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Mid-season report card: the bigs

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Once a position of need, the trio of Daniel Theis, Tristan Thompson, and Robert Williams have all made cases for more playing time.

Washington Wizards v Boston Celtics Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

Death, taxes, and Celtics fans pining for Brad Stevens to start Robert Williams III. The All-Star break has been nice. I’ve seen less surrealist tweets about it. That’s likely a product of the fact that there have been zero Celtics games since last Thursday and won’t be until today. Do I preemptively mute the words “start,” “Timelord,” and “Ainge” on Twitter? Comment below. I’m big on unbiased guidance.

Repetitive as it may be, perhaps the question to linger over this Celtics season the most – at least the question with the fewest expletives involved – concerns Williams and his fellow bigs: what is Stevens to do with them? The trio of Tristan Thompson, Daniel Theis, and Williams all bring a dish of their own unique variety to the table, and there is certainly plenty of grub to go around. But the uncertainty that comes with having three viable starters as opposed to one Al Horford or one Kevin Garnett is about as uncomfortable for fans as Kendrick Perkins used to look when handed the basketball anywhere outside of the restricted area.

Anytime Thompson and Theis simultaneously saunter out to midcourt for an opening tip, I hear the faint crack of a few thousand Pepto Bismol bottles being opened for the first time. Not because those two can’t work together, but because starting two bigs might not be “ideal” for fans, at least not as it relates to the ever-evolving game of positionless basketball.

Perhaps the proper use of this TPE thing – ever heard of it? – may correct the lineup uncertainty. Perhaps it makes things worse, throwing a wrench in the semblance of a well-defined five-man lineup by adding another center to the fold. But in the meantime, I’ll direct my attention to the three centers the Celtics do employ, and what they spent the first half of this bizarre season bringing to the game, regardless of how many minutes they spent playing in each.

Atlanta Hawks v Boston Celtics Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Tristan Thompson: staying his course

Tristan Thompson is like Cheerios. He gets the job done, to varying results, depending on your mood. Cheerios are a fine breakfast. Could there be more to them? Sure, but they provide sustenance nonetheless.

Another thing about Cheerios: no matter how your tastes change over time, Cheerios will remain a viable option. I reached a point in my life when I began to enjoy broccoli, and I reached another point when yogurt started to disgust me; no one wakes up one morning and discovers that they suddenly detest Cheerios. Likewise, no one wakes up one morning and realizes that “eh, Tristan Thompson is useless.” He may not be overwhelmingly stimulating as a playmaker, but as a grit-and-grind bruiser, he can fit any lineup.

And with age, his returns have yet to diminish. For starters, while he’s entering his ninth season, he’s only 29, still possessing enough burst to keep him on the floor for more than 20 minutes per game. But what stands out in his first year as a Celtic has been his consistency as a rebounder – particularly his proficiency as an offensive rebounder – no matter what spryer, somewhat younger centers he encounters in the paint.

This season, he’s averaging 2.5 box outs per game, 33.7 percent of which come on the offensive end. He’s seventh in the league in total offensive rebounds (105), and eighth in the league in offensive rebound percentage, per NBA Advanced Stats. Despite his reduced minutes – per game, he’s playing the second-fewest of his career – he slots in with the league’s 10th-best rebound percentage as a whole (17.9 percent, his second-best percentage as a pro).

Reminder: this is the same Thompson that started in every game of four-straight NBA Finals while in Cleveland. To a point, he’s the same player, not just the same man; players like Thompson don’t often change much over time anyway. He remains a stalwart paint presence, scoring very little and bruising many, on his way to an understated (yet pivotal) seven-point, 11 rebound stat line. He’s able to erase defenders by outworking them in the paint and has the length to stay in position through multiple misses before he even touches the ball.

If there’s one shortcoming to his rebounding, it’s that he too often commits the cardinal sin of bringing the ball down to his chest when surrounded by multiple defenders in a rebounding scrum, particularly in possible put back situations. Among players with at least 15% frequency for put backs, Thompson scores the second-fewest points per possession (0.85) and his score frequency is fifth-worst in that same group (45.6 percent), per Synergy. He gets opportunities. It’s finishing them off or at least finding a teammate after they’ve passed him by that causes trouble.

And then there’s his scoring. Well, not so much his scoring, but the shots he elects to take. He’s shooting 56.3 percent in the restricted area, and 51.7 percent anywhere in the paint that doesn’t include the restricted area. To be shooting 56.3 percent in the restricted area is disappointing enough considering the performance of his contemporaries; I can only help but wonder how much higher both of those close-range percentages would be if Thompson applied a bit more vertical agility, using his size and weight to push defenders off as he went toward the basket, not away from it.

But we shouldn’t be looking to ask a lemon to taste like a Snickers – better yet, for Cheerios to taste like Cookie Crisp. If this were an article looking to answer the question “who should Boston start at center?,” I’m not sure I’d answer with Thompson, given the fact that this team enjoys a good deal of success when they push the ball and when guards have the option of a rim-running big to lob the ball to in transition. Thompson has been better in transition of late, but he’s not that guy. Tristan Thompson is a “Do Your Job™” guy. He knows his, and he does it adequately.

Grade: B-

Daniel Theis: finding his niche

Theis has a body not unlike Kevin Love, and he really wants to play like Kevin Love, being the potentially lethal combo-forward that can both assert their will in the paint and stroke it from mid-to-long range. In another decade, it would be considered his niche; in today’s NBA, it’s what will likely determine whether or not he can be included in the regular rotation on whatever team he’s playing for.

He’s not quite a center, not quite a power forward, one who would rather drink a pint of raw eggs than work on his post-game. If Theis could build a house on the free-throw line or the elbows, he would and he’d lead a happy life. A relatively productive one, too.

Theis has taken 35 shots from the designated mid-range area (10-14 feet from the basket) and made 17 of them this season, good for 48.6 percent per NBA Advanced Stats. That’s tied for the fourth-most made field goals in that range on the team, trailing the expected suspects: Jaylen Brown (63), Jayson Tatum (58), and Kemba Walker (18). Mind you, in terms of shooting percentage from that area – among those on the roster to attempt at least 20 shots from mid-range – Theis has the third-best percentage at 48.6 percent, slotting in behind only Marcus Smart (56.7 percent) and Brown (52.9 percent); Kemba has made only 29 percent of his field goals from that area.

Washington Wizards v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

These opportunities often come in catch-and-shoot scenarios, where he has been useful as the Celtics look to get off quick open shots. My research devastated my longstanding theory that Theis shoots way too early in the shot clock — only 15.9% of the time, reasonably less often than quite a few of his teammates who have appeared in at least 20 games; he’s also shooting 62.9 percent in those situations, making him the best happy trigger in town – it did not wreck my assumption that Theis can dominate when given the space to catch and shoot. An eye-popping 50.5 percent of his shots come in a catch-and-shoot situation, more than everyone on the Celtics roster other than Semi Ojeleye (68.2 percent) and Aaron Nesmith (60.3 percent).

There is a rather significant difference in his shooting percentage from two-point range (55.6 percent) as opposed to outside the arc (37.9 percent), but in terms of overall catch-and-shoot pure shooting percentage, he’s third on the team at 45 percent. He only trails Payton Pritchard (45.8 percent) and Jeff Teague (46.2 percent), both of whom take advantage of a catch-and-shoot situation far less often than Theis (38.3 percent and 16.5 percent of the time, respectively).

You’ll often find that Theis enjoys playing the mid-range game just as much as he enjoys being the screener/roll man in pick-and-roll situations – likely because those two occurrences are mutually inclusive to Theis’ skillset. He ranks 11th in the league in terms of how frequently he serves as the roll man on a pick and roll (31 percent of possessions), an excellent indication for what kind of plays the Celtics look to run with Theis on the floor. By far, he’s the Celtic to appear in the pick-and-roll game most often, and he’s somewhat deceptive with his screens. His wide frame will often cause players to try to run over his screens and, given the space he takes up by stretching his legs, they struggle to stick with the ballhandler; Theis’ defender is essentially forced to help by switching off of him. But Theis’ “wide screens” more often materialize as slip-screens, and the defense’s reaction allows him a wide-open elbow jumper.

The only trouble is the fact that, as it pertains to possible points per possession, only 48.6 percent of the league scores fewer points per pick-and-roll play than Theis and the Celtics do with him as the roll man, per Synergy. Now, that’s not necessarily bad, particularly when you consider where the bulk of Theis’ shots are going to be coming from: he’s not rolling to the rim nearly as often as guys like DeAndre Jordan (88.5th percentile) or even his teammate Robert Williams III (70.4th percentile), both players who don’t have the mid-range skillset that Theis has. It’s just something to watch going forward; as Theis bounces off screens to beeline for the elbow, is it as effective as when Williams darts for the back of the rim and lofts for a lob? Particularly with how often he elects to settle for jumpers as opposed to taking the lanes to the rim practically handed to him by the defense?

When he’s on defense, though, there shall be no handouts. Of the regular rotation Celtics who have played in at least 10 games this season – sorry, Tacko – he leads the pack in defensive rating (108.7). While he hardly looks like he should be agile when in a defensive position, and his rotations can seem to unfold in a clunky fashion that should give quicker guards an advantage, he has continued to improve both as an on-ball and help defender. He can keep up with players that outmatch him in quickness thanks to his length, both on drives and at the rim…

… and he’s grown significantly in help situations, becoming more adept at reacting to a player’s move before they make it.

He might jack up a few jumpers with 20 seconds left on the shot clock that make you scratch your head, and he might never win his ongoing war with the league’s refereeing body. But he suits the niche he’s carving out for himself in the Celtics lineup. There are games this team would win without him, and games they’d lose if not for him. If Tristan Thompson is Boston’s de facto “Do Your Job™” guy, let’s call Theis its “Do Your Job plus 63 other little things just ‘cause” guy. He doesn’t do all 63 well, but he does them well enough to be deemed sufficient until a transcendent player comes along to take his starting job.

Grade: B+

Robert Williams III: Making fans swoon

Speaking of transcendent… I’m just kidding.

Here is, in a nutshell, why Robert Williams III will be the best-selling jersey in Boston in two years time.

Imagine replacing the fake crowd noise with, well, a real crowd. A spunky-if-struggling Boston Celtics team, in the midst of a winning streak and a run in this game against Toronto, and Rob Williams starts a play with a block only to finish it with an alley-oop flush? Every Sully and Murph with a pulse would throw their backs out in an effort to scream hard enough to break the sound barrier. Only then would they begin chanting “M-V-P!”.

Analytically, Boston Rob – never mind, that’s taken – has been adorned as the Celtics Chosen One due to a plethora of stats that you’d assuredly link to one of the Jays in a blind resume test. He leads the team in true shooting percentage (72.2 percent), which is second in the entire league among players who play at least 15 minutes per game. He also leads the team in offensive rebounding percentage (15.7 percent), win shares per 48 minutes (.244, while the league average is .100), defensive box plus/minus (2.8), and overall box plus/minus (5.4). He’s only third in win shares – 2.4, behind Brown (3.1) and Tatum (2.6) – third in VORP (0.9), and third in WORP (2.43). He’s an advanced stats junkie’s dream, a young’un with potential he has yet to even broach.

Watching him does presently feel like glancing into the future, especially when he shares the floor with Payton Pritchard. Of Pritchard’s 69 assists this season, 14 of them have gone to Williams, and 11 of those 14 have come at the rim, per PBP Stats. Their two-man game, while perhaps not as lucrative as the one between Kemba Walker and Daniel Theis, is the basketball equivalent of the “Did we just become best friends?” scene from Step Brothers.

As a passer himself, Williams has shown off his basketball IQ, even if there are some kinks to be worked out. Both clips in the video below end in scores, thus tracking as an assist for Williams. The mechanisms behind the passes, however, could be cleaner. On the assist to Tatum, the pass is a tad late, forcing Tatum to do a bit more work than he would have had the pass come even a second earlier. On the otherwise gorgeous assist to Teague, he’s lucky that 1) Terence Davis isn’t lanky and 2) Aron Baynes is asleep; while a lovely pass that sneaks through a small gap, Williams telegraphs it the whole way. Better defenders would’ve turned that pass into two points of their own.

Defensively, there’s a bit still to be desired. He does lead the Celtics with 77.8 percent of the team’s blocks (which is also second in the league among players to appear in at least 15 games), but in terms of his lateral agility and on-ball defending, guards can be seen openly rejoicing when facing Williams in an isolation situation. They’re bound to beat him with a dribble move, or something as simple as a quick hesitation.

So, while I’m not one to chide fans for taking a Rob-related victory lap, I’m also not one to shy away from being a Debbie Downer as I look at the big picture. He’s as efficient as a Hungry Hungry Hippo when it comes to receiving lobs and as exciting as any player on the Celtics roster whose name doesn’t begin with “Jay.” But Lob City-DeAndre Jordan this is not; not yet that is. All signs point towards it being possible, even likely. But for now, I understand why Brad Stevens has stuck with his Thompson-Theis tandem and worked Williams in as a key reserve. For now, I’ll enjoy the lobs just as I gently tap the breaks. I just don’t want any of us to get hurt, that’s all.

Grade: B