One of the obvious early-season subplots this year is that the Celtics have taken a step back defensively. Another subplot is the absence of Robert Williams III. It just so happens that the two are directly related.
The Celtics are missing one of the best rim protectors and most savvy big men in the league, and it’s natural that the product wouldn’t be quite as pristine. It’s like losing a dependable No. 2 starter in baseball. You can tinker the rotation accordingly, and mix and match as much as you’d like, but the reality is that it isn’t going to be the same as long as he’s out.
Marcus Smart deserved Defensive Player of the Year honors last season, but Williams’ seventh-place finish didn’t necessarily illuminate just how dominant he was in that area. He was a 1B defensive presence on the best defensive team in the NBA and was instrumental in the Celtics’ run to the NBA Finals.
When he’s on the floor, teams have to alter their game plan and think twice before they enter the paint. If they don’t, they’ll likely regret it.
Currently, with Williams still sidelined following left knee surgery, the Celtics have had to adapt and force players outside their comfort zone. While his absence has hurt the Celtics short term, it should benefit them long term.
Players such as Jayson Tatum, Grant Williams, Derrick White and Marcus Smart have had to adjust to guarding big men with several inches on them more frequently. That experience will pay dividends moving forward and make doing so more familiar if Williams either gets in foul trouble or misses time in the playoffs.
Tatum has improved in the pick-and-roll and Jaylen Brown as a rebounder (career-high 6.7). They’ve sharpened their ability to get to the rim without him on the court, and bringing him back will simply add another dimension and make them even more dangerous. They won’t have to exert as much energy in the paint, which will open up even more opportunities in their natural wheelhouses.
The Celtics have adjusted seamlessly to Williams’ absence and compensated for their shortcomings by accentuating their strengths. Though their defensive rating is down to 17th in the league (111.9), their offensive rating is the best in NBA history at 118.8 (no, seriously; the best ever). Their assist-to-turnover ratio is 2.01, which is the second-best mark in the NBA.
They know who they are, stick to their strengths and make teams play their style. At the same time, their defensive rebounding percentage is the seventh-best mark in the league at 73.5 percent, so they’re learning to adjust to other teams trying to play bully ball against them.
One main reason why they’ve stayed afloat is the sterling play of Luke Kornet, who’s proven he’s a valuable asset even when Williams rejoins the lineup. Williams missing time has opened the door, and Kornet has maximized the opportunity in front of him. It’s also given Noah Vonleh and Blake Griffin more action, which could help from a familiarity and repetition standpoint if they’re needed in the playoffs.
The person it’s affected most is Al Horford, who’s averaging 31.8 minutes – his most since 2017. He’s done a masterful job of balancing playing in the paint and playing outside, and his willingness to battle down low has been instrumental in Boston’s success. Yes, playing all these minutes now wears him down long term, but at the same time, playing 25 a game in the playoffs won’t seem so taxing after playing 32 early in the year.
Once Williams returns – likely by Christmas, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski – the Celtics will have plenty of reps playing without him. Everyone knows how their role shifts with him sidelined and will be able adapt seamlessly when he’s back in the mix.
It’s basically like learning how to bowl without bumpers as a kid. If you play without bumpers, it’s going to be tough at first, but you’ll figure it out. Then, when you finally get some bumpers, it’s a relief that they’re there to clean up the occasional mistake.
You can still bowl well without them, but that extra support never hurts. It almost seems like cheating, but it’s not.
Once Williams is back, he’ll provide stability to a group that’s doing just fine without him but is even more dynamic with him. Even with him on the floor, they’ll still be able to run, run, run.
He simply adds another layer to the most talented team in the NBA and vaults them from championship contender to championship favorite.