Celtics Insider

Forsberg: Will this Celtics weakness prove costly this season?

Celtics Insider

If you had told us that the number crunchers at FiveThirtyEight had labeled a Celtics player named Williams a "defensive specialist,” we would have needed two guesses to get the correct answer. 

But that's the unique category where Grant Williams (not Rob) landed in FiveThirtyEight’s recently released 2021-22 player projections. Sift through Boston’s roster and you’ll find the statistical model is bullish on many of the Celtics’ non-Jays, including Marcus Smart, who is labeled a “borderline All-Star” with a five-year market value of $89.5 million (or roughly in line with his recently inked extension).

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But, in skimming through some of the projections, it’s Williams who we kept flipping back to. Amid the roster overhaul in Brad Stevens’ first summer as president of basketball operations, the Celtics did little to beef up the power forward spot, an area of obvious need last season.

A lot of ink has been spilled — in this spot and others — wondering if Boston’s seemingly endless supply of trade exceptions might deliver that much-needed big wing. The Celtics could undoubtedly benefit from more reliability at that spot, if only to limit the wear and tear on Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown in having to defend bigger players. Speculation about possible targets will continue, especially after the Celtics created a $17.1 million trade exception by delivering Evan Fournier to the Knicks via sign-and-trade.

But one of the biggest lingering questions as we wait for training camp to arrive in late September is whether Williams can emerge as a more reliable option at that 4 spot.

 

The Celtics will almost certainly play a lot smallball this season. Cleaning the Glass data had Tatum playing 38 percent of his minutes at the power forward spot last year, while Brown accounted for another 8 percent there. But Boston’s lack of reliable depth at the 4 forced Daniel Theis to log much of his time there last season in often-clunky two-big lineups.

We wondered if the Celtics might chase a Rudy Gay or Jeff Green in free agency. And while sources suggest Boston did indeed examine possible options to upgrade the 4 spot, nothing materialized as the team prioritized its other tinkering.

Maybe Al Horford will play some 4, but his numbers at that spot while playing under Ime Udoka in Philadelphia two seasons ago were an eyesore. There isn’t an obvious throwback two-big option like when he thrived alongside Aron Baynes a few years back (though we’ll likely get some Horford/Time Lord or maybe even some Horford/Enes Kanter looks). Maybe Boston will consistently trot out 3-wing lineups, switch everything, and thrive solely on versatility.

But it would certainly help this team if Williams could make a Year 3 leap. The defensive specialist tag is nice but it also only accentuates his need to beef up his offensive contributions.

Help wanted

Celtics' offensive rating with Williams on court
107.4
Celtics' offensive rating with Williams off court
115.9

Williams shot 37.2 percent beyond the 3-point arc last season and has largely been a solid shooter since his initial 0-fer to start his NBA career. But he’s struggled to impact the offense in any other way and Boston’s offensive rating dipped to a woeful 107.4 during Williams’ 1,138 minutes of floor time last season. He had a minus-1.9 net rating in his floor time overall and the team’s lack of offensive punch masked much of the good that happened with Williams on the court defensively.

Semi Ojeleye is gone so there’s less redundancy at that position, though Jabari Parker remains on a non-guaranteed deal. There were some encouraging glimpses from Parker in his very limited court time in Boston last season. At FiveThirtyEight, they dubbed Parker a "rotation player" with some fun comps like 2018 Kelly Olynyk and 2013 Horford.

The Celtics still have an ability to maneuver if an intriguing 4 comes on the market. With the bargain signing of Dennis Schroder, the team might not have a lot of minutes for fellow offseason addition Kris Dunn. Bruno Fernando, acquired in that same Tristan Thompson swap, will be deep on the center depth chart.

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But, ultimately, Boston’s need at the power forward spot will likely hinge on Williams’ ability to more consistently impact the game. He didn’t play in the 2021 NBA Summer League — which is fine, though it could have been a nice confidence builder if he dominated in minimal reps — and the biggest headline this offseason is his new VP gig with the Players Association.

We’re overdue for an offseason hype article that suggests Williams (or any of Boston’s younger players) added a James Young-like 15 pounds of muscle and is ready to thrive next season. (Hand up, we fell for Young hype back in 2015.)

 

It’s on Williams to produce his own hype. Boston’s lack of activity at the 4 has created an opportunity for him to grab this season. Otherwise, the speculation about the team using its TPEs to chase depth there isn’t going away.