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Forsberg: Thompson's early setback puts spotlight on Boston's bigs

/ by Chris Forsberg
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Tristan Thompson

Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens said free-agent addition Tristan Thompson is likely to miss a “significant portion” of training camp with a hamstring strain and the team is hopeful to, "have him ramped up as we get closer to the start of the regular season.”

So what does this mean for Boston’s center position out of the gates for the 2020-21 season?

In a way, this probably makes it easier for Stevens to keep Daniel Theis slotted as the starter — something that might have happened regardless of health. The Celtics can ease Thompson in, initially, off the bench and then figure out the best way to maximize his talents when he’s at full go.

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There’s a line of thought that Stevens could maintain his center-by-committee approach from last season and swap Thompson into the starting role whenever the team needs a bit more size. Theis, though, paired well with Boston’s core and held up well in stretches against the likes of Joel Embiid. Still, having a physical big like Thompson is a luxury to trot out in those situations.

For his part, Thompson has pledged to try to impact the game with his energy regardless of role.

"I think my energy is gonna ignite the team and that's what [Stevens] was saying to me, that I gotta be the motor that jump-starts the team to get going,” said Thompson. "So I've always had that role and I've been like that since Day 1. So coming in, I want to play harder than the bigs that I'm going against. Whoever I'm playing against, play harder than them and that's contagious.

 

"I think that everyone around the league knows how valuable that is, so just being myself and I think that's worked out pretty well for me and I think for this ball club, it can help them a lot.”

Forsberg: Why Thompson feels like the right guy at the right time

The other potential impact here: Robert Williams is going to get an increased opportunity to assert himself early. If Thompson is unavailable or limited for Boston’s two preseason games, Williams could see a hefty workload. This could be a pivotal stretch for Timelord. Health woes have limited his availability in his first two seasons in Boston and Stevens has had a quick hook when Williams has defensive lapses.

The Celtics are eager to figure out what they’ve got in their recent draftees and Williams is chief among them. Can he be the rim-running, shot-swatting center that pairs well with the team’s young core? We’ve all seen the potential and now Williams needs to show the consistency.

Here’s why it matters: Theis is a free agent after the season and the team will have to decide just how much it can afford to pay him with Thompson already on the books for $9.7 million next year.

If Williams can emerge as a core rotation piece, while still on his rookie deal, it could ease Boston’s salary cap burden. The Celtics already have $122.5 million in guaranteed salary on the books for next season when Jayson Tatum’s max-salary contract extension kicks in.

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Which is why developing Williams — and other recent draftees — is so vital for Boston. The team needs impact talent on rookie deals to supplement the core.

Theis and Thompson have the potential to eat up most of the 48 total minutes of center time on game nights. If Grant Williams plays any smallball center, that further cuts into the available minutes. Rob Williams has to assert himself early this season and give Stevens motivation to consistently go back to him.