It ain't always easy being green.
Up and down the roster, the Celtics are loaded with guys that frankly, could be doing more on other teams. There’s obviously the franchise cornerstones, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown — we can argue 1A vs. 1B some other time, but both All-NBAers could be headlining another team alone. Marcus Smart, Derrick White, and Malcolm Brogdon are all starter-level point guards, but only one can start with the other playing off the ball and the odd man out coming off the bench. On any given night, someone is going to have to take a back seat.
And then there are the role players. Al Horford represents the ideal version for the Celtics, a complimentary teammate whose skill set doesn't overlap or interfere with the team's best players. Instead, they’re often defensive-minded teammates, unsung heroes of the dirty work. They rebound. They stand in corners for kick outs. They set picks without any expectations of getting the ball on the pop or the roll. Their numbers can waver between being the second highest scorer of the night to a weeks-long disappearance in the box score.
There's also Williams & Williams, Grant and Robert. That front court law firm made up the back end of Boston’s playoff rotation, averaging 17.7 and 20.9 minutes per game respectively with expected mixed results. When you’re the runt of the proverbial litter, you eat last. That can mean less playing time. Less opportunity can mean fewer shots and unfortunately, fewer shots can mean a higher importance on those shots, at least when it comes to analysis and determining value.
The Time Lord is a role player-plus, the type of ceiling raiser that doesn't just fit in around the margins, but elevates the entire team. The Celtics were effusive about Rob’s impact, particularly in Round 2 against the 76ers when head coach Joe Mazzulla eventually re-inserted him into the starting lineup in must-wins Game 6 and 7. In his thirty-five regular season games, he had the team’s best on-court defensive rating at 105.0 and the highest net rating at 11.4.
Grant Williams heads into restricted free agency with seemingly less leverage as he did last summer when he was extension-eligible. He reportedly turned down a 4-year, $50 million deal after averaging 7.8 points and 3.6 rebounds per game. Instead, he gambled on himself and averaged, well, 8.1 points and 4.6 rebounds. It wasn’t exactly the leap that he and the fans expected.
What makes Grant Williams’ extension negotiations this summer interesting (and Robert Williams’ last summer) might be the unsaid expectation that this isn’t just a contract to secure a role player at a reasonable number in the immediate future; with the restrictive nature of the new collective bargaining agreement and the eventual retirement of Horford (he can’t play forever, right?), President of Basketball Operations Brad Stevens is looking for role players now and major contributors for later.
Last year’s four-year, $48 million investment in Robert Williams is a perfect example of a team-friendly deal that 1) locks in a rotational role player at an affordable price and 2) gives them room to grow into an even larger role. It’ll be curious to see if the Celtics feel the same way about Grant Williams come July 1st. After a hand injury hampered the 24-year-old in March, will his underwhelming fourth season depress his value enough that he’ll accept a two-year, show-me deal to stay in Boston or does the front office still see him as the successor at the 4 down the road? The length of last summer’s offer suggests the latter.
Beyond the numbers, there’s also the intangible element that role players bring to the table. We’re seeing it in The Finals right now. If Denver can close out series and win their first championship in franchise history, a lion’s share of the credit belongs to Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic. But where would the Nuggets be without Christian Braun’s 7-of-8 in Game 3 or Aaron Gordon and Bruce Brown clinching Game 4 with Jokic in foul trouble?
A mastery of the fringe arts is obviously a prerequisite. There are mindset and readiness factors for sure. And then there’s what a player adds to the chemistry of the locker room, that spice that can either disrupt the vibe (read: Brooks, Dillon) or, like their play on the floor, elevate what’s already there.
The players and coaches have all talked about the joy that Robert Williams brings to the game. Maybe it's how every play he makes is punctuated. Maybe it's his cool demeanor off the court and how it's contrasted with his loud play. And for Grant, he certainly had his run-ins this season. A tete-a-tete with Donovan Mitchell ended the same way as another with Jimmy Butler in the playoffs. But even in these public embarrassments, he's shown an aggressiveness and nastiness once lacking on this roster. He still complains to the refs a little much and there are times that he tries to do a little too much, but for the most part, he's developed into this nice guy enforcer, a Batman with a smile.
As the Celtics head into another off-season of potential change, there's an inclination to tinker around the edges rather than the core, but on the edges might be where Boston is already whole.