The Boston Celtics officially signed veteran big man Tristan Thompson to a two-year deal this week. The team’s new center brings a skillset that overlaps in many ways with their current starter at the five, Daniel Theis. Where Thompson relies on his athleticism, Theis gets by a bit on guile, but the end results aren’t dissimilar.
Both players provide solid defensive instincts, above-average mobility for their position, and a willingness to fill a low usage role on the offensive end. Both offer nominal rim protection, but provide their greatest value as switch defenders and reliable lane cloggers capable of mucking up driving lanes and recovering to roll men and cutters with enough quickness to position themselves between would be scorers and the rim.
Theis thrived as the lone true big in the Celtics’ starting unit last year. His nimble feet did enough to delay ball handlers in the pick-and-roll and as a help defender to give Boston’s army of long athletic wings just enough time to wreak havoc via rearview contests and as helpers away from the ball.
The formula worked beautifully. The Celtics allowed a very stingy 105.4 points per 100 possessions in the non-garbage time minutes in which Theis played, per Cleaning the Glass. Offensively Theis was an effective screener and ball mover who soaked up very few possessions that weren’t layups, dunks, or occasional looks from beyond the arc.
Theis lost his touch from deep last year, connecting on just 34.0% of his three point attempts, after posting a far more encouraging 37.7% mark the year prior. His hesitancy to shoot the ball cramped the Celtics spacing a bit at times in the Playoffs, but on the whole Theis’ willingness to take a backseat to his more talented teammates was a major plus.
Thompson has the tools to fill a similar role in Boston this year. Gone are the days of shifting to a drop scheme to accommodate Enes Kanter and praying that other teams don’t notice the plodding big man with a giant target on his chest. Thompson has shifty feet and short-range quickness to match Theis’ impact, and even brings a bit of additional heft to the table that should serve him well in dealing with the league’s biggest behemoths on the block.
The Celtics can rely on quality minutes from the center position for a full 48 minutes every single night, without having to worry about adjusting their playing style based on personnel. That’s a huge immediate dividend that adding Thompson to the rotation will pay in Boston, but jubilation over the team’s new addition may need to be tempered.
Part of what made Theis such a spectacular fit for the Celtics last year was the broader ecosystem in which he existed. His defensive gifts accentuated the talents of Boston’s trio of big, smart wings in Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Gordon Hayward. Sprinkle in a dash of Marcus Smart, and the Celtics could essentially ensure that at least two versatile, athletic defenders were on the court with Theis at all times.
Hayward is gone, and the options to replace his minutes all come with warts. Smart will likely slide into a starting role, which will give Boston’s defense a boost if anything, but the bench is filled with pieces that won’t fit so snugly next to whomever fills the backup center spot among Theis and Thompson, despite their duplicity of skills.
Grant Williams may be able to offer enough defensive ability, but playing him as a power forward alongside a non-shooting big is a recipe for offensive disaster. Semi Ojeleye remains a train wreck doing anything other than taking shoulders to the chest from huge opponents. Jeff Teague is a defensive minus who could benefit more from a traditional rim protector cleaning up messes than a more mobile option like Theis or Thompson.
Barring an unexpected leap from the Celtics’ fringiest “veterans,” that leaves Javonte Green (an intriguing athlete lacking in consistency), Romeo Langford (likely out due to injury until mid-season), and Boston’s two rookies, Aaron Nesmith and Payton Pritchard, none of whom inspire all that much confidence.
Nesmith holds the most long-term potential to help build back up the Celtics’ ecosystem of wings, but he’s unlikely to help cover Hayward’s absence in a particularly meaningful way this year. The trickle-down effects of losing an All-Star caliber player are wide ranging, and include the negation of some of the benefits of Boston’s biggest free agency signing. There’s not much that can be done about it at this point.
That doesn’t mean Thompson isn’t a good addition. He’s a reliable role player who knows what it takes to win a championship and will enable the Celtics to maintain strategic continuity between their starting lineups and bench and hybrid units. Boston is most assuredly a better team with Thompson on its roster, just not quite as good as if Hayward were still around.