It’s hard not to feel an overexaggerated sense of concern for the Boston Celtics center spot following their elimination in the Eastern Conference Finals. The weak link in any five-man unit throughout the season faced an entirely different level of domination as Bam Adebayo led the Miami Heat in scoring with 21.8 points along with 11.0 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 1.7 steals across the six-game series victory.
Defense is a team effort, but Daniel Theis shouldered significantly more of the individual assignment than any other Celtic. As Adebayo eliminated Boston with 32 points, 14 rebounds, and five assists in Game 6, alternative options were already being theorized within the fanbase.
The importance of big men hasn’t disappeared but the checklist that dictates the extent of their value has become far more extensive. Bigs must guard in the paint and on the perimeter. Rim protection is vital as is a respectable 3-point shot to space the court. Reliable shot creation is invaluable while playmaking chops are being embraced more and more.
Only those who check most if not all of those boxes move the needle far enough for legitimate contenders. Those are the players who deserve max contracts, the ones you move a haul of assets to acquire.
Consider three of the four conference finalists in these past playoffs and the bigs who suited up for them. Miami’s motion offense only works because of Adebayo’s abilities as a facilitator. Nikola Jokic is the position’s best passer who finds ways to take and make shots from any spot of the court. Anthony Davis’ all-encompassing brilliance helped bring LA a title.
Everyone else belongs in a separate category. This other group may be respectably talented and far more populated with even All-Star level players. But there’s a distinct divide based on limitations that hinder their ability to contribute towards the highest basketball purpose.
Knowing that as a team with legitimate title aspirations, why should the Celtics consider the likes of Myles Turner, Nikola Vucevic, or maybe even Andre Drummond? None pass the aforementioned threshold, lacking any one of shooting, creativity, or defense.
Theis doesn’t bring any of those traits either. He’s actually a worse individual than any of the trio. But he doesn’t require valuable assets to bring in and has one less figure on his yearly salary and then some.
“Unless a big man is a clear superstar, they (teams in general) might be better off looking for discounts and investing resources elsewhere,” wrote The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor in late September.
“The teams that can’t get their hands on one of these generational talents are getting what they need from the position on the cheap and/or by committee... size still matters in the NBA. But how much you spend on size matters even more.”
As a replacement for Al Horford, Boston could’ve wound up a lot worse than Theis. The third-year big who started just five games total in his first two years started 64 and averaged 9.2 points and 6.6 rebounds in a hair over 24 minutes a night. He finished well around the rim (71.2 percent) and was 13th in screen assists per game. The Celtics’ defensive rating suffered in his absence.
At just $5 million a year this past season and the next, Theis was one of the best bargain contracts across the NBA.
“Theis has not only been a big plus on defense,” wrote Forbes’ Hunter Felt back in April. “He is capable of putting together an occasional impressive game stats-wise, something which has helped him stand out on a Celtics team that has been starved for offensive performances from supporting players.”
Nobody’s wrong to think the Celtics could do better in the middle. Theis outperformed expectations but is undersized at 6’8’’, lacks a 3-point shot, and could improve guarding in space. Enes Kanter is likely to opt out of his contract. Robert Williams III remains a work in progress.
The reigning Finals participants aren’t leaving the top of the league’s hierarchy. Adebayo’s stardom will only grow as he improves as a scorer. Looking to the opposite coast, the Western Conference Finals matchup pitted two of the league’s premier seven-footers against each other.
But when it comes to the center position, if you ain’t first, you’re last. So why should the Celtics be paying for something in the middle?
A large part of their success stems from the trio of wings who offer interchangeability at both ends, some of which would almost certainly have to be sacrificed in any deal.
A rotating patchwork of bigs behind Theis is likely to look significantly better next season. Robert Williams should take another step in his development. Grant Williams may have given Brad Stevens some thoughts on a potential small-ball unit with him at center, which could counter Miami’s zone and allow Boston to switch Adebayo handoffs.
The Celtics could use a change but that doesn’t necessarily mean it should make one, particularly not when the only viable answers aren’t likely to become feasible anytime soon.