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The predictability of Tristan Thompson vs. Robert Williams’ upside

The postseason lies ahead. Does Stevens trust the vet or roll the dice on Timelord?

San Antonio Spurs v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

The playoffs are a different animal. The margin for error effectively disappears. Rotations need to be cemented. With the possibility of play-in games for the Boston Celtics as they teeter on the edge of the play-in tournament, there’s no room for a lack of certainty.

Celtics coach Brad Stevens has the luxury of understanding most of his rotation, bolstered by the presence of four stars in the backcourt: Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. The fifth member of that coalition, however, remains to be seen.

The two candidates for the starting center gig offer widely different styles, skills and temperaments. On one hand, there’s the experience of Tristan Thompson, former NBA champion who has rugged rebounding, dependable defense and postseason savvy that would serve the Celtics well. On the other is Robert Williams, the productive dunk machine with supreme athleticism, major upside and an element on offense that can push the Celts over the top.

Williams has been the most pleasant surprise of this season, emerging as not only a legitimate threat in the paint but a really good passer from the perimeter.

Since moving into the starting lineup on March 26th, Timelord is averaging 9.1 points, 8.4 rebounds and 3.2 dimes while shooting 69.5% from the field. Those assist numbers are staggering for a big man who averaged 1.8 assists per 36 minutes the first two years of his career. That number has nearly tripled over the last six weeks.

What Williams passing allows is a pressure release, the ability for the core four to read their man and backdoor cut when they get heavily pressured. Timelord is playing a lot in the Al Horford spot atop the key, where he can stand there and pick apart defenses while his teammates cut to the rim:

Most teams sag off Williams since he can’t shoot the deep ball, allowing him time to be the table-setter without pressure. That’ll be the design of most playoff opponents, such as the Brooklyn Nets with DeAndre Jordan, Philadelphia 76ers with Joel Embiid and Milwaukee Bucks with Brook Lopez.

What that space also means for Williams is impact as a screener. When he doesn’t have a backdoor cutter open, he’ll flow into a handoff or ball screen on the wings. Any contact or impediment to the defense on those screens means penetration to the middle, where guys like Kemba, JB and JT make a living.

Williams is great at rolling to the basket and waiting for his opportunity. The scoring threat of Tatum forces opposing bigs to step up and stop the ball, meaning Timelord is open for a lob. He’s such an effortless leaper that all Tatum needs to do is toss it up to the corner of the backboard and Rob will do the rest:

Williams has emerged as much more skilled on the roll than simply a lob catcher. He’s pretty good catching on the move, taking the open space on his roll and outrunning a recovering big man. When defenses are more aggressive to get the ball out of Tatum’s hands, it’s nice to trust someone like Williams to finish quickly on the move:

It’s the ideal counter to more mobile defensive units who might come and get Tatum when he’s rolling, as he has been lately. Atlanta Hawks big man Clint Capela is mobile enough to thrive in any defensive scheme. The Charlotte Hornets could go smaller and switch across matchups. Under head coach Tom Thibodeau, the New York Knicks are always a threat to be aggressive. Williams has shown enough progression on offense to be deployable against any team, any scheme and in any situation.

Still, the experience of Tristan Thompson is hard to quantify. He does the dirty work in a way Timelord simply does not right now, and having an enforcer on the floor can really allow the Celtics’ scorers to run the offense the way they need. The playoffs are just different and Thompson has been through some postseason wars.

Thompson’s offensive impact is admittedly a little more ground-and-pound. He has one dependable shot in his bag: a righty hook shot off the bounce that goes overtop nearly any shot blocker. He leans in with his left shoulder to initiate contact and knock his defender back, preventing them from altering the hook:

Situational awareness is huge in the postseason. Thompson doesn’t command the ball at the top of the key or call for many post-ups. The meat and potatoes of his offense comes from offensive rebounding, which accounts for more than a quarter of all field goal attempts.

What comes with situational awareness isn’t just the valuable extra possessions but a player who knows when to be aggressive for theirs. Thompson is a pretty low-usage player, but when he does have an advantage, he isn’t shy about using it.

Earlier, we mentioned the Charlotte Hornets playing smaller than most teams in the East. When Thompson is on the floor, he’ll feast on a matchup where the size advantage is clearly in his favor. As soon as he recognizes it, he physically buries his man and gets an easy finish:

Both bigs bring different elements to the table, but which is better? That’s such a suggestive term, and even the numbers don’t necessarily indicate one is much more effective than the other. Consider these numbers since the NBA trade deadline on March 25th:

Walker-Smart-Brown-Tatum-Thompson: 133.0 ORtg, 129.2 DRtg, net +3.8 rating per 100

Walker-Smart-Brown-Tatum-Williams: 123.6 ORtg, 115.8 DRtg, net +7.8 rating per 100

There is one other factor to weigh in the equation: who is better alongside the reserve unit? In that regard, I lean pretty heavily towards Thompson. His veteran presence can stabilize the second unit when he shares the floor with rookie Payton Pritchard and any of the Celtics role players who lack postseason experience.

If I were a betting man, I’d think Williams draws most starts and the flow of the game will dictate who might be on the floor to finish games. Regardless of who compliments the main group more often, both have a crucial and somewhat equal role to play in the playoffs.

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