Kevin Garnett in 2009. Kendrick Perkins in 2010. Isaiah Thomas in 2017. Gordon Hayward in 2020. Jaylen Brown in 2021. The Boston Celtics just can’t catch a break when it comes to playoff time injuries, with Robert Williams becoming the latest name to be added to that infamous list. Williams is set to miss several weeks due to a torn meniscus, and depending on the type of surgery he elects, could potentially miss the rest of the season.
Williams was in the midst of a breakout season before he went down. He was averaging 10.0 points, 9.6 rebounds, and 2.2 blocks while anchoring the NBA’s best defense. The 24-year-old’s role as an off-ball defender was a key cog in the team-grinding machine that is Ime Udoka’s defensive system.
But instead of sulking and loathing in pity, the Celtics must move on. They’re still a top team in the Eastern Conference and have the star power to make some serious noise in the playoffs. Now, the key will be finding a way to replicate what Williams brought to the table.
Before diving into that, though, it’s important to note that Williams is irreplaceable. Sure, there are other guys around the league who could play his role well (Bam Adebayo, Jaren Jackson Jr., etc.), but no one on the Celtics possesses his elite mix of defensive IQ and athleticism. He’s a unique player who put himself firmly in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year because of his talents. But the Celtics aren’t looking to replace him; they’re looking to replicate his role.
And just to get this out of the way: there is no replicating Williams’ role on the offensive side of the ball either. Guys like Al Horford and Daniel Theis can attempt to maneuver their way into the same offensive positions as Williams did, but neither possess even a fraction of his athletic ability. No more chucking the ball up into no man’s land and hoping Williams catches it.
The defensive side of the ball is where things get interesting. Williams played such a critical role for the Celtics on defense because of the role Udoka put him in. Instead of guarding opposing bigs, Williams was placed in the corner so he could provide weakside help. And while no one on the roster can play the role as well as Williams, that doesn’t mean Udoka should abandon that plan altogether.
With how much time Williams is set to miss, Udoka should experiment with putting various Celtics into that free safety role. There were brief moments where we saw Theis and Luke Kornet play the role against the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday night, but not only was it a tiny sample size, but the Raptors are also a terrible team to test this theory on. They don’t have a true center, and with how well Pascal Siakam played, Theis was glued to him all night long.
But Theis is certainly one of the players who should be thrown into the free safety role - off the bench. When it comes to the starting lineup, though, Horford and Grant Williams would be the first two names that come to mind.
Horford is the obvious first choice. Despite being 35 years old, Horford has looked revitalized this year. His defensive prowess on the block allowed Williams to roam around, as Horford takes on the task of matching up with opposing bigs. And while it would be ideal to shift Horford over into the roaming center role, that would leave Grant Williams to guard the likes of Joel Embiid and Bam Adebayo in a potential playoff series.
Speaking of Grant Williams, he definitely has the defensive IQ to play the free safety role and has even shown improvements with his shot-blocking this year. But unfortunately, despite calling for lobs on fast breaks, Williams just isn’t athletic or quick enough to replicate Robert Williams’ free safety role. A similar sentiment can be said for Theis.
There’s one, off-brand solution that could be hiding in plain sight - Jayson Tatum.
People seem to forget that just last year Tatum spent the majority of the season playing the power forward position. He’s got plenty of experience guarding opposing big men, and while that would come in handy on switches with Horford in the paint, putting Tatum in the free safety role should, in theory, work seamlessly.
Tatum might not be as athletic as Williams, but at 6’8”, he’s quietly the same height. (And if you watch them on the floor together, Tatum looks a couple of inches taller.) Putting Tatum in the corner as the helper would allow Udoka and the Celtics to run the same defensive scheme, just with a different piece. Obviously, it would require Tatum to learn the role and adjust his game accordingly, but with how talented he is on the defensive side of the ball, it probably wouldn’t take too long.
“But then that leaves a hole in the team’s perimeter defense,” some might say. Well, with how great the defenders on Boston’s roster are, it would just be a next man up mentality at that point. If Udoka wanted to run Grant Williams in the starting lineup, then let him take on the matchups Tatum would have previously gotten. But the more interesting idea is throwing Derrick White into the starting lineup.
White would play the two-guard while Jaylen Brown shifted up to the three, covering all of Tatum’s prior assignments. Smart, White, and Brown would combine to form one of the best frontlines in the league, while Horford and Tatum handled things down low. And even if Udoka wanted to keep White in a bench role, that could be the lineup he chooses to close with on most nights, which is arguably more important than starting.
There’s a real chance Udoka simply chooses to put Horford or Grant Williams in the free safety role. But the best solution is staring everyone in the face. Tatum playing free safety down low could be the best strategy to surviving life without Robert Williams.
Get well soon, Rob. Celtics fans miss you already.