The Boston Celtics starting lineup heading into the 2020-21 season is uncertain. The departure of Gordon Hayward in free agency and a prolonged knee injury to Kemba Walker leaves at least two spots up for grabs. Boston’s big young wings – Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown – are large and versatile enough that the Celtics can explore a number of options in filling their starting vacancies.
At least one of them is likely to go to a point guard. Marcus Smart and Jeff Teague are both legitimate candidates to fill the void while Walker is out. The other starting spot could conceivably go to just about any player type other than a small guard. Smart would make the most sense if Boston wants to prioritize versatility and playmaking, but some have posited that Brad Stevens may want to keep his insanely competitive Swiss Army Knife in a bench role.
The most frequently floated name to snag the final starting nod in such a scenario has been second-year big man Grant Williams. The Celtics’ stout, smiley forward/center flashed some moments of promise in his rookie campaign, including manning key minutes at the five in the postseason. Williams is a wrecking ball with nimble feet, good instincts, and no shortage of offensive warts.
“I just think that with Brad, you kind of never know,” Williams said about his role going into training camp and next season. “So, I might play 5, I might play the 4, whatever Brad asks me to do I’m prepared for.”
Boston’s offense was extremely effective last year – scoring 113.6 points per 100 possessions in non-garbage time minutes per Cleaning the Glass – but it was predicated on consistently playing ballhandling wings at the power forward spot that Williams would be stepping into. He’s got plenty of useful tools in his bag, but jumping up to starting status isn’t just a question of what Williams is capable of. He’s not good enough to earn such a significant role dependent of roster context, or at least the last we saw of him was not good enough.
The Celtics flummoxed opponents by the sheer volume of players they had capable of handling in a pick-and-roll, creating off the bounce, attacking closeouts, passing, and shooting. Williams can do precisely one of those things, shoot, and even that is a pretty big question mark that needs to be proven over a larger sample size.
Boston’s board game aficionado infamously missed his first 25 three-point attempts to start the season last year. He turned things around from there, and even canned a sizzling 58.8% of his looks from beyond the arc in the playoffs. Teams will be happy to let Williams prove he’s capable from deep to start the year, and doing so will be absolutely critical if the Celtics hope to maintain a respectable level of offensive efficiency with a starting unit that includes him.
Williams has other offensive skills. He’s a smart passer and an absolute monster of a screen setter. In theory he has a robust post game he could use to abuse smaller opponents, though he never really showcased it last year. Those are useful skills to bring to the table, especially when surrounded by real offensive weapons like Tatum, Brown, and Walker (once healthy), but they diminish in value when paired with Daniel Theis, who is similarly limited offensively, and equally as willing to fill a low-usage role.
If Williams can stand in the corner and bang home 40% of the shots he gets via kickouts, then Boston may be able to survive the incredible drop in offensive dynamism with Gordon Hayward now in Charlotte. If not, things are going to get ugly watching opponents sag off of him and Theis alike. The Celtics scored just 108.4 points per 100 possessions with that pairing on the court together in non-garbage time minutes, per Cleaning the Glass.
Boston is going to need to get more playmaking out of Tatum and Brown. Inserting Williams into the starting lineup makes decisions a lot easier for defenses, regardless of how consistent of a shooter he is, which means his peers will need to pick up some slack in terms of breaking down defenses, getting opponents into rotation, and making the right reads to take advantage of them.
The Celtics’ precocious wings may both have another leap in them yet, and if the tandem grows into even more significant offensive roles, then this whole discussion may look silly in retrospect. If Jayson Tatum is draining step back 28-footers and consistently drawing double teams, then life will get easier for everyone. Having multiple limited offensive players on the court at once will be a substantially more palatable under such conditions, but banking on that kind of development is more of a daydream than a strategy.
On the defense end, Williams is a definite plus. He’s an exceptionally intelligent team defender, and surprisingly mobile for a man of his girth, capable of chasing around all but the most elite athletes on the perimeter with decent consistency. Posting him up is kind of like kicking a fire hydrant.
However, Williams ruins great defensive efforts by raking his hands down on opponents after effectively cutting off their penetration far too frequently and is a touch short to be an ideal rim protector, but he has a lot of the building blocks needed to be a great defensive player. It’s possible that’s what would be at the heart of the Celtics strategy should they turn to Williams as a starter.
Sacrificing a bit of offense to be an even stingier defense isn’t necessarily as good as being a top-5 unit on both ends of the court, but it could be the easiest way for Boston to continue to be a major pain in the ass this year. Those same offensively inept lineups that featured both Theis and Williams were still net positives. They allowed a miniscule 105.2 points per 100 possessions.
We’re dealing with some small sample sizes here, but the data reflects what logically makes sense from watching Williams play: he’s a very useful defender with serious offensive limitations, the impacts of which are compounded the more offensive non-factors he plays next to. Last year, that wasn’t good enough to be a starter, but he’s operating in a new context now.
The Celtics can probably stay in the black with a starting lineup that includes Williams, particularly if he can prove that last year’s late-season shooting is more than a hot streak. That’s a good thing, but it is a far cry from the dominance of the wing-heavy, super-versatile starting unit that started games a year ago. Boston can recreate that strategy to a degree once Walker returns and by committing to Smart as a starter over Williams. Whether or not they will remains to be seen.