The post-deadline Celtics have me feeling hopeful. My biggest gripe of the Brad Stevens era has always been the lack of consistent roles for centers and bench players, and the most recent roster shift might have finally forced Brad to give consistent minutes to players with the highest upside.
Before I get too carried away, there are still some loose ends that could jeopardize the current feeling of balance. The newly acquired Evan Fournier, Semi Ojeleye, Tristan Thompson, and Romeo Langford have all missed time to injury and health protocols and weren’t available in the back-to-back wins vs. the Bucks and Thunder.
I suspect Fournier will fit in just fine, but the other three leave me with a lot of questions.
Will Semi’s minutes still come in the most unpredictable intervals? Should I expect him to play 25 minutes one game and zero in the next?
Is Tristan Thompson going to steal the starting center role back from Robert Williams? Brad Stevens did say Rob was more comfortable coming off the bench, but how would we even know that if he’s barely had the chance to start? Rob has played more than 25 minutes in three of the past four games, which is a trend that would ideally continue even when Thompson comes back.
“He’s always been more comfortable coming off the bench,” Stevens said. “So he will have to adjust here at least for this near-term. ... I know that Rob is a critical part of our team now and a critical part of our team in the future.”
Again, are we sure? I’ll believe this when I hear it from Rob himself.
How much Romeo will we get to see? Is he competing for Ojeleye’s minutes or Aaron Nesmith’s? A log-jam of wings is less problematic, and may as well be an oxymoron, but I’m not hopeful about Brad giving him enough run to get his game legs back. Brad claims to favor players who can defend, which is one of Romeo’s strengths, and yet his rotations haven’t always reflected this.
We can’t answer most of these questions right now, but we can talk about how the team looked after trading three players away, with another three missing to injury and health protocols (this doesn’t factor in Fournier, who was neither traded nor someone I consider “missing” since he hasn’t played for Boston yet). First, let’s consider Payton Pritchard:
Payton Pritchard says his mindset does change a little with Jeff Teague being traded. Said he knows those minutes are coming his way on nights when Kemba Walker sits out. Pritchard added he wants to be aggressive no matter what his role is.— Keith Smith (@KeithSmithNBA) March 28, 2021
Many of us said the Celtics needed to “play with purpose,” but what we really wanted was for more purpose to be given to them. Payton Pritchard is a first round pick that was fighting for minutes with an underachieving guard on a minimum contract. With Jeff Teague now out of the picture, Pritchard can focus on optimizing his minutes instead of worrying about whether or not he gets minutes at all. This is why roster construction is so impossibly fragile; how do you add players to the mix without taking away from the others?
It’s funny that Danny Ainge always gets grilled for trades and almost-trades when one of the most egregious missteps in recent years was the Teague signing, but at least he was able to somewhat atone for it by unloading him at the deadline. Pritchard’s role isn’t “don’t be Jeff Teague” anymore, and I’m sure he’ll feel more empowered with the ball moving forward.
Pritchard plays really well alongside Rob Williams, who has made the most of his first two starts of the season:
Two starts and 53 minutes played for Robert Williams:— KrassenSteins;Gate (@JeremyWCT) March 28, 2021
Robert “more comfortable coming off the bench” Williams sure looks good as a starter! For those who think it doesn’t matter who starts games, but only who closes, let me show you some assist numbers.
Rob has 57 assists this season: 15 to Jaylen Brown and 14 to Jayson Tatum, accounting for more than half of his total assists. Rob has been assisted on 94 of his 132 field goals, 17 of which have come from Brown and 16 from Tatum. Jeff Teague and Payton Pritchard also assisted him 16 times apiece.
How is it that Rob has linked up with the Jays so many times, and yet he never started a game until after the trade deadline? Here’s a nice short video on Rob’s game against Milwaukee I found while prowling Twitter:
The greatest defensive development here is Rob learning to slide his feet and hold his ground without fouling. It’s nearly impossible to play both disciplined and physical defense without being whistled for every instance of contact, but Rob may have finally turned the corner on this.
I have a sinking feeling that Rob’s streak as a starter will be short-lived, but at least I know that trading Daniel Theis will open up minutes for him either way. I hate that Theis was a casualty to both salary cap accounting as well as a minutes crunch, but Boston probably couldn’t afford to keep him past this season anyway.
Last, but nowhere near least, some notes on Grant Williams. Grant played 31:27 minutes against Milwaukee and 25:15 against the Thunder, marking the first time that he’s logged 25+ minutes in consecutive games this season. His only other game above 30 minutes was in a four-point win against the Los Angeles Clippers, and the Celtics are 5-1 when Grant plays at least 25 minutes. I’m not sure that record means anything when the most recent win against the Bucks was mostly accomplished by Tatum shooting the lights out, but I can at least say the Celtics have played well when Grant gets more opportunity.
Boston’s rotation didn’t necessarily need to get younger, but that’s pretty much what happened at the deadline. If this is the lineup that allows them to play free-flowing offense they way they did in the last two games, then work Fournier into the mix and call it a day. I think I know Brad’s tendencies well enough to know Thompson and Ojeleye are going to eat a lot of each Williams’ minutes, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.