Celtics big men ignore the noise that team needs to trade for upgrade

Celtics big men ignore the noise that team needs to trade for upgrade

BOSTON — Al Horford returns to TD Garden on Thursday night and, with him, comes yet another reminder of what the Celtics now supposedly lack.

While the Celtics eased the departure of Kyrie Irving by signing Kemba Walker, Horford’s exit — combined with the team trading away Aron Baynes to clear the necessary space to sign Walker — left Boston without two of its defensive anchors. One of the primary storylines around the team since Horford’s exit has been prognosticators loudly wondering how Boston could possibly patch the defensive void left behind.

Already past the quarter pole of the 2019-20 season, these new-look Celtics rank fifth in the NBA with a defensive rating of 103.3. They sit a fraction of a point behind third-ranked Philadelphia (and their Horford-infused defense) and Boston’s ragtag group has more than held its own.

Still, despite all of Boston’s early season success, many talking heads continue to insist that the Celtics need an upgrade at the big-man position to truly contend in the East.

This sort of declaration is met with shoulder shrugs from the players who currently hold down the fort in Boston’s frontcourt. This past summer, the Celtics re-signed Daniel Theis and picked up both veteran Enes Kanter and French rookie Vincent Poirier. Boston used a 2019 first-round pick to nab Grant Williams with hopes that he could play as an undersized big and Boston is banking on a second-year leap from 2018 first-round pick Robert Williams.

Every one of Boston’s bigs brings something different to the table. Conversely, they all have a notable deficiency. Kanter has heard all about his defense; Theis can get overpowered by beefy bigs; Robert Williams knows he needs to play with more consistency; and Grant Williams is shorter than some of Boston’s primary perimeter players.

But Boston’s bigs just smile when asked if the perpetual scuttlebutt about the Celtics needing a frontcourt upgrade bothers them.

"I don’t listen to it,” said Theis, a German import now in his third season with the Celtics. Boston’s defensive rating is a rock solid 98.9 when Theis is on the court and, among players averaging at least 15 minutes per game with 10 appearances, Theis ranks 16th overall in the NBA in defensive rating.

"We have so many bigs and it’s whoever plays good that night,” said Theis. "You don’t guard the best bigs with one person. It’s a team effort. We’re [the third best team] in the East and we’re playing really good basketball as a team. So, no, I don’t listen to that.”


Kanter said he bravely dives into his social media mentions after games and sees all the burns about his defense. He is unfazed and has embraced trying to positively impact both sides of the court.

“I don’t ever take [the criticism] personally,” said Kanter. “We’re just going to go out there, our big-man unit, and show that we can do it.

“Now, it’s my ninth-year in the league, man. I used to take [the criticism] really really serious and let it get to my head. Now, I look at the comments and I’m like, ‘Yeah, right, OK.’” 

The Celtics own a defensive rating of 100.8 when Kanter is on the court. The number actually spikes 1.1 points when he’s on the bench. The NBA’s tracking data has Kanter holding opponents to 52 percent shooting, or 4.9 percent higher than those players' typical averages, but much of that has been Kanter getting burned by 3-point shooters on the perimeter.

Kanter is never going to be an elite defender, but he praises coach Brad Stevens and the coaching staff for putting him in position to be successful. Kanter takes great pride, too, in the way he held up while starting opposite Embiid on opening night. Embiid scored 8 points on 3-of-7 shooting during 6 minutes of matchup time. 

Thursday night will hopefully give us a better look at whether Kanter can truly engage in hand-to-hand combat with Embiid.

It’s another big week for Theis, too. He’s clung to the team's starting center spot since the second game of the year. The scouting report screams that he can’t hang with strong bigs like Embiid but, good night or bad, Theis can’t wait to try.

Nikola Jokic gouged Theis for 16 points on 8-of-16 shooting in two matchups this season, according to the NBA’s defensive tracking data. Tristan Thompson got Theis for 10 points on 4-of-7 shooting, while Antetokounmpo had nine points on 4-of-5 shooting. Stevens has turned to Kanter, when healthy, to add some heft, or Robert Williams with hopes of countering size with athleticism. But Theis, now further removed from the meniscus tear that ended his 2017-18 season, looks springier than ever and his 3-point shot is ramping up again.

Maybe more importantly, Theis hasn’t pouted when Stevens gives him an early hook and he’s embraced the notion that defending elite bigs isn’t a one-man job.

“It’s a challenge but it’s also a team effort because those guys, especially someone like Embiid, it’s hard to guard them 1-on-1 for 35 or 38 minutes,” said Theis. "He gets his shots, he’s fierce, he’s big. It’s hard to guard him 1-on-1 during the game, so it’s a team effort.“

“That first game, Kanter did well. He tried to wear him out, try to get him tired. I take it as a challenge against him. With Jokic, and [Indiana’s Domantas] Sabonis, and Joel — it’s fun.”

The Celtics will keep their antennas up as trade season arrives on December 15 but, because of their lack of tradable salaries (as detailed in this week’s Celtics Mailbag), it feels like it’s going to be hard to make a move that isn’t an overpay for what might ultimately be a marginal upgrade. Maybe the buyout market could present an intriguing body, but there’s a lot of basketball before that point.

Grant Williams has earned Stevens’ trust with his smarts and an ability to make the right play more often than not. But he’s still a rookie and one who hasn’t made a lot of shots. Robert Williams oozes athleticism and raw potential but for every loud lob he throws down or volleyball block he uncorks, there’s a defensive lapse or a head-slapping turnover.

Robert Williams has one notable supporter in his corner: Horford. The two shared a moment after the season-opener in Philadelphia with Horford offering a vote of confidence about Williams’ potential in this league. Robert Williams said he’s eager to model parts of his game after Horford, who he tried to absorb from before the roster maneuvering began this past summer.

Stevens doesn’t have the luxury of a Horford or Baynes to clog up the back line any more. But his team isn’t struggling because of it. Games like Thursday might help determine if it’s sustainable.

Yes, it's another chance for Boston’s new group of bigs to show that this team doesn’t need an upgrade as badly as some seem to think they do.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-76ers, which tips off Thursday at 7 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Mike & Tommy have the call at 8 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

Bill Russell posts touching tribute to late, former NBA commissioner David Stern

Bill Russell posts touching tribute to late, former NBA commissioner David Stern

Former NBA commissioner David Stern passed away earlier this month after dealing with complications following a mid-December brain hemorrhage. On Tuesday, a memorial service was held one of the NBA's biggest off-the-court legends.

Many former stars honored Stern's life and legacy on Tuesday. And among them was 11-time NBA champion Celtics center Bill Russell.

Russell posted a touching tribute to Stern on his Twitter account late Tuesday night: 

It's clear that Stern meant a lot to the Celtics legend. His legacy will surely be carried by former and current players alike.

Stern is widely credited with the globalization of the NBA and is responsible for the construction of the league today. The Basketball Hall of Famer helped found the WNBA, the NBA G League, expanded the NBA's digital presence and established NBA Cares, an NBA social responsibility initiative in his 30 years in charge of the NBA.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Grizzlies-Celtics, which begins Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, followed by tip-off at 7:30 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

As Grizzlies arrive on rise, the value of their pick for Celtics falls

As Grizzlies arrive on rise, the value of their pick for Celtics falls

The Memphis Grizzlies, improbably in playoff position at the midpoint of the 2019-20 season, make their lone visit to Boston on Wednesday night. Every flashy Ja Morant crossover or loud Jaren Jackson slam will be a painful reminder of how Memphis’ unexpected rise has diminished the value of the future first-round pick they still owe the Celtics.

The Grizzlies' pick, obtained by Boston in January 2015, once seemed destined to become a glitzy unprotected 2021 selection. At various times, it’s seemed untouchable or, at very worst, the prize gem in any big-splash move the Celtics might make to enhance their roster.

Instead, the Grizzlies jumped on the rebuilding accelerator and, suddenly, the value of that Memphis pick is very much in flux. Winners of seven of their past eight, the Grizzlies currently sit eighth in the West and are more likely to convey a pick in the teens this season, barring a lottery-night vault.

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The Memphis pick is top-six protected this year, meaning it conveys to Boston if it lands at No. 7 or worse in this year’s draft. According to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, the pick currently has only an 11.3 percent chance of slotting in spots 1-6. If the Grizzlies make the postseason, the pick would be no better than 15th overall but even a second-half slide might not push it below double digits. A pick can vault into the top four spots under the new lottery format and teams are slotted by order of finish after that.

This is less than ideal for the Celtics, if only because of the value the pick would have otherwise held this summer if it had rolled over to 2021 and become unprotected. Even if the Grizzlies projected as a legitimate playoff contender, the unpredictability of an NBA season would have kept the value high.

What’s more, the tepid outlook on the 2020 draft class could further diminish the overall value of a conveyed pick. Don’t misconstrue, it’s still a luxury for the Celtics to have another potential lottery selection in their possession and the opportunity to add more cost-controlled talent to a top-heavy cap sheet could aid the team’s quest to be a long-term contender.

Still, these Celtics are already trying to figure out where 2019 first-round picks Romeo Langford (14th) and Grant Williams (22nd) fit with this team. And what will become of 2018 first-rounder Robert Williams once healthy? All of this year’s rookies have had encouraging moments but, as the lopsided win over the Lakers on Monday night showed, the rookies probably don’t project for big roles in Boston’s playoff rotation.

So, the lingering question with the Grizzlies pick is whether Boston would be better served to use it as a trade asset — whether that’s in-season this year to pursue additional veteran help, or over the summer when they might have more glaring needs to fill.  Remember, too, the Celtics already have two other first-round picks in the 2020 draft — their own, currently projected at No. 23, and the Bucks’ pick, currently projected at No. 30.

The Celtics learned the hard way how fast draft picks can shift in value. In between all the Nets picks — which Boston hit home runs by drafting Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, but whiffed on mid-round pick James Young — and Griz pick there was the much-ballyhooed Kings pick. Much like the Grizzlies this year, Sacramento made an unexpected charge at the playoffs last season and Boston settled for the No. 14 pick in the 2019 draft that they used to select Langford.

Could the Celtics have sold higher? Maybe. It certainly had more value in the summer before it conveyed when the Kings tied for the sixth-worst NBA record at 27-55. Adding insult to injury, the Kings have reverted to a pumpkin this year, and now sit tied for the second-worst record in the West.

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If nothing else, the Kings pick should encourage Boston to at least consider the idea of moving the Grizzlies pick should an intriguing deal emerge — or at least one in which Boston's two late first-round picks wouldn’t be enough to make it happen. Ultimately, the Celtics played the long game with the Grizzlies pick and will be rewarded one way or another — maybe just not as handsomely as they once hoped.

A roster-churning Celtics squad originally landed the pick in 2015 after dealing Jeff Green to Memphis as part of a three-team swap that also brought back Tayshaun Prince and Austin Rivers. The pick, dealt when the Grizzlies were in the midst of a 55-win season, had enough protections to make it a very low-risk maneuver for Memphis. But then the team’s Grit-and-Grind era ended sooner than anticipated and an uncertain rebuild arrived. It looked like the pick could very well convey as unprotected in 2021.

Instead, Morant has muscled his way into being the frontrunner for the Rookie of the Year award and morphed Memphis from a 20-win projection to a team pushing the Spurs for the final spot in the West.

This is the first of two matchups between the Celtics and Grizzlies this season. Boston can help its own draft cause with a win. That Memphis pick might never be as sexy as it once was but it’s still a key asset for the Celtics in shaping their roster moving forward.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Grizzlies-Celtics, which begins Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, followed by tip-off at 7:30 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.