The Boston Celtics have invested heavily in perimeter players. The team’s top five in minutes per game last year - Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, Marcus Smart, and Kemba Walker - are all best described as wings or guards. The difference between Boston’s fifth most relied upon rotation player, Walker, and the first big man to emerge on the list, Daniel Theis, is a full seven minutes per game.
Such a heavy emphasis on allocating playing time to the Celtics’ bevvy of talented perimeter options is in many ways an embrace of modern basketball. Boston’s best players offer nearly unmatched amounts of scoring, playmaking, and defensive versatility as compared to their peers.
Theis has emerged as a more than sufficient big man to tie everything together in most contexts, but the Celtics have reached a point in their development as a team where beating opponents in most contexts is insufficient. Boston is talented enough to hold itself accountable to constructing a roster that can win in all settings, including deep in the playoffs.
There are reasons to be skeptical of the Celtics’ prioritization of wings and guards, and the lack of star-level big it has produced.
Of NBA Finals participants in the past twenty years, just four teams stand out as arguably (and really just arguably) not having a big man as one of their three best players. One such instance was the 2007 Cleveland Cavaliers, who technically could claim either Zydrunas Ilgauskas or Drew Gooden as one of their top options, but really had no one good beyond LeBron James.
The 2012 Oklahoma City Thunder - who sported a trio of future MVPs in Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Russell Westbrook - fit the bill for what we’re looking for, though Serge Ibaka was on his way to something approximating stardom, albeit in a diminished role.
One might argue that the 2013 and 2014 San Antonio Spurs had three players better than Tim Duncan or that the 2019 Toronto Raptors had three players better than one of the Siakam-Gasol-Ibaka trio. Even assuming every fringe case proves the exception to the rule, that leaves 38 of 42 Finals teams with a big man firmly entrenched as one of its top three talents over the course of the past two decades.
Theis lands in the sixth spot among Celtics players according to most. Perhaps such a distinction is meaningless. The fact that very few teams that have won NBA championships have been structured like Boston may just be a reflection of the fact that very few teams have ever had as many really good perimeter players on one roster.
Basketball has changed a lot since the turn of the century, and it’s possible that the Celtics are at the start of a wave of perimeter-oriented teams that will rattle off titles in the future. There is truth in the notion that average center play is the most replaceable skill set in the league. Boston is smart to allocate the majority of its resources to players that fill roles where talent is scarce and scrape together a platoon where it is more plentiful.
But it’s also possible that the Celtics have a little too much of a good thing. Boston’s five best players don’t work together. The dream was always that a Walker/Smart/Hayward/Tatum/Brown five-headed monster would simply blow teams away offensively and be versatile enough defensively to survive just fine on the other end. That group hasn’t played all that much together, and when it has, things haven’t gone well.
The Celtics so-called “Best Five” lineup was outscored by 16 points per possession in the measly 38 non-garbage time possessions they played together last year, per Cleaning the Glass.
That’s not quite a big enough sample to draw any conclusions, but there are a number of Bam Adebayo-Giannis Antetokounmpo-Anthony Davis sized truths staring the team in the face. The fact of the matter is that there are multiple players throughout the league with traditional big man size that can do everything that the Celtics’ versatile wings are capable of.
Boston’s theoretical optimal lineup has to include someone who can at least counter such mobile behemoths somewhat. Theis is right on the verge of being able to do so. He’s smart, reasonably athletic, and willing to stick his nose in the middle of things. The rangy German big man has a tendency to pick up fouls rather quickly against everyone, and is particularly prone to doing so when matched up with the NBA’s best athletes. The options behind him are limited.
The good news for the Celtics is that potential solutions are abundant, especially in the roster building fantasy land that is the NBA offseason. Picking the right option might be a bit more challenging. The simplest, and likely safest, choice is to tweak things slightly.
Boston could sign a defensive-minded big man in free agency. Someone like Aron Baynes, Derrick Favors, or Tristan Thompson could do wonders for the Celtics rotation, and ensure that they have 48 minutes of adult-in-the-room type play down low. It’s not clear that anyone of that caliber is willing to ink a deal for the relative pittance that Boston can offer with its mid-level exception, and even less clear if such a move helps raise the Celtics’ ceiling against the best teams in the league.
The bet with such a strategy is that, despite historical precedent, Boston’s unconventional wing and guard-heavy roster is a formula that can compete at the game’s highest level. Under such an assumption, Hayward’s untimely injury during the team’s most recent playoff run tempered the potential of having so many versatile players on the court at once. Theis and whomever the Celtics nab in free agency would simply have to not get run over by opposing bigs when everyone is healthy.
Nothing about such a line of thinking is all that unreasonable, but it is far from a proven formula for success. Boston wouldn’t be crazy to more aggressively pursue a rebalancing of its roster. Trading any of the Walker, Hayward, Smart triumvirate should absolutely be in play. The challenge is finding a deal that makes sense. There’s a rumor that the Celtics are monitoring Andre Drummond and his extension in Cleveland. Our own Keith Smith tested out a few if you’d like a bit of additional reading.
This is where the theoretical and the practical begin to butt heads. Teams aren’t itching to give up the kind of super-skilled uber athlete that would be a big man good enough to be considered one of Boston’s best players. The Celtics can want to shift the balance of their roster all they want. If the right trade doesn’t present itself, they’re out of luck, which is really the final strategy for Boston to acquire a star-level big man.
Adebayo was drafted 14th overall, which is precisely where the Celtics will make their first of three first-round selections in the upcoming NBA Draft. To say that getting such a talented player at any of Boston’s draft spots would be unprecedented is decidedly untrue. Though it is most certainly unlikely.
The Celtics also have a pair of intriguing big man prospects in Grant Williams and Robert Williams already on the roster. Neither has looked the part of a star in the making, but the former is a basketball savant and the latter an athletic outlier in a league full of superhumans. Crazier things have happened than those player types evolving into meaningful contributors. That might be enough.
This is an incredibly interesting moment for Danny Ainge and his team. There may be a series of moves this offseason that yield Boston a championship as soon as next year. It’s just not clear what those moves are, and the possibilities range from doing next to nothing to a major shakeup.
Rebalancing the roster to include a more talented big man is an option that is supported by years of evidence, but it isn’t one that comes with a guarantee of success, and it definitely isn’t a switch that can be flipped without consequence. Seeing how the Celtics approach things should be fun.