it isn’t just the Celtics that have to match up with teams like the Sixers. The Sixers also have to figure out a way to match up with the Celtics when they go small. Is Embiid really going to effectively guard Marcus Smart or Gordon Hayward?
There’s value to be had in the big men they do have. While Theis, Kanter, Williams, and Poirier are somewhat lacking in individual versatility, as a set they provide Brad Stevens with a number of different looks to employ in various matchups and situations. And it doesn’t hurt that they have 6 fouls apiece either.
Currently my hope is that Robert Williams continues to develop more reliable fundamentals to go along with his pogo-stick hops. The thought of him getting big rotation minutes seemed optimistic at best just weeks before the season. He’s clearly made major strides already. All you need from him is reliable defense and the occasional rim-running lob play. Perhaps with enough reps and some good coaching he could be enough of an in-house solution to fill that role for 20+ minutes a night.
There’s still a lot of time between now and the trade deadline and even more until the playoffs. Let’s see how this all plays out before we get too worried about Greek mythology and Dr. Scholl’s.