Robert Williams is going to miss 8-12 weeks of action. In turn, the Boston Celtics’ defense is set to take a massive hit. They should still be one of the top defensive units in the league, but without Williams, they will be missing a huge part of what made them special on that end of the floor.
For the first time in his career, Williams wasn’t asked to defend opposing bigs. Instead, Al Horford took on those duties, leaving Williams to guard the corner and roam. He played a “free safety” role on defense, floating over to the lane, blocking shots on drives, and shutting down opposing offenses.
Based on the preseason, it seems as though Joe Mazzulla plans on going small to start the year with Derrick White in the starting lineup. And while this small ball lineup creates some constraints regarding the free safety role, that doesn’t mean Boston should abandon the idea altogether.
As for who would replace Williams in the role, Jayson Tatum stands out as the obvious choice.
Tatum is listed at 6’8, just one inch shorter than what Williams is listed at, but in reality, they look around the same height when they play next to each. Williams is an athletic freak, however, which allows him to play taller than his height, but Tatum isn’t a non-athletic wing. He may not be able to get as high as Williams, but if he can learn the correct timing and spacing, it could be a valuable tool to have.
Here’s Williams taking on the free safety role. Instead of guardian Kelly Olynyk, he’s in the corner on Cory Joseph. When Olynyk gets the ball on the inside, Williams rotates over and denies him at the rim.
For Tatum, he would primarily be playing this role in lineups with Horford and no secondary big. The lineup of Marcus Smart, White, Jaylen Brown, Tatum, and Horford didn’t get a ton of minutes last year, but Tatum did play the part in some lineups where Williams wasn’t on the floor.
On this play, Tatum is in the corner, just as Williams would be, matched up against Delon Wright. When Trae Young makes a move toward the rim, Tatum rotates over and stuffs him.
Again, here’s Tatum guarding the corner man, Matisse Thybulle. Tyrese Maxey breaks through the defense, but Tatum is there in time to record the block. This play is slightly different because it occurs in transition, but the basics of the defense remain true.
These are two cherry-picked examples from a long season full of different defensive looks, but the point is that Tatum has acted in the free safety role before. It may not be something he’s used to, but he’s capable of doing it in certain situations. And with Williams out for an extended period of time, spending more time in the role could help the Celtics maintain their elite defensive presence.
Having Tatum guard the corner and rotate over at a moment’s notice could also help the team’s rebounding. In their preseason finale against the Toronto Raptors, Boston got completely out-hustled on the glass. If Tatum were to sit in the corner as the free safety, he would be able to focus more on rebounding.
Now, as mentioned, there are definitely downsides to placing Tatum in the Williams role, one of which being the Celtics would lose him as a perimeter defender. Tatum’s an elite on-ball defender, and having him play off the ball would be disregarding that skill at points in the game.
However, with Smart, White, and Brown holding things down up on the perimeter, Boston should be able to spare Tatum a bit at times. He doesn’t have to play the Williams role 24/7, but it’s definitely a look they should feel comfortable throwing out there.
And, if anything, the fact that he is such a great perimeter defender would only help him play free safety. When Williams acted in that role last year, defenses would sometimes get the ball to the corner and have that player take Williams one-on-one. Oftentimes, this resulted in a chase-down block, as Williams is quick and athletic enough to keep up with smaller players.
This is an example of just that. DeAndre Bembry tries to take Williams off the dribble but ends up getting blocked from behind.
Here’s Tatum getting beat by Dejounte Murray but recovering in a big way.
Tatum’s block wasn’t quite as explosive as Williams’, and unless he magically gains five inches on his vertical, they never will be. But a block is a block. Tatum is quick enough to regain ground on quicker defenders and long enough to block them from behind. That’s where his skills as a perimeter defender will come into play. (They’ll also help him refrain from getting blown by in the first place.)
It’s also important to note the obvious difference in size. When Williams was playing this role, Boston ran a giant lineup, with Smart being the shortest player. After that, they had Brown, Tatum, Williams, and Horford. If Tatum were to take on the task, he’d be doing it in a more traditional lineup. For that reason, Tatum should only play the free safety role against lineups where it would be advantageous.
For example, let’s look at this play against the Miami Heat last year. Tatum is playing in the corner, where he would be stationed as the free safety, but the guy he’s guarding is Max Strus (an elite three-point shooter). Because of that, Tatum is so focused on preventing an open three that Bam Adebayo is able to get an open layup.
This same thing could occur against teams like the Brooklyn Nets (Seth Curry), Golden State Warriors (Klay Thompson and Jordan Poole), and Milwaukee Bucks (Pat Connaughton). Essentially, any team that has a designated shooter placed in the corner would be able to break up the free safety role, especially against Tatum, who wouldn’t be as comfortable in that position as Williams was.
However, against a team like the Raptors, who don’t necessarily have any knockdown three-point shooters, placing Tatum in the corner could be a decent idea. Whenever the opposing team places a non-shooter in the corner or dunker spot, having Tatum play the free safety role could be something to seriously consider.
It shouldn’t be a permanent change. Tatum is still a top-notch perimeter defender, and the Celtics need him to guard the perimeter when matching up with players like Kevin Durant or Bradley Beal. However, when they can get away with it, allowing Tatum to roam the court as a free safety would allow their defense to maintain that idea while Williams is sidelined, giving them yet another unique look to throw at opponents.