Grant Williams logged his first DNP in nearly two years during Wednesday’s win over the Cleveland Cavaliers, a surprising demotion for a player who had been a key bench contributor for much of the past two seasons.
Was this an isolated incident or indicative of a diminishing role for a fourth-year forward who bet on himself entering a contract year?
Head coach Joe Mazzulla’s initial postgame response to an inquiry about Williams’ DNP was a single-word response: "Matchups."
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Not wanting to play an undersized big against Cleveland’s daunting front line makes some sense on the surface, but checking the tracking data from the last meeting (the only game that Williams played in against the Cavaliers after being suspended for the first game) reveals Cleveland was just 4-of-12 shooting against him.
Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley were a combined 2-of-3 shooting for a mere four points in that game. Williams was one of the only players to have success corralling Donovan Mitchell. The Celtics were plus-4 in Williams’ bench-high 31 minutes, 37 seconds of action that night.
Pressed on the topic, Mazzulla noted he wanted to have more rim protection. The Celtics went with Sam Hauser and Mike Muscala as early bench bigs and the Cavaliers tried to exploit those matchups, albeit to limited success with Muscala notably holding opponents to seven points on 3-of-11 shooting, per NBA tracking.
Mazzulla also noted that offensive spacing was another reason for Williams’ DNP. That’s curious suggestion considering Williams is shooting 40.4 percent from beyond the 3-point arc this season. A Muscala/Hauser lineup with Jayson Tatum, Malcolm Brogdon, and Derrick White was a minus-4 over 4:32. The Celtics were 1-of-8 shooting from the 3-point line with that group on the floor. A variation of that lineup -- with Robert Williams III in place of White -- was more successful later in the game.
So what’s really going on here? We believe there are two things at play.
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First, the addition of Muscala at the trade deadline, along with the re-emergence of Hauser, has crowded Boston’s frontcourt options and Mazzulla likely yearns to test out different looks in advance of the postseason. The Celtics need to find out if Muscala can hold up against playoff-caliber opponents and Wednesday’s visit from the Cavaliers was a quality test.
Second, Williams has slumped for more than a month now and the DNP could be a firm reminder that he needs to get back to impacting the game in familiar ways.
Williams did not have a good February. The Celtics had a team-best plus-15.2 net rating in his 261 minutes off the court, and that number plummeted to a meager plus-0.5 in his 277 minutes on the floor. Williams averaged 6.1 points while shooting a mere 33.3 percent from the floor and 32.5 percent beyond the 3-point arc in 11 February appearances. He played only 6:11 in Boston’s first game out of the break against the Pacers, another team with frontcourt size.
To Williams’ credit, he was a good teammate despite his evaporated role on Wednesday night. He routinely celebrated the successes of his teammates, including Hauser.
We’ve seen instances like this repeatedly in the past where a player gets a somewhat jarring demotion and then plays 30-plus minutes the next game to remind everyone how impactful they can be. Williams can smother this story by excelling in his next opportunity.
Stepping back, the bigger story here might simply be Williams struggling to increase his value given his underwhelming play lately. Williams had an opportunity to extend with the Celtics before the season but elected to chase a bigger payday.
Restricted free agency is a tricky proposition, however, and, even before his recent struggles, it was hard to pinpoint the teams that would be willing to splurge $ 15-plus million on an undersized bench big.
The good news for Williams is that there’s still plenty of opportunity ahead to reestablish his value. Williams was fantastic during Boston’s playoff run last season, from defending the likes of Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo in early rounds to his big Game 7 shooting performance against the Bucks.
Williams can remind teams why he’s worth above midlevel money. If he struggles to find his game, the danger is having to play out next year on a $ 4.3 million qualifying offer and being forced to bet on himself yet again in a much more high-pressure contract year.
For now, Williams needs to put the focus on getting back to thriving from his corner office and being an impact defender. The playing time and money will take care of itself from there.