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CelticsBlog roundtable: have the Celtics adequately addressed the backup big man situation?

Luke Kornet, Noah Vonleh, Blake Griffin, and smallball options

2022 Boston Celtics Media Day Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Ever since the Malcolm Brogdon trade that sent out Daniel Theis, the question of backup center has been on fans minds. It became even more important in the wake of Robert Williams’ surgery. Have the Celtics done enough to adequately address that concern? The CelticsBlog staff weighs in.

Trevor Hass

If Robert Williams is healthy and looking like himself in a few months, a core of Williams, Al Horford, Grant Williams and Luke Kornet – with minutes at the five for Noah Vonleh, Jayson Tatum, Blake Griffin and Mfiondu Kabengele sprinkled in – should theoretically be enough. Having said that, if the Celtics get pummeled on the boards to start the year, making a move at the trade deadline may be necessary. This feels like a wait-and-see situation, but Kornet is certainly the biggest X-factor.

Robbie Hodin

Let’s not sleep on Kornet. He’s mobile and versatile defensively and can stretch the floor offensively; I could see him getting 12 minutes a game at the 5. I also think Kebengele and Griffin are both interesting backups, each adding their own twist to the center position.

We may have to make a trade deadline move, but from the looks of it, I think we’ll be fine with a healthy Timelord.

Jack Simone

Yes and no. There was and is no easy way to replace Robert Williams. He’s irreplaceable at this point. However, they can find creative ways to fix it with a by-committee approach. Luke Kornet, Blake Griffin, and Noah Vonleh (assumedly) are set to be the team’s backup bigs, and none of them come close to replacing Williams. However, with their collective skillsets, they should be able to hold things down. Add in the fact that Boston can go small with one big, play Grant Williams at the five, and still have Al Horford around, and they should be fine while Williams is out.

Daniel Poarch

The jury’s still out for me. I think Blake Griffin makes a lot of sense as a low-risk depth piece (and a quality locker room presence), and Noah Vonleh and Mfiondu Kabengele have had their flashes in training camp and preseason play. The team clearly thinks at least one of the latter duo or Luke Kornet can take a step forward as a contributor this season. That said, we already know we’re not seeing a full season from Robert Williams III, and Al Horford is now 36 years old. There’s a significant amount of risk baked into this frontcourt rotation, and I worry that anything other than perfect luck could lead to some challenging stretches for this roster as currently constructed. I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re still talking about frontcourt depth as the trade deadline and buyout season get nearer.

Will Bjarnar

This question implies that the team has addressed it at all. As presently constituted, the true bigs on the roster are: Noah Vonleh, who played more minutes for the Shanghai Sharks last year (534) than he has in the NBA since 2019 (388); Blake Griffin, who wants to be PJ Tucker but would seriously benefit from playing a style more akin to David Lee or Thaddeus Young; and Luke Kornet, who serviceable but hardly all-that threatening to opposing offenses. Griffin and Vonleh are attractive additions should everything trend upward with them, but their recent returns don’t inspire confidence. The C’s improved a good deal this offseason with the addition of Malcolm Brogdon, but I fear that they dropped the ball when it came to the position they most needed to bolster.

Drew Doxy

The backup big conversation was always overblown. With the Celtics seemingly going small in Williams’ absence, you really only need one backup big since Grant Williams and Jayson Tatum can split time at the four. Additionally, that backup big is not going to be an All-Star, and they don’t even really need to be an amazing player. They just have to be serviceable. Don’t let that hole on the roster distract you from the other players on the roster. It’s fine if the 10th man isn’t all that fantastic (Noah Vonleh, Blake Griffin). There isn’t one roster in the entire NBA that doesn’t have some kind of question mark in their top 10 rotation players.

Mike Dynon

It seemed like the answer was yes, for now, but then the Celtics gave up 22 offensive rebounds to Toronto, so maybe not. Signing Blake Griffin helped somewhat. He’s not what he used to be, but is a solid veteran who will contribute as long as he doesn’t shoot too many threes. It’s unclear whether or not Luke Kornet can be a reliable rotation player; if he is, then Rob Williams can take his time coming back. But even though Kornet was available while the Raptors were pounding the boards on Friday night, he never got off the bench. Noah Vonleh has rebounded well and might have moved ahead of Kornet on the depth chart. Either way, when the trade deadline (February 9) approaches, expect the Celtics to make a move to acquire another backup big. Preferably, it will be someone with playoff experience; then we won’t worry about the frontline depth as the Celtics go deeper into the postseason.

Tim Sheils

To a degree, I say yes. Adding Griffin was a good move, and it seems that he’s fit so well right off the bat with the locker room. I think if they sign Vonleh, I would feel a lot better moving forward with this group. Injuries are bound to happen, but having more bodies capable of playing the 4/5 is so crucial to this team’s overall success, especially with no Gallinari for the foreseeable future and Robert Williams needing time to recover from offseason knee surgery. Al Horford isn’t getting any younger, and you have to consider his health as well, since you want to have him as fresh as possible heading into the postseason. While I like Luke Kornet, I still wonder if there’s another option that they can go with off waivers that will truly solidify this rotation even further, because I’m just not entirely sold on leaning on Kornet for big minutes (no pun intended).

Jeff Clark

To put it bluntly, no, I don’t think they’ve addressed it enough. I’m very concerned with the center-by-committee approach and I worry about the residual impact it could have on the rest of the roster. If Mazzulla decides to go small, does that wear down guys like Tatum, Brown, and White because they each have to guard up a position? Does it put too much pressure on Grant Williams to play center? Of course, all this wringing of hands might not mean much in the long run. The Celtics have more than enough talent to beat bad teams early in the year and maybe things will fall into place once Robert Williams returns.

Neil Iyer

Short answer: No. Long answer: They can manage. I think Kabengele will be a rotation player by season’s end. He’s athletic, switchable, has a nice shooting stroke, and there was a reason he was a first round pick in 2019. He joined a contending Clippers team that couldn’t give him minutes, then played well in 2021 for a dreadful Cavs team, but not well enough for an NBA roster spot. This is a golden opportunity for him to contribute on a winning team. Vonleh is in fabulous shape and I believe he’ll supplant Griffin in the rotation. Opposing guards will exploit Kornet on the perimeter, but he’ll be fine in spot minutes playing drop coverage. The team needs 96 minutes of big man play each game (until Timelord returns). Let’s say Grant and Horford occupy 60 of them, then let’s assume they go small for 18 minutes with Tatum/Brown/Hauser playing the 4. Kabengele, Vonleh, Kornet, and Griffin must provide competency for the remaining 18 minutes, which I think they can collectively do.

Keith Smith

Sort of? My worries are less about replacing Robert Williams’ production while he’s out, and more about wear and tear on Al Horford. Horford is easily Boston’s best option at the five while Williams recovers, but the Celtics can’t overwork him. Grant Williams is terrific as a third big, but someone out of the Blake Griffin, Luke Kornet, Noah Vonleh trio has to give Boston 15-25 minutes a night while Williams is out. They are all capable, but will they actually do it? I’m not sold. But it’s also worth noting that there aren’t great options available right now in free agency. That makes it a “what you see, is what you’ve got” situation until Timelord is back.

Adam Taylor

I think we’re back to playing ‘big man by committee’ while Robert Williams continues to recover from his latest injury. There are plenty of capable bodies on the Celtics roster this season, from Noah Vonleh to Blake Griffin, and all of them bring different skill sets to the table. However, that can also be a problem, because you can’t find minutes for everyone. Still, I think Brad Stevens has done the best he can — there’s rebounding, floor spacing, passing, and smart screening within Boston’s big-man rotation now, but now, we need to wait and see who performs and earns the available minutes while Williams is out. The training camp battles may be over, but there’s still a tug-of-war going on for role prominence off the bench.

Bobby Manning

Probably not, but there isn’t an immediate urgency to address the position. The veterans on the market weren’t great fits and all of them, maybe Hassan Whiteside aside, stood past their prime. We’ve seen that with Blake Griffin in the early glimpses of the preseason, and while Luke Kornet’s injury might’ve called for an addition, you worry how the need to eventually stash a veteran like Griffin goes over. He’s signed to a guaranteed contract.

Derrick Favors became available, showing the virtue of patience, and while the Celtics have numerous bodies on the roster who can fill some minutes at the five, it’s not clear who will be reliable as opening night looms. Right now, Al Horford and Grant Williams carry heavy burdens and there’s little margin for error left with injuries. Fortunately for Boston, they still own two trade exceptions and big man is easier than any other position to find.

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