Four thoughts as we wait for the clock to tick closer to Thursday’s 3 p.m. trade deadline -- with the Celtics-Sixers showdown at TD Garden on Wednesday night offering a much-needed diversion to that painfully slow crawl.
1. Joel Embiid visit comes at a good time
With so much chatter about whether the Celtics need to upgrade the big-man spot at the deadline, it’s fitting that Joel Embiid is in town on the eve of the NBA’s annual swap meet.
The case for upgrading Boston’s big-man depth is that Robert Williams III's injury history and Al Horford's age, along with a general lack of pure size beyond backup Luke Kornet, leaves the team in a potentially perilous spot should injuries crop up during the playoffs.
What’s more, with five back-to-backs over the final 24 games of the season, the Celtics should probably expect to be without Williams III or Horford for 10 of those games (Williams III has typically sat the front ends of back-to-backs while working his way back from offseason knee surgery, while Horford sits the back ends).
Our counter to this is that the Celtics have survived the first 54 games of the season, much of that with Williams III rehabbing, and it’s hard to see a scenario in which they land a big that’s decidedly better than Kornet without having to use key assets.
We’re not opposed to taking a flyer on a low-cost addition for emergency depth. But if Williams III and Horford are healthy, they are almost certainly tag-teaming for at least 60 minutes of time at the center spot in the postseason.
While both Williams III and Horford are listed on the injury report, we should get a glimpse tonight of whether Boston’s current big-man depth is enough to survive against someone like Embiid.
Let’s remember that, on opening night, Boston didn’t have either Williams III or Kornet. The team thrust Noah Vonleh into the starting role and he logged a team-high in matchup time against Embiid (holding him to 8 points on 3-of-6 shooting with 3 turnovers) in a Boston triumph. Vonleh got dealt to San Antonio last month.
Last year, the Celtics routinely rolled out Enes Freedom as the primary defender against Embiid. If Kornet can hold up adequately on Wednesday, it might simply be a reminder that Boston’s depth is enough to get by. Ultimately, if Williams III or Horford were to be unavailable during Boston’s playoff run, there’s few backups that can hold the fort long term, and the team is more likely to go small in that instance anyhow.
The only downside tonight: No Marcus Smart, who always seems to take a few turns on Embiid and can be key to sending those frisky double teams at him.
2. Go big or go home
The only "big" we fixate on before the deadline is relative to the size of the move.
As we creep closer to the deadline, we’re underwhelmed by most of the trade pitches that don’t make Boston appreciably better. Yes, on nights when bench players slump, it’s natural to yearn for more depth. But in evaluating every Twitter trade that floats our way, we typically ask: Is the player the Celtics are acquiring definitively better than Sam Hauser or Luke Kornet, and is it worth moving known commodities like Payton Pritchard to acquire that person?
Typically, we're left yearning for more.
If your trade pitch doesn’t bring back someone that coach Joe Mazzulla could confidently call on during a playoff series, then it’s probably better to keep hunting.
Now, we don’t think the Celtics should be content to peruse the buyout bargain bin -- it so rarely turns up players that can actually impact a playoff series -- but giving up assets, and maybe eliminating the potential for a larger splash this offseason -- for someone who likewise doesn’t necessarily move the needle might be an even worse option.
3. Grant's slump in the spotlight at trade deadline
Grant Williams is in a bit of a slump. Over his last seven games, he’s averaging 5.3 points on 35.3 percent shooting (albeit 45 percent beyond the arc) while adding 3.9 rebounds over 25.9 minutes per game. The Celtics are minus-42 in his floor time in those seven games and lost four of them.
Williams' impending plunge into restricted free agency adds a layer of intrigue to his deadline status. We don’t think the Celtics have any plans to move anyone in their top eight, but certainly the team’s lack of assets, along with knowing that you’re likely going to have to pay Williams a hefty raise this offseason, does naturally make you ponder options.
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Ultimately, we land on this: Williams’ best hope of getting to the salary tier he desires hinges heavily on being more consistent with his impact. He’s made obvious strides in his game but he has to remember what makes him most valuable. Sometimes playing defense and thriving from your corner office is perfectly fine.
It’s easy to forget but Williams was a monster part of Boston’s playoff run last season. He helped harass Kevin Durant throughout Round 1, took on the challenge of helping defend Giannis Antetokounmpo in Round 2, and ultimately pushed Boston through to the East finals with a huge Game 7.
If Williams puts the focus on defense and knocking down open looks, he can continue to be a key piece to this puzzle. Some of these quiet nights where his impact wanes simply leaves Celtics fans having traumatic flashbacks to the Finals when Boston’s bench woes were spotlighted.
4. The real need? Anyone who can thrive without Tatum
We can yell until we are blue in the face about what Boston’s primary deadline need is. Here's our simpler pitch: anyone who can thrive when Jayson Tatum is off the court.
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Boston’s net rating with Tatum off the floor has always been poor. But it’s slipping more lately. Boston is now a minus-3.5 in the 722 minutes without Tatum. The team's offensive rating plummets to 106.6. It’s all contributed to Tatum playing hefty minutes because the team sometimes needs him on the floor just to keep its head above water.
Boston’s marks with Tatum: A team-best 119.1 offensive rating and plus-10 net rating in 1,905 minutes.
If there’s someone who can accentuate the talents of Boston’s top reserves -- the Malcolm Brogdon, Derrick White, Williams triumvirate -- while Tatum catches a five-minute breather, then that’s the guy the Celtics need more than anything.