Entering the 2019-20 season, one of the main questions facing the Boston Celtics was how the team would fill the void left behind by Al Horford’s departure. The Kemba Walker addition in lieu of Kyrie Irving plugged a lot of holes, but losing a veteran big with great defensive prowess, playmaking, and outside shooting was a considerable blow.
Said void framed the entire season in regards to Daniel Theis, the third-year pro who emerged as the starter to fill Horford’s absence. Expectations were that the role Theis played would be different than his predecessor. He wouldn’t be a creator atop the key whom Brad Stevens ran offense through. He wouldn’t play 30 minutes a night, nor the Kryptonite to rival big man, Joel Embiid. The goal was solid, efficient minutes as the fifth cog in a wheel ready to spin faster than ever before.
Starting 64 of Boston’s 65 regular season games, Theis fulfilled that mantra and pleasantly surprised many Celtics faithful to become a fan favorite in his first year as a starter.
Following a disappointing exit from the Eastern Conference Finals, the Celtics go back to the drawing board in search of methods to improve their chances next year. A popular rallying cry has been to upgrade the center spot, moving Theis to a backup role, and adding a more solidified rim protector than the 6’9 German.
Such a call only serves as a reminder that Theis is still wildly underappreciated. For all the little things he does to make his teammates better, do the dirty work, and come out of nowhere to stabilize the starting lineup, his lack of dominance in any clear manner will make it difficult to quantify his value.
Theis shot a strong 33.3 percent from deep this season, probably the first logical place to begin with his play. Any role player flanking Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward and Kemba in that first group better be able to play without the ball in their hands. Theis only took 6.6 shots a game; anything more would have been a disservice to the Core Four mentioned above. He knew his role, and hit enough triples to avoid being a nuisance when on the perimeter.
Recency bias feels a little more harsh on Theis as a stretch big. He went 4-for-26 in the postseason, and didn’t make a try after Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semis against the Toronto Raptors. While Theis should be lauded for his selflessness and desire to get others involved, there were far too many moments where he didn’t even look at the rim and act like a threat, instead seeking to engage in a handoff or screen elsewhere:
There’s a balance that can, and must, be struck between his desire to not simply launch whenever he’s dared to shoot and being a threat on the perimeter. In key stretches, particularly in the playoffs, Theis seemed too pre-programmed to keep the ball moving. The solution may also involve tweaking the offense a bit, which featured Theis in this spot constantly and would devolve from there towards ball screens, handoffs, and isolations en masse.
Ball screens involving Theis were highly rewarding for the Celtics. Even though he’s only 6’9, he plays so much bigger and more rugged. Nobody wants contact on screens as much as him either.
We spent a lot of time talking this year about the seals Theis would engage in to provide a runway for handlers to score at the hoop. It’s by far the most impactful way he aids the team’s top scorers. His desire for physicality, combined with the awareness of how to bend the rules to get away with it, make the screen-and-seal a potent part of Boston’s pick-and-roll offense.
As Tatum continues to emerge as an All-World scoring option, he’ll become the focus of opponents at all times. Theis thrives when he’s a forgotten man and can impact the game through sheer energy. Opponents will switch those ball screens to avoid the snake-and-seal, and Tatum will go one-on-one in those situations.
Look for Theis to continue to be an active offensive rebounder in those moments. He proved such throughout the postseason, snagging nearly two extra possessions a game and frequently battling for tip-outs like this:
The Celtics don’t need to add someone who takes shots away from Tatum, Brown, and Walker long-term. They need a big who will knock down open shots, set screens, and play with selfless energy. Theis checks all those boxes and, for 24 minutes a night, is the right piece with this group.
The other end is where he got exposed a bit more during the NBA Playoffs. Theis found himself picked on in every series. Against the Philadelphia 76ers, Joel Embiid went at him one-on-one and won, getting Theis into early foul trouble or establishing dominant low post position. The drawback to playing a 6’9 center was clear.
Facing the Raptors, Theis got a reprieve from the constant banging down low, but was carved up by the pick-and-pop ability of Serge Ibaka. Theis isn’t a natural switch onto smaller guards, so the Celtics were forced to rotate around him and give up the pick-and-pop treys.
The shortcomings defensively didn’t ultimately catch up to the Celtics until the Eastern Conference Finals, when Bam Adebayo’s quickness and Miami’s constant dribble handoffs on the perimeter eventually wore down Theis and their overall defense.
To play Theis is to understand that he’s a big best deployed in drop coverage, sagging back and encouraging pull-up jumpers or pick-and-pops. But he does so without being an elite rim protector or shot blocker, instead drawing timely charges or using his superb effort to prevent second chance points.
What Theis adds is an unbelievable defensive IQ and exquisite help defense. He communicates well and understands how to position himself to best blanket Kemba or other smalls who might get picked on in the post. He’s not always switchable on-ball, but he makes timely off-ball switches to prevent mismatches within Boston’s scheme.
There’s few ways to quantify the value of what Theis can provide as an ultra aware team defender:
The Celtics saw first-hand what it takes to make it to the NBA Finals. Speed, shooting, and lineup versatility are paramount. Frontcourt players who are either so dominant they force the game to be played their way (see Jokic, Nikola) or mobile enough to create on their own are en vogue. Here’s the paradox with Theis: he’s certainly not in Category #1, but he hasn’t proven able to be an effective counter to Category #2.
That doesn’t mean Theis needs to be upgraded, but the Celtics need to continue to find small-ball counters to work alongside him and, based on opponent, ocassionally supplant him in closing moments. That’s not a knock on him as much as it is a recognition that he’s a role player, and like most role players, there are moments when what he offers isn’t as important. It’s on the front office to find a creative strategy for adding what he lacks, not necessarily an indication that he is necessarily best-served as a backup.
Rewind the clock twelve months and seeing the season Theis had would be considered nothing short of an overwhelming success. He’s the right fifth cog in this wheel, is a positive force on both ends, and shouldn’t be taken for granted. If he can become a slightly more consistent shooter, he’ll be at the peak of his utility in Boston.