Look, we know there will soon be plenty of time to debate all of the tough offseason decisions ahead for the Boston Celtics, so forgive us for jumping on the accelerator a bit here. But after Robert Williams nearly swatted his way to a Game 1 triple-double while playing on maybe nine healthy toes, all we can think about is the future.
Even at something far less than 100 percent, Williams hobbled his way to 11 points, 9 rebounds, and a Celtics playoff-record 9 blocks in a mere 22 minutes, 40 seconds of floor time in Saturday’s loss to the Brooklyn Nets. It’s not a coincidence that Boston’s best defensive effort — maybe of the entire season — came with Williams swatting anything he could get his fingertips near.
Kyrie Irving praised Timelord’s timing, this after an emphatic first-quarter block on an Irving layup attempt in transition ignited the block party. Bruce Brown is going to have nightmares about Williams appearing out of thin air to swat his shots around the basket. Williams blocked Nic Claxton twice on a single shot attempt at one point.
But it was the sight of Williams stonewalling a James Harden drive attempt in isolation then swatting the Beard’s step-back 3-pointer that really drove home how impactful Williams can be, defensively.
Nets players in Game 1 finished 1-of-13 shooting (7.7%) with the nine rejections and two turnovers, per the NBA’s player-tracking data. Boston’s defensive rating was a stellar 93.2 with Williams on the court and he swatted 64 percent of the team-high 14 shots he contested overall.
We’ve been screaming it all season (well, three seasons, really, but we’ll save that victory lap for another day): The Celtics are simply a different team with Robert Williams on the floor. And Boston must decide soon if they want to ensure his presence in green deep into the future.
Williams, the 27th pick in the 2018 draft, will be extension eligible this summer. He’s set to earn $3.7 million in the 2021-22 season and the Celtics can tender a $5.4 million qualifying offer in the summer of 2022 to make him a restricted free agent.
Here’s the dilemma that Danny Ainge and Boston’s front office will have to ponder this offseason: Do you consider negotiating a modest rookie extension, which wouldn’t kick in until the 2022-23 season, or risk a ballooning price tag further down the road?
There will be obvious reasons for hesitation from the Celtics: Williams has played in only 113 of a possible 236 regular-season games during his pro career. He’s been injury prone, including missing extended time with hip ailments the past two seasons.
But even as Boston’s payroll starts to bloat with Jayson Tatum’s rookie extension set to kick in next season, the Celtics should ponder the obvious benefits of locking up a 23-year-old big man who might only be scratching the surface of his potential.
Tipping in favor of an extension, Williams brings out the best in Boston’s core including Tatum, who said earlier this year that Williams might be his favorite guy to play alongside. Williams’ agent should consider bringing Tatum to his first offseason chat with Ainge as leverage.
Williams' injury history is absolutely concerning and he could have made a big-money extension a slam dunk if he didn’t have a variety of maladies. But give Williams credit for toughing it out here late in the season as the Celtics pump his turf toe full of cortisone while recognizing that the team has no other big man that can impact the game the way he does.
Heck, it sorta feels like the Celtics need to find a way to keep Williams on the court for upwards of 30+ minutes per game this series if they’re going to have any chance at success. The Nets played with far more hesitation with Williams around the rim and his ability to swat perimeter jumpers only added to their general reluctance when No. 44 was on the court.
It used to be that the Celtics shied away from rookie extensions but that has changed a bit in recent years with Jaylen Brown and Tatum inking pacts. As Brown blossoms into an All-Star talent, his four-year, $103 million extension (with incentives up to $115 million) looks better every day. So maybe there’s a sweet spot that Boston can find that gives Williams a healthy pay bump that banks on his future despite the caution flags with his health.
The natural comp would be the 5-year, $90 million extension signed by Clint Capela in Houston in 2018. But remember that Capela had already established himself as the full-time starter averaging a double-double in the season before that deal. Williams emerged as Boston’s starter at the end of this season but the smaller sample might keep his price tag a bit lower.
The Celtics have to be careful with a bloating cap sheet, at least while they figure out the long-term futures of players like Marcus Smart, Evan Fournier, and Kemba Walker. But Williams should be a priority this offseason. Locking him up secures three key pieces of this core and Boston can then figure out the pieces that fit best around them.
It’s too bad we couldn’t see this Nets series with a healthy Brown and a fully healthy Williams. That might level the playing field a bit more for Boston. But a Tatum/Brown/Williams core for the long-term future is anything but a daydream, especially if the Celtics lock up Williams before his price tag spikes one of his volleyball blocks.