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Forsberg: Robert Williams' injury prompts three pressing questions

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Grant Williams Ime Udoka Robert Williams

The Boston Celtics’ goal of hitting the ground running to start the 2022-23 season suffered a setback with news that Robert Williams III is expected to miss four-to-six weeks while undergoing a cleanup on the knee that hindered him during last year’s playoff run.

Losing a starter at a position thin on experienced depth is not ideal for a Celtics team that stumbled out of the gates last season. But the team must get Williams III back to playing without discomfort to achieve their ultimate season goal.

A few questions linger as the Celtics prepare to start camp on Tuesday: 

Will Grant Williams shift to a starting role?

Grant Williams stated a case as Boston’s most consistent reserve for most of the 2021-22 regular season but also played nearly a quarter of the year as a starter (21 games). He could get first crack at holding the fort with the first unit while Williams III rehabs at the start of the season.

The Williams/Al Horford combo played 1,565 non-garbage time possessions together last season and posted a solid +4.1 net rating, per Cleaning the Glass data. Boston’s offensive rating was a crisp 115.7 with that combo on the floor.

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The Celtics could also consider keeping Williams in a reserve role to stagger with Horford, then shuffle offseason addition Malcolm Brogdon to the starting group. The Celtics would be small with that starting five but would have the defensive versatility to mask it. The only downside would be Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum spending more time defending bigger forwards.

 

The tougher questions come if the Celtics elect to sit Horford out on the second night of back-to-backs -- and they have three in the first four weeks of the season. Boston might have to get creative with filling minutes at the 4/5 spots in those games.

Is more depth needed?

Boston’s frontcourt depth was already in the spotlight after Danilo Gallinari’s ACL tear and the wattage just increased with Williams sidelined. Beyond the 36-year-old Horford, the Celtics are inexperienced at the center spot. Luke Kornet, a fifth-year center, provides the most pure size (7-foot-2) but has played sparingly during two stints with the Celtics. Mfiondu Kabengele, a 2019 first-round pick, is next on the center depth chart but enters camp on a two-way deal. He could certainly play his way onto the parent roster with a solid preseason.

Second-year forward Sam Hauser will get a shot to fill the void left by Gallinari’s injury. Boston is also bringing in a bunch of veteran forwards to compete for final roster spots at camp.

The Celtics’ previous reluctance to add a more proven free agent big man -- names like Dwight Howard and DeMarcus Cousins will be popular suggestions -- suggests they’re lukewarm on what’s available. The team has preferred to give their camp bodies first crack to earn a role but Williams III’s injury could put a greater emphasis on adding a serviceable body.

Ime Udoka’s previous relationship with LaMarcus Aldridge will lead to plenty of speculation about whether the 37-year-old could help Boston. Aldridge played 47 games for the Nets last season and averaged 12.9 points over 22.3 minutes per game.

Should there be long-term concern about Robert Williams' health?

Williams III having to undergo a knee cleanup now is certainly not ideal timing coming off Boston’s abbreviated summer break. But getting him back to feeling like his springy self is imperative if this team is going to get back to the Finals.

Williams III rushed himself back from the initial meniscus surgery to aid Boston’s 2022 Finals run and the Celtics couldn’t really ease him back given the stakes. Neither the player nor team could have known the discomfort would linger until Williams III ramped up in advance of camp. 

The Celtics must be more diligent in easing Williams III back whenever he returns to the court this season with a goal of ensuring no further setbacks. While Time Lord’s injury history is certainly concerning, he did play 61 of the first 75 regular-season games last season and gutted through the playoffs despite his discomfort. He’s more able to navigate the minor maladies that plagued him a bit earlier in his career.

 

Williams III's playing style will always leave the team concerned about his health and puts a priority on depth. But his game-changing ways when on the floor means the team has to prioritize his health at every turn. The Celtics need him on the court in May and June far more than they do in October and November.