Assembling an NBA lineup is like a 1000-piece puzzle. There’s a lot of different pieces to put together, and sometimes a piece that looks like a perfect fit is just millimeters off from being the right piece.
Painstakingly suffering through mashing wrong pieces together can wear down even the most confident of enigmatologists. Yes, I Googled “what’s the name for someone who does puzzles” to find that term.
Robert Williams is almost the right piece for the Celtics starting lineup. If you squint a little and don’t think too hard, it makes sense to go with the more athletic, young big man in a lineup that will feature two young, athletic stars. But, Horford’s veteran presence and diverse skillset make him the clear-cut primary big man.
Being the primary big man wouldn’t necessarily mean more minutes, but being on the floor with the Jays and in crunch time. Williams could still receive more minutes total to keep Horford fresh for unleashing “Playoff Al.” He is just better suited as more of a sixth man, especially if Marcus Smart becomes the starting point guard (as he should).
A starting/primary lineup of Smart/Fournier/Brown/Tatum/Horford brings tremendous versatility and balance. The offense of Fournier, Brown and Tatum combined with the playmaking abilities of Smart, Horford and Tatum make for a balanced attack which could give defenses headaches.
Especially after new head coach Ime Udoka said getting the team assist numbers up is a priority, Horford needs to be the primary big with his passing intelligence and high basketball I.Q.
Ime Udoka: "Sorry Brad, but 27th in assists last year...We want to have more team basketball. But you have Jayson and Jaylen and you need to play to your strengths. And we're going to get after defensively from the start."— Keith Smith (@KeithSmithNBA) June 28, 2021
Eventually, Williams should be a starting big in this league. His defensive masterclass against Brooklyn in Game 1 of the playoffs was pure electricity.
The problem is availability. As the season progressed, Williams missed more and more games, and eventually his season ended after dealing with knee, toe and ankle problems.
Williams’ injuries were some of many for the Celtics that threw off their consistency and prevented the team from establishing rhythm. After a season marred by inconsistency, relying on Horford would provide more consistency than Williams.
It’s important to note most of Williams’ injuries are lower leg related, even going back to when he was drafted. Williams, to his credit, has dealt with Popliteal Artery Entrapment Syndrome (PAES).
In a CelticsBlog story from April, Bob Manning reported:
“Because of where the muscles and tendons around Williams’ knee are positioned, they end up compressing the “popliteal artery,” the main one behind the knee, restricting blood flow to the lower leg. It can lead to cramping and calf pain during exercise, per Johns Hopkins Medicine.”
No slight to Williams, but the injury history is a big red flag for a big man in an 82-game season. Horford has shown throughout his career he is durable, consistent and steady. He’s dealt with injury, sure, but in general Horford has been the picture of consistency. This past season, he credited the Thunder’s medical staff with keeping him fresh and ready to go. “I feel great. The medical staff has done an outstanding job with me all season. I haven’t had any issues,” Horford said. “I know what I can do when I’m healthy. I can play at a high level.”
In addition to his consistency and playmaking, Horford’s defense is another reason he should be the primary big man. Williams, when he’s going, is one of the most dynamic defenders on the low block. Horford is a different type of impact defender. His team defensive I.Q. and switchability provide matchup versatility and another scheming wrinkle for Ime Udoka. He’s proven year-after-year that he’s an intelligent, disciplined defender who stays within his game and is unflappable, unless you miss a free throw around him.
All of this is to say: if Rob Williams stays healthy and is clearly outplaying Horford, he should become the new primary big man.
However, if Al comes back with fresh legs and is the same gentle giant Celtics fans revered from 2016-2019, there’s no question that he should be the main big man. He’s too versatile, too skilled and too intelligent to be a sixth man. Another year for Williams with minimal pressure could be great for his development, and working under Horford would do wonders for his intangibles.
The new, fresh piece that everyone’s buzzing about would be fun, but Ol’ Reliable Horford is the perfect piece to the Celtics’ lineup puzzle.