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Daniel Theis exit interview: a long look at the 2021-22 campaign of the most unique Celtic in franchise history

How has the German Giant’s second go-round gone in comparison to his first? And is there another year in the cards?

Miami Heat v Boston Celtics - Game Three Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

You can’t fit a square peg into a round hole. It’s impossible. A younger, more stubborn me would tell you that it’s a matter of angle, leverage, and bullheaded optimism. The me standing before you today knows that this errand is one only a fool would entertain.

You can, however, fit a triangular peg into a square hole. This is much easier. This, indeed, is a matter of angle and leverage, and the optimism doesn’t necessarily have to be as stubborn as it is wary. There are dependent factors at play — the peg’s size versus the hole’s size is a major one, both in terms of width and depth — but it’s not so much a foolish pursuit as it is a workaround one.

Say this was a homework assignment in some odd kind of geometry class, or kindergarten, with the prompt, “fit these shapes into the empty holes on the board.” You couldn't be expected to hand in a puzzle with a triangle inside a square hole and receive a perfect score, but a part of what you’ve done in this hypothetical scenario is correct. You followed the assignment, and you succeeded. It’s right, but it’s also wrong. The shapes fit, but they also don’t.

With your logic, you’ve baffled your teacher to the point where you’re sent back to the drawing board, told to try again in order to receive a passing grade. This will be a groundbreaking case when it inevitably goes to trial.

Dallas Mavericks v Boston Celtics
Daniel Theis says hello to a fan named Kevin.
Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

When you think of the phrase “all-time” as it relates to the Boston Celtics, who do you see? Probably Bill Russell. Bob Cousy. John Havlicek. Larry Bird. Kevin McHale. Paul Pierce. Kevin Garnett. Jayson Tatum, slowly but surely, depending on how you view his legacy as a 24-year-old. I left out probably 10-20 names that could fit the bill; my offering was just a sample of those that would contend to make the cut. And no, Antoine Walker will not be a first-ballot selection.

There’s a name you don’t see, will never see, and should never see in that grouping that, in so many weird ways that I can’t even begin to understand my own mind as it attempts to unravel it, might just belong in it. There may not be an odder fit for the all-time Celtic mold, but somehow, Daniel Theis has worked his way in. That triangular sonovagun saw a square gap and dove headfirst into it. Twice. Because of course he did. Because no one else could ever.

Even when Daniel Theis wasn’t a Boston Celtic — you know, for what felt like 11 minutes — it seemed like he was destined to become a Boston Celtic again. A brief refresher: the Celtics traded him to the Chicago Bulls in March of 2021. He appeared in 23 games, starting 14 of them, and averaged a career-high 10 points per contest. Just short of five months later, Theis packed his bags and headed to Houston in exchange for cash considerations, which made their way to Chicago. He wore a Rockets uniform 26 times, pouring sweat into it for 22.5 minutes per night, and because he was taking too many touches away from then-rookie Alperen Sengun and then-Rocket Christian Wood, was floated in trade talks from the moment he arrived. At the 2021-22 trade deadline, the Celtics jumped at the chance to dump Dennis Schröder and Bruno Fernando, and Theis returned. He had fought the good fight of the journeyman for less than one year. He ended up back home.

Theis didn’t exactly hate being in Houston, but he didn’t love it either. He loved Boston, the first franchise he ever suited up for post-Bundesliga. (That’s where he spent the first seven seasons of his professional career, becoming a four-time All-Star and three-time champion; people forget.)

“I wouldn’t say shocked. Kind of relieved and happy,” Theis said when learning about the trade that would bring him back to Boston. “I think Houston just didn’t work out like I planned it. In my mind, if I was going to be traded. I wanted to come back here. I’m just happy to be back and leave Houston behind me. Just looking forward to the rest of the season.”

About the rest of the season, seeing that this is an exit interview about his 2021-22 campaign, not an autobiography: Theis played 21 regular-season games to round out the season and was a starter in six. He scored 7.9 points and pulled down 4.7 rebounds per game. He shot a career-best 59.8 percent from the field on 5.3 shots per game. He was whistled for a foul 2.3 times per game, which is far from a career-high (3.4 in 2019-20) but adds to the fascinating lore of his NBA career as it stands.

(P.S. As for the aforementioned autobiography, I’ve agreed to terms with HarperCollins on a potential deal to write “The War on Theis.” Looking like publication won’t come until he retires, so it could be a while, but I’ll update you on the terms as soon as I learn to stop being so sarcastic.)

Theis started off this past postseason on a high note, too. When Robert Williams injured his knee in early April and had to have surgery, the hope was that Williams would be able to return at some point during the postseason. Theis was thrust into a starting role as an immediately-available safety net. He started all four games as the Celtics swept the Brooklyn Nets in the first round, recording a memorable 6-8-1-4 (blocks and fouls, the latter two numbers) in the clincher.

He followed that series with respectable efforts against the Milwaukee Bucks, Boston’s most frightening opponent during their Eastern Conference playoff run, appearing in six of that series’s seven games. Theis only scored in double-figures once in that series — 11 points in Game 4 — but if nothing else, was present and accounted for.

Perhaps the rap Theis was burdened with as the postseason wore on grew sour because of how middling (and invisible) his outputs were when they were most necessary. Theis didn’t play a single minute of the last three games of the semifinals against the Miami Heat, and was ineffective in the NBA Finals, playing almost exclusively in garbage time of the first two games of the series (both blowouts, one in each team’s favor).

Celtics coach Ime Udoka needed rebounding help, but couldn’t rely on Theis as a physical presence capable of matching up with Kevon Looney, Draymond Green, or Andrew Wiggins, and thus thinned his rotation to a smaller, more offensively-minded core of seven players. It didn’t work; Boston was finished off in six games by the greatest marksman to ever live and his army of bruisers and snipers alike. Theis finished the postseason as Boston’s only net-negative rotational player. Against the Warriors, he never stood a chance.

All the while, however, he was a source of positivity. He wasn’t as boisterous as Grant Williams nor as respected as Marcus Smart. But he was eager to contribute wherever he could, whether that was under the rim or underneath a warmup shirt. At age 30, Theis was the second-oldest player on last year’s roster behind Al Horford (36 by season’s end). He wore a lot of hats, including the grizzled veteran who, despite having never been to the NBA Finals before, was (and is still!) technically the most decorated professional basketball player on the roster. “I have a lot of roles,” Theis told the German outlet Deutsche Welle earlier this month, also calling the NBA Finals “a childhood dream” he still couldn’t believe he was playing in.

There’s so much — perhaps too much — to unpack about the multitudes Theis contains as a player and teammate. Is he good? Is he worth rostering for the remainder of his contract, as he’s owed $27 million over the next three years?

But as a Celtic, he’s peculiarly one of one. The War on Theis, as it has fondly been dubbed by fans, is never-ending. Perhaps that’s why he’s so beloved, and why he fits so well yet so awkwardly in the space of a fringe all-timer. He’s never done anything all that special as a Celtic except love being a Celtic.

When talking about his return in his introductory press conference, he noted specifically that he felt like he never left. “All the same guys I played with are still here, with the addition of Derrick and some young guys.” He was giddy, eager to be a part of it, and gleeming with optimism about how he would fit back in. Like a kid who moved out of a school district against his wishes, only to return a few months later because he was being bullied at his new school. That mean, old Tilman Fertitta.

That he didn’t fit into the Celtics’ plans down the final stretch of this season could be an indictment on his legacy. Or it could fuel his narrative, fitting right in with the story his career has been writing just as he does in a Celtics uniform, despite his shortcomings as a player.

Part of me wonders whether he is destined to be Boston’s Udonis Haslem, that triangle wedging his way into the fray just long enough that it’s not annoying, but endearing.

Part of me wonders if that’s already what he is. That’s a beautiful story either way, no?

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