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Forsberg's Focus: Will the war on Theis ever end?

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*Each weekday for the rest of October, our Chris Forsberg will put a member of the 2019-20 Celtics under the microscope, assessing their season and what the future holds for that player. 

346

That’s the total number of screen assists that Daniel Theis was credited with for the 2019-20 season. It was the fifth highest total in the NBA when you include regular season and playoffs, trailing only Rudy Gobert, Domantas Sabonis, Bam Adebayo, and Nikola Jokic.

What exactly is a screen assist? It’s part of the NBA’s hustle stat package and tracks when a player’s screen directly leads to a teammate's made field goal. It accentuates how Theis was content to do the dirty work, both screening but also developing his signature seal this season. All in the name of getting easy looks for Boston’s All-Star talent that surrounded him in the starting 5.

What went right for Theis in 2020

Theis quickly cemented himself as the starter in Boston’s center-by-committee approach. He set career highs in almost every major statistical category but was content to do the grunt work and settle for open shots when defenses wandered away from him.

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ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus loved Theis, ranking him second only to Gobert in the defensive metric (and one spot ahead of LeBron James). That helped Theis finish 25th overall among 520 NBA players. With limited means to spend at the center position, Theis’ two-year, $10 million contract was one of the best values in the entire NBA.

 

What went wrong for Theis in 2020

Are you familiar with the War on Theis? Referees were seemingly besotted with whistling Theis for ticky-tack fouls, or sometimes just being in the general vicinity of contact. He racked up 219 personal fouls, the eighth-highest total in the entire league. That’s 5.5 fouls per 36 minutes of play, making him a threat to foul out each time he touched the floor. And he did foul out four times in the postseason, including once in 21 minutes, 34 seconds of court time during Boston’s season-ending loss to Miami.

Brick rolled

Daniel Theis' 3-point shooting percentage in the 2020 postseason (4-for-26).
15.4%

Theis’ 3-point percentage also dipped hard this season (down to 33.3 percent after being at 38.8 percent a year ago) and he looked hesitant at times because of it. Theis had his typical struggles against bigger centers, which accentuated Boston’s need for a backup who can help joust with the Joel Embiids of the world.

Early outlook for Theis for 2021

While the casual Celtics fan will clamor for a big-man upgrade, Theis complemented Boston’s stars nicely and will continue to be a key rotation presence next season. He doesn’t need shots and is content to set screens and play solid defense.

Theis has his obvious weaknesses, but having the right big-man depth alongside can hide them. The Celtics’ penchant for going small limits how much the team needs to lean on Theis. And if he could ever stop being a whistle magnet, it’d go a long way towards allowing him to play freely.