Joel Embiid’s dominant two-way performance Thursday night in Boston won’t do much to ease fans who remain convinced that Celtics bigs aren't stout enough to hold up in an Eastern Conference in which many of Boston’s primary rivals — including Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Indiana, and Toronto — have All-Star talent at frontcourt positions.
From this vantage point, Enes Kanter and Daniel Theis held up about as well as could be reasonably expected. Yes, Embiid put up 38 points and 13 rebounds, all while limiting his turnovers and made some a couple key defensive plays late in the game (including absolutely smothering a Theis dunk attempt).
Still, Kanter and Theis both put up season highs for scoring while pairing up for 36 points and 14 rebounds. As coach Brad Stevens suggested after the game, " I guess I'd take 38 to 36 in that matchup.”
The lingering question is whether the Celtics, now 0-2 against Philadelphia this season, should feel confident in their ability to match up with the 76ers should the two teams cross paths in the postseason.
Two more regular-season matchups — one in Philadelphia early in the new calendar year (Jan. 9) and another in Boston on Feb. 1 — will offer more chances for the Celtics to gauge where they stand against Philly. Both sides were missing key parts — the Celtics without Marcus Smart; Sixers without Al Horford — and full-strength rosters will offer a better sense of whether Boston’s frontcourt can hold up in a seven-game series.
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Ultimately, the Celtics might have no other choice. A lack of tradable contracts means they can’t deal for a top-line center without sending out one of the team's core players. Theis, at 6-8, despite giving up size in matchups against players such as Embiid, has been excellent this season and the Celtics need a 5-man that is content to do the little things and take open shots when they come in the rhythm of the offense.
Looking around the league, particularly at those players that might be able to best joust with Embiid, it’s hard to find a player that the Celtics could reasonably target as an in-season addition.
In the quest to identify players that have best held up against Embiid in recent seasons, we parsed the NBA’s defensive tracking data. First, we examined every player that has defended Embiid for at least 20 partial possessions this year to find players that have had the best individual success. Ten players emerge, a snapshot of the names:
The dreamiest of in-season additions — just ask the defending champion Raptors — Gasol has defended Embiid for a total of 14:23 this season and has allowed a measly 2 points and ZERO field goals on 12 shot attempts while creating seven turnovers. Some Celtics fans came into the season dreaming of a scenario in which the Raptors struggled early, started moving pieces, and maybe Gasol and his $25.6 million salary somehow landed on the buyout market. That’s definitely not happening now with the Raptors right on Boston’s heels and playing some incredibly inspired ball this season during a Kawhi-less defense of their title.
One of the more interesting names on the list, the 34-year-old Gibson has only 6 minutes of matchup minutes this season against Embiid but has limited him to 6 points on 2-of-9 shooting. Embiid’s offensive rating is just 100 in the 25 minutes that Gibson and Embiid have shared the court this season, all the more impressive given the sorry state of the Knicks. Gibson is earning $9 million this season with a nonguaranteed salary. He’s exactly the sort of piece that the Knicks should yearn to move for future assets. The question is whether Gibson’s success is a small sample and whether you get enough value out of an in-season acquisition. On the positive side, he is a 10-year veteran with eight years of playoff experience and played with Kanter in Oklahoma City.
DON’T EVEN BOTHER DREAMING ABOUT THESE GUYS
Among the top Embiid stoppers this year: Defensive Player of the Year candidate Rudy Gobert (pictured), All-NBA big man Nikola Jokic, and Knicks swat-happy youngster Mitchell Robinson. You’re not getting any of these guys, so let’s just move right along despite the fact that they’ve all held Embiid to 37.5 percent shooting or less.
Slowly becoming the leader in the “If he gets bought out, the Celtics should swoop him up!” references among Boston fans. But the data isn’t quite as bullish. Thompson has defended Embiid on 50.7 partial possessions this season and allowed 31 points on 12-of-21 shooting over 14 minutes of matchup time. That’s the second-worst mark among high-volume defenders (in front of only LaMarcus Aldridge). Thompson is still an intriguing option because of his rebounding abilities, his playoff experience, and his potential to impact the offense as a fourth or fifth option. Alas, Thompson has his limitation — as seen in Boston when he went 1-for-7 at the free-throw line and committed five turnovers. He was minus-22 in a game in which he went 8-for-11 with 17 points and 11 rebounds.
A popular option among Celtics fans entering the season, at least when ignoring the fact that he’s making $25.8 million this season. Boston would have to move someone like Hayward as part of a trade. That’s not happening, and especially not with the way Adams has defended Embiid this season. In nine minutes of matchup time, Embiid has put up 24 points on 9-of-16 shooting, making four triples against Adams, too. Data from 2017-18 season confirms his struggles, Embiid shooting 60 percent (12 of 20) in 19:37 of matchup time.
AND BACK TO THE CELTICS
Then, of course, there is Kanter (pictured), who has limited Embiid to 38.9 percent shooting (7 of 18) in 12 minutes of matchup time this season. Kanter held up particularly well on Thursday, especially when you consider that Embiid shot 77.8 percent against all other Celtics defenders. For all the complaints about Kanter’s defense, it’s his struggles in the pick-and-roll that fall in the spotlight and he actually does well in post-up situations.
It's fair to be skeptical about whether Kanter can hold the fort for a seven-game series. Kanter has been on the floor for 46 of Embiid’s 60 minutes against the Celtics this season and the Philadelphia big man has an offensive rating of 109.3 in that span. The thing is Embiid’s offensive rating spikes to an absurd 142.9 in the 14 minutes with Theis as primary defender instead of Kanter.
Having Smart might help, though Philadelphia’s offensive rating was still elite (114.7) in the 16 minutes that Embiid and Smart shared the court in the first matchup.
To be certain, Boston did not lose either of the first two matchups against Philadelphia because of an inability to defend Embiid. He hurt Boston not only with his scoring Thursday but with an ability to pass out of double teams that Boston sent and the Celtics simply have to be crisper when they commit extra bodies.
Is there anyone else out there available at a reasonable price that could help Boston’s frontcourt defense? We rolled the defensive data back to last year’s regular-season and crunched to players with around 20 Embiid field-goal attempts defended. Yet again, a who’s who of Eastern Conference bigs emerged from Horford (14-37 FG, 37.8 percent) to Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic (13-31, 41.9 percent) to Indiana’s Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner (a combined 25-52, 48 percent).
Some of the names that fared well and might be available would include Cody Zeller (11-26, 42.3 percent in 21 minutes of matchup time) and Willie Cauley-Stein (8-20, 40 percent in 13 minutes). One completely random wild card to throw in here: Old friend Ante Zizic, who defended Embiid for 12:16 last season and limited him to 5-of-17 shooting (29.4 percent) with five turnovers. It was the lowest shooting percentage among any player with at least 15 shot attempts defended. A small sample size? Probably. Though, in a measly minute of defensive matchup time earlier this season, Embiid went scoreless while missing two shots.
The question becomes whether the Celtics should sacrifice future draft assets and risk tweaking the chemistry on the team in hopes of what might only be a marginal upgrade. It’s also prudent to want to see this team at full strength before declaring just how much of an issue the big-man depth could be.
Remember, too, that Robert Williams' development could be huge here. Grant Williams’ ability to play small-ball 5 against bigs could dictate the desire for a move. Maybe Vincent Poirier gets an opportunity to show whether he can joust further out.
For now, the best option seems to be for the Celtics to stick with what they’ve got and find a longer-term plan to beef up that 5 spot, especially given the talent their primary conference rivals have in their frontcourts.