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Robert Williams trade could become one of the great Celtics ‘what-ifs’

Robert Williams emerged as one of the game’s greatest defenders in 2022. As he hit his stride, an injury led to the beginning of the end of his time in Boston.

Boston Celtics v Brooklyn Nets - Game Four Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Every Celtics fan will remember those 25 games.

Robert Williams III averaged a double-double between the end of January and late-March in 2022, anchoring a defensive scheme that unlocked a previously-spiraling team into one of the most dominant defensive units in recent history. With Al Horford covering the opponent’s big man while long defenders swarmed aggressively on the perimeter, Williams acted as the team’s free safety and anchor.

The Celtics appeared on the verge of a championship after winning 22-of-25, but on the way to a 22-point blowout over the Timberwolves, Williams tweaked his knee and left the game in pain. He tore his meniscus, and while a removal surgery returned him to the floor weeks later for the postseason, swelling, pain and discomfort plagued him until a clean-up surgery in the fall. Boston won his minutes in the NBA Finals — but he couldn’t stay on the floor long enough.

A disappointing season followed, playing 20-of-35 games off the bench, and on Sunday, he became the centerpiece of the Jrue Holiday trade, ending one of the most promising tenures of any recent Celtics draft picks with a big what if.

“I’ll probably be somewhere else in ten years hiding. Those are the hardest phone calls,” Brad Stevens said. “It was such a pleasure to watch Rob grow. When he first got here, he had a long way to go, but he had a great attitude. He was a great teammate and got a lot better over time. I know Portland’s super excited to get him, and that was hard. It was really hard. Guys like Jrue Holiday are the only reason you ever entertain moving on from a guy like Rob.”

The move undoubtedly floored Williams III, fresh off a healthy, productive summer with his viral training sessions alongside Aaron Miller. Boston became home for a player who once didn’t want to leave Louisiana to play AAU. Campus life at Texas A&M became another adjustment, then he didn’t want to leave. Now, one day before training camp, he had to cross the country to go from a championship contender to a rebuilding franchise.

Horford mentored Williams III since his rookie year and assured him he’d do fine in Portland. The Trail Blazers should allow him to play significant minutes and expand his game without urgency to win, and given their ground floor state in the rebuild, an aggressive enough offer by a contender should pry Williams III out of Portland down the road. Still, nothing will replicate his closeness with Jayson Tatum and Boston’s core players. They saw his potential and pushed him toward greatness.

“Sad about Malcolm and Rob,” Tatum said Monday. “You spend so much time with guys, over one year or five years, right? Then one day, they’re just on a different team, because there’s a lot of genuine emotions and relationships with that. Same thing with Kristaps and that trade, excited to have him ... but it was tough to see Grant and Smart leave. I spent my entire career with Smart, and that’s somebody I thought I’d play my entire career with. He was the most beloved Celtic that we had on this team, the heart-and-soul. It’s going to be different.”

Kristaps Porziņģis felt some pain with the deal too, seeing in only two weeks the charisma Williams III provided in the room. Like Tatum and Brown, Williams III arrived as a quiet and shy teenager whose voice and assertiveness grew. He called out poor efforts and performances, and his genuine press conferences — often bookended with “TWISS!” shoutouts to the long-time head of Boston’s public relations department — provided endless entertainment and an unmatched endearing quality.

Stevens had to do it though, making the determination that WIlliams III’s upside raised Boston’s ceiling but relying on him to reach that level consistently, while staying healthy, lowered the team’s floor. The Celtics needed him to play at his best, become a starter and expand his offensive game. In the playoffs, he managed only four starts, 20 minutes each night and 4.3 shot attempts. He passed less often. Joe Mazzulla encouraged him not to take jump shots. Teammates struggled to find him in his limited offensive role. In some games, his energy wavered. His athleticism did too, never looking quite like the same player after two significant surgeries.

“I feel like the ceiling, for me is, there is no ceiling,” Williams III said in February. “Especially with the teammates that I have. Through my injuries this year, they really helped me, standing by my side and going back to the jump hooks or the little jump shots, they encourage it. They encourage me to be who I am.”

It’s not difficult to imagine the trade backfiring on the court. Moving Porziņģis to the center position on his own could prove difficult defensively. A greater load rests on Horford’s shoulders to fill that role too, especially if Porziņģis’ health proves unreliable again. Williams III could return to form as one of the league’s most impactful defenders again in Portland or elsewhere, but if Holiday as a Celtic thrives and delivers even one championship to Boston, it’ll appease an increasingly starving fanbase and team for a ring.

Raising a banner without Williams will feel different though. He and the other departing players, particularly Smart, reached the doorstep of that goal in 2022. With Ime Udoka’s investment in their defensive potential, they resembled a group that could play together for one decade and win multiple championships. Celtics fans fell in love with their potential and personalities.

That’s what Boston will miss out on, doing it the fun way, the homegrown way. The most enjoyable way would’ve been a luxury, one Stevens and Boston’s brass didn’t have under the weight of expectations.

“I’ve seen him grow and (I’m) so grateful to have been able to play with him,” Horford said. “He’s such a great teammate, about the right things, trying to play the right way, super unselfish. He’s somebody that I really enjoyed playing with. It was a lot of fun and he’s a great guy. I obviously wish him nothing but the best moving forward and he is professional. I know that it’s hard for him, but I know that he’ll be fine.”

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