Celtics Insider

Forsberg's Mailbag: The case for more Time Lord minutes

Celtics Insider

The Boston Celtics have won consecutive games for the first time in more than a month. We’re hoping the panic has subsided just enough for us to (carefully) tear open the mailbag for the first time in that span. 

Let’s dive into your letters: 

Look, MJ, if you think you can con your way to the top of the mailbag by feeding me Robert Williams questions you are ... EXACTLY RIGHT.

Even as the Celtics have navigated this recent roller coaster, it’s been fun watching Williams blossom with consistent time. Instead of walking on eggshells, Williams is floating over them (likely on his way to throwing down a loud alley-oop). Yes, he’s prone to the occasional Timelapse -- like rocketing a pass off the face of your franchise cornerstone, as he did against the Wizards -- but the good has far outweighed the bad.

Here are Williams’ numbers over the last nine games: 7.9 points on 70.2 percent shooting with 6.3 rebounds, 1.8 blocks, 1.6 assists, and 1.1 steals in 17.2 minutes per contest.

Now, we can’t ignore that his on-court net rating in that span is minus-12.3. The Celtics have had some really bad stretches and Williams hasn’t been in the right spots consistently enough on the defensive end. But his energy, his hustle, and his freak athleticism simply gives the Celtics a different dynamic on the court and we’re left yearning for even more.

Coach Brad Stevens has noted recently that, because of the hip issue that sidelined Williams for three months last year and again for a couple games this season, the team plans to ramp Williams up slowly with hopes that he can be an impact presence in the postseason.

 

Some of that will hinge on how much Stevens can lean on Daniel Theis and Tristan Thompson, and if Danny Ainge sends out any big men as part of roster shaping before the deadline. Williams’ postseason role also could hinge on matchups, with Stevens more likely to lean on him against small-ball-favoring opponents.

Stat Per 36 Minutes Rank on Celtics*
15.1 points 5th
13.2 rebounds 2nd
2.2 steals 1st
3.1 blocks 1st
71.4 FG% 1st

*Minimum 100 minutes played

But the bottom line is that he needs to play. It’s somewhat wild that he’s only played 20-plus minutes in five games this year and only 11 times in his entire career. The more time he gets, the more he should improve on the defensive end.

All the lobs and blocks are nice. But it’s Williams’ hustle on the offensive glass, his passing, his ability to jump passing lanes and alter shots that has us really intrigued about an increased role moving forward.

He has to be in the right spots more consistently, he needs to stop fouling as much when he’s on the court, and he needs to avoid throwing fastballs off Jayson Tatum’s dome leading to transition buckets, but we see the Time Lord as a vital piece of whatever the Celtics accomplish this postseason.

ALL-STAR BLEAKEND

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that … 

Two years ago, Kyrie Irving went to the All-Star game in Charlotte, got videotaped having a hallway conversation with Kevin Durant and internet sleuths swore he was saying, “two max slots,” suggesting the two were plotting their Brooklyn dash. The speculation about Irving's future sent the already spiraling 2018-19 Celtics into a full tailspin, culminating with Irving fully checking out as Boston lost four straight games to the Bucks and got bounced in Round 2 of the playoffs.

Last year, Kemba Walker started experiencing knee soreness in January and missed seven games that month. He still ventured to the All-Star game where Nick Nurse improbably played him for nearly 30 minutes. Walker sat out the first five games of the second half, battled knee woes straight through the pandemic, into the bubble, and is still working through lingering soreness more than a year later.

Now, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are set to head to Atlanta for a game that many NBA superstars have already wondered out loud should even be happening because of the coronavirus. This at a time when Brown has twice had to sit out games due to lingering knee soreness and Tatum has looked completely out of gas (well, except for Sunday against the Wizards) while working his way back from missing time after battling COVID-19.

Tatum details how COVID-19 has impacted his conditioning

Is the All-Star game a particularly taxing experience? Probably not, but there are obligations. And the event really matters to players so it’s understandable that they yearn to participate. I think most observers would simply prefer Boston’s young stars find as much rest as possible during the break.

 

MISSING THEIR DEFENSIVE DNA

I think it’s undeniable that Boston’s defense doesn’t have the same grit without Marcus Smart on the court. If you go by just the base numbers, Boston’s defense is about 1.5 points per 100 possessions worse without Smart on the court -- not a monster difference. But that’s with Smart’s defensive rating a bit inflated because of the team’s struggles with two-big lineups early in the year. 

When you look at the hustle stats, you see that Boston is getting roughly three fewer deflections per game, their charge takes are down, and their contested shot totals have dipped. Those areas are where Smart thrives. Watching all these opponents go for 30-plus points, we can’t help but wonder if Smart could have helped corral them a bit. 

The defense isn’t going to magically rocket to the top of the league when Smart returns. But having the defensive coordinator back will go a long way towards making Boston more accountable, especially in crunch time when they have too rarely come up with the much-needed stop.

LIGHTNING ROUND

All you need to know is that the Walker/Tatum/Brown/Marcus Smart quartet has played a mere 28 minutes over two games together. Even the Walker/Tatum/Brown trio is only at 226 minutes of floor time through 11 games. Good health could cure some of what ails this team, but they could still use more talent to truly be a contender.

As I wrote last week, I think Ainge has to be aggressive with the TPE right now. Things don’t get any easier this summer, even if the pool of available bodies might be slightly glitzier. As the Kings fade into oblivion, it feels like a Harrison Barnes deal should be available. Yes, the price point might be a bit steeper than the team would prefer and absorbing his $22 million is cumbersome, but it would add a championship-proven player who fits exactly what this team needs in terms of defensive versatility and shooting.

Celtics Talk Podcast: Does Harrison Barnes or Nikola Vucevic fit the bill for Ainge’s trade desire? | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube

It would mean the team has to find a way to send out roughly $9 million in salary in order to ensure getting below the tax but it feels like there are pathways to making that a reality, especially since at least one young player would seemingly head out in any deal. The Celtics are maybe the only team that can give the Kings much-needed cap relief.

 

The bottom line is that Ainge needs to infuse some talent onto this team, ideally someone who can provide depth at the wing/power forward position.

Despite his injury woes, I’d submit that Langford is one of the young players the Celtics would least like to move. We pegged him as our surprise of the season and, if healthy, we could see him having a big impact on the bench in the second half. We’ve only seen a tiny glimpse of his offensive potential and his pick-and-roll play could really help Boston’s second unit.

All that said, is it a deal-breaker if the Kings hold out for him in a Barnes swap? Probably not, at least if it limits the draft capital you’d have to send out in that deal.

Not one who's likely to be any sort of Giannis Antetokounmpo and/or Joel Embiid stopper. And the Celtics already have a glut at the center position as Williams emerges. They have far more glaring needs (wing, point guard) than what will be available for upgrades at the big-man spot.

I think the big issue right now is that 1) Stevens has always erred on the side of his “veterans” and is more likely to give Teague multiple chances than young players and 2) There just hasn’t been enough separation among bench players to force that issue.

Like, if Grant Williams was playing at a level comparable to the bubble, he’d be a rotation stalwart. Instead, he’s left picking up crumbs when Semi Ojeleye is struggling. There might simply be too much redundancy, and overall youth, on the Boston bench and it’s on Ainge to clear out a bit of the clutter so that Stevens can more easily lean on a firm rotation. Better health would make that simpler, too.

This one is a bit baffling to us. In the seven games before his recent disappearance from the rotation, Nesmith had the best net rating on the team among regulars. Like any young player, he had his head-shaking moments on the defensive end but it felt like he was trending in the right direction.

Why Jerry Stackhouse has high expectations for Nesmith

We worry about the confidence of young players when the rug gets pulled from them a bit, especially when Nesmith was a DNP on a night you didn’t have Brown available. Nesmith did find motivation in his limited playing time early in the year and hopefully he harnesses this well, too, by elevating his defensive focus and maintaining his hustle energy.

 

We’re as bullish on his future as we were on Rob Williams emerging at the center spot, but he’s got strides to make to be a consistent defender.