In the Brad Stevens era, the Golden State Warriors have been the gold standard. Versatile players all over the floor, shooting at every position, and switching defenses are now the norm around the league. Teams have molded the future of their franchise in their image and maybe no more than in Boston.
However, this year could be different.
Let’s be real. It’s likely the Celtics will face Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Anthony Davis back-to-back-to-back in the playoffs if they want to raise Banner 18. Heading into the regular season, the center spot was not necessarily a position of weakness, but uncertainty. And now, with the rash of injuries, should the Celtics consider making moves with the prospect of facing the three of the best big men in the post-season?
On Wednesday night, Boston faced Dallas without Robert Williams and Vincent Poirier as options to defend Kristaps Porzingis. Both centers are out with long term injuries. Stevens opted to start Semi Ojeleye and mixed in coverages with Daniel Theis and Jaylen Brown on the Mavs’ power forward. Porzingis would finish with 23 & 13, but all things considered, the Celtics held him in check.
Last week, Theis and Enes Kanter tag teamed to actually outplay Embiid in a home loss to the Sixers. In two games against the Nuggets, they’ve largely let Nikola Jokic get his and instead, limited the damage from everybody else. It’s been a patchwork approach with even rookie Grant Williams and Marcus Smart stepping in at the 5 at the quarter mark of the regular season, but for the most part, it’s worked...for now.
The question that will linger until February’s deadline is whether or not the Celtics can battle the NBA’s best bigs in a seven-game series.
In their trade special last weekend, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe reminded viewers that the last time Danny Ainge made a significant in-season trade was five years ago for Isaiah Thomas. Over the last four seasons, he’s Norman Dale’d the trade deadline, pushed his roster to mid-court, and said, “my team is on the floor.” Even with acquiring IT, it was more of an opportunistic move rather than helpful to the team’s immediate success. Thomas had proven to be a legit scorer in the NBA and still had two years left on his contract. The Celtics were 20-31 at the deadline and Ainge only gave up the expiring deal of Marcus Thornton and a protected first round pick. My sense is that unless something like that comes across his desk this season, he won’t make a deal.
Several Boston outlets including ours have constructed nibbling trade proposals for players like Nerlens Noel, Richaun Holmes, and Davis Bertans that could help around the edges, but nothing game-changing. The Celtics aren’t as asset-rich as they have been in the past, but they have enough to make a significant move.
Woj reported that the Celtics won’t trade any of their core wing players for help in the middle and went as far as to say that Robert Williams could be the long term answer at center.
“Right now with the three-headed monster they have at center — it’s better than anything that’s available to them in the marketplace,” Wojnarowski said. “Robert Williams has been a revelation in his second season. … Williams is a player that Boston, not just for the short term, but for the long term, has a chance to have great staying power at that center position.”
If that’s true, you can dismiss any thought about adding Steven Adams (who Woj suggested could be Boston bound) or LaMarcus Aldridge or Kevin Love. The Celtics are 18-7 on December 20th. They’re a good team. A very good team. They’ll limp into the new year with a home-heavy schedule and feed on bottom feeders for much of January. In the meantime, they’ll play to their strengths and counter and go small. Against bigger teams, they’ll bend and not break. Against bigger and the best teams will be a question mark, but so far, they’ve had all the answers.
For what it’s worth, the Celtics are 6th in the league at shots inside of six feet and 8th in frequency. They’re 9th in total blocks and 8th in defensive rating. Those are statistical measures usually related to a dominating paint presence. They may not have a traditional center in a season where the five spot could determine who is raising the Larry O’Brien in July, but like the Warriors (and the Spurs before them) changed the league, maybe this Boston team can do the same again.