A year ago, the Boston Celtics had recently acquired Al Horford from the Oklahoma City Thunder. How Horford would fit in with Robert Williams, Boston’s ideal center of the future, was a major question mark. Horford at the 4 was a disaster a year earlier in Philadelphia, and age wasn’t on his side for making it seem viable.
How much difference a year makes. Not only did Horford find the fountain of youth to play at the 4, but the tandem worked in concert extremely well. Last season, the combination of Horford and Rob Williams played 15 minutes per game together. Boston’s most utilized five-man combination featured both along with Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart.
That unit was incredibly potent, outscoring opponents by 6.4 points per 100 possessions. They’re huge, with some incredible defensive firepower and enough length to really bother opponents. Offensively, the unit clicked as well, shooting 50% from the field and 40% from 3 when sharing the court together, according to NBA.com stats.
Part of the reason those lineups worked was due to the presence of other backup big men to eat up minutes when neither was on the floor. Enes Kanter and Daniel Theis were clearly not adequate to play upwards of 20 minutes a night, but they served their purpose as veterans on the second unit. If Horford and Rob Williams are to play together for 15 minutes a night, that means each player is topping the 30 minute per game threshold. At Horford’s age and with Williams’ injury history (he’s only played more than 20 MPG once), the likelihood of that happening seems slim.
What does Ime Udoka do to manage those minutes? Will he split the pairing of Horford and Williams more often, thus more evenly dispersing the minutes between the two at center? Will one come off the bench in order to accomplish that, or would we see an early substitution in the first quarter? Or is there an option for Udoka to play at the 5 in the wake of the Danilo Gallinari injury that would allow Boston to keep their two-big lineup rocking?
We almost have to start with examining the other options currently on the roster. Jamming a two-big lineup in for 10-15 minutes a night makes little sense if there are 8-10 minutes elsewhere that would undo all that progress. The center position is akin to the quarterback of the defense; everything is built around that player. There are different styles that work (i.e. running quarterbacks or deep-ball throwers) and different systems to utilize them (think spread offense vs. west coast offense) but at the end of the day, talent is what will win games.
7’2” stretch big Luke Kornet is a unique player, a prodding floor-spacer with a propensity to drill shots atop the key. His defensive acumen leaves a bit to be desired, and he’s somehow yet to drill a 3-pointer in a Celtics uniform. He’s a unique ‘break glass in case of emergency’ third big man to have, though projecting him for consistent bench minutes is worth feeling uneasy about with how much blanketing goes into making him viable on defense.
Brad Stevens certainly has addressed the position through retread signings this summer, hoping one battle-tested veteran can show enough growth to impact the team. Mfiondu Kabengele was impactful for the C’s Summer League team and earned himself a two-way contract. Bruno Caboclo had his moments with the Utah Jazz this summer and seems much more comfortable playing as a screen-and-roll 5 than in the energy forward he filled early in his career. Noah Vonleh is a seven-year veteran that has floated around a bit, and his track record of success is questionable.
Certainly, camp battles do not dictate the final roster Boston will roll with throughout the regular season. There could be trades or free agent signings that tighten up the position. Veterans such as DeMarcus Cousins, Hassan Whiteside, Dwight Howard and Blake Griffin are all still available, though it’s unclear if they are even upgrades over the current guys on the roster.
The other option would be to go small more frequently, playing Grant Williams minutes at the 5. I’ve written about Grant being well-suited for the role before, although changes in roster construction around the league over the last two years may threaten that hypothesis. As more teams have skilled big men, the “I dare you to post up our small but strong guy” strategy holds less weight. According to his Basketball Reference page, 5% of his career minutes have come at center, with a career-low 3% of that occurring last year.
The Eastern Conference is filled with scoring-minded wings and forwards. Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Pascal Siakam, Jimmy Butler, DeMar DeRozan, Cade Cunningham, Paolo Banchero... the list goes on of talented one-on-one options the Celtics face on a nightly basis. Grant is a fantastic option against them, and every minute he plays at the 5 takes him away from being able to match up individually with those stars. The residual effect puts the burden on guys like Tatum, Brown or Smart more often, a regular season issue Udoka should want to avoid.
Frankly, the C’s don’t have many options to inspire confidence as a mainstay third big in the lineup. Therefore, we foresee fewer shared minutes between Horford and Rob Williams this year. Whether Udoka starts them together and makes an early sub or moves one to the bench remains to be seen, and there are merits to both stances. But the additional presences of Malcolm Brogdon and Derrick White from the start of the season mean we likely see more skill-and-space in Boston and fewer two-big lineups.