Chris Forsberg

In quest for an Embiid stopper, Celtics best option might be what they've got

In quest for an Embiid stopper, Celtics best option might be what they've got

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: 

MARC GASOL

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.

TAJ GIBSON

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.

TRISTAN THOMPSON

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.

STEVEN ADAMS

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.

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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.


 

Here's the key to the Celtics taking over the Eastern Conference

Here's the key to the Celtics taking over the Eastern Conference

Now 24 games into the season, the Boston Celtics are holding their own in a competitive Eastern Conference.

The C's (17-7) currently hold a fourth-place spot behind the Milwaukee Bucks, Miami Heat, and Philadelphia 76ers. The play of Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown -- along with the newfound team chemistry -- has inspired confidence in this year's squad. But what's the key to them establishing their dominance in the East?

One area the Celtics could look to improve is at the center position. Cleveland Cavaliers star Kevin Love reportedly has been connected to the C's in trade discussions, but a deal seems unlikely. So assuming the C's don't make any additions, how can they compete with the Joel Embiids and Giannis Antetokounmpos of the world?

On the latest episode of the Celtics Talk Podcast, A. Sherrod Blakely explains how Boston's success down the stretch depends on the play of its current group of big men.

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"For you to get out of the East, you have to look at the teams at the top and you're talking about Philadelphia, you're talking about Milwaukee, Toronto to an extent, Indiana," Blakely said. "You know that basically you can cobble together guys at that middle position that can hold their own against those guys. It's what can the Jaylen Browns, the Jayson Tatums, the Kemba Walkers... those are the guys that are your foundation -- Gordon Hayward. They have to carry you to success.

"If the guys at the center position can just hold their own, you don't have to be great -- you don't have to be all-world, you don't have to be able to dominate Anthony Davis anything like that, you just have to be solid and let those other guys handle their business. That can get you out of the East, but championship? I don't think so..."

Blakely, Chris Forsberg, and Abby Chin also discuss their confidence level in the Celtics this season, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown's starts to the 2019-20 campaign, and much more.

Listen to the full episode below:

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Celtics big men ignore the noise that team needs to trade for upgrade

Celtics big men ignore the noise that team needs to trade for upgrade

BOSTON — Al Horford returns to TD Garden on Thursday night and, with him, comes yet another reminder of what the Celtics now supposedly lack.

While the Celtics eased the departure of Kyrie Irving by signing Kemba Walker, Horford’s exit — combined with the team trading away Aron Baynes to clear the necessary space to sign Walker — left Boston without two of its defensive anchors. One of the primary storylines around the team since Horford’s exit has been prognosticators loudly wondering how Boston could possibly patch the defensive void left behind.

Already past the quarter pole of the 2019-20 season, these new-look Celtics rank fifth in the NBA with a defensive rating of 103.3. They sit a fraction of a point behind third-ranked Philadelphia (and their Horford-infused defense) and Boston’s ragtag group has more than held its own.

Still, despite all of Boston’s early season success, many talking heads continue to insist that the Celtics need an upgrade at the big-man position to truly contend in the East.

This sort of declaration is met with shoulder shrugs from the players who currently hold down the fort in Boston’s frontcourt. This past summer, the Celtics re-signed Daniel Theis and picked up both veteran Enes Kanter and French rookie Vincent Poirier. Boston used a 2019 first-round pick to nab Grant Williams with hopes that he could play as an undersized big and Boston is banking on a second-year leap from 2018 first-round pick Robert Williams.

Every one of Boston’s bigs brings something different to the table. Conversely, they all have a notable deficiency. Kanter has heard all about his defense; Theis can get overpowered by beefy bigs; Robert Williams knows he needs to play with more consistency; and Grant Williams is shorter than some of Boston’s primary perimeter players.

But Boston’s bigs just smile when asked if the perpetual scuttlebutt about the Celtics needing a frontcourt upgrade bothers them.

"I don’t listen to it,” said Theis, a German import now in his third season with the Celtics. Boston’s defensive rating is a rock solid 98.9 when Theis is on the court and, among players averaging at least 15 minutes per game with 10 appearances, Theis ranks 16th overall in the NBA in defensive rating.

"We have so many bigs and it’s whoever plays good that night,” said Theis. "You don’t guard the best bigs with one person. It’s a team effort. We’re [the third best team] in the East and we’re playing really good basketball as a team. So, no, I don’t listen to that.”

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Kanter said he bravely dives into his social media mentions after games and sees all the burns about his defense. He is unfazed and has embraced trying to positively impact both sides of the court.

“I don’t ever take [the criticism] personally,” said Kanter. “We’re just going to go out there, our big-man unit, and show that we can do it.

“Now, it’s my ninth-year in the league, man. I used to take [the criticism] really really serious and let it get to my head. Now, I look at the comments and I’m like, ‘Yeah, right, OK.’” 

The Celtics own a defensive rating of 100.8 when Kanter is on the court. The number actually spikes 1.1 points when he’s on the bench. The NBA’s tracking data has Kanter holding opponents to 52 percent shooting, or 4.9 percent higher than those players' typical averages, but much of that has been Kanter getting burned by 3-point shooters on the perimeter.

Kanter is never going to be an elite defender, but he praises coach Brad Stevens and the coaching staff for putting him in position to be successful. Kanter takes great pride, too, in the way he held up while starting opposite Embiid on opening night. Embiid scored 8 points on 3-of-7 shooting during 6 minutes of matchup time. 

Thursday night will hopefully give us a better look at whether Kanter can truly engage in hand-to-hand combat with Embiid.

It’s another big week for Theis, too. He’s clung to the team's starting center spot since the second game of the year. The scouting report screams that he can’t hang with strong bigs like Embiid but, good night or bad, Theis can’t wait to try.

Nikola Jokic gouged Theis for 16 points on 8-of-16 shooting in two matchups this season, according to the NBA’s defensive tracking data. Tristan Thompson got Theis for 10 points on 4-of-7 shooting, while Antetokounmpo had nine points on 4-of-5 shooting. Stevens has turned to Kanter, when healthy, to add some heft, or Robert Williams with hopes of countering size with athleticism. But Theis, now further removed from the meniscus tear that ended his 2017-18 season, looks springier than ever and his 3-point shot is ramping up again.

Maybe more importantly, Theis hasn’t pouted when Stevens gives him an early hook and he’s embraced the notion that defending elite bigs isn’t a one-man job.

“It’s a challenge but it’s also a team effort because those guys, especially someone like Embiid, it’s hard to guard them 1-on-1 for 35 or 38 minutes,” said Theis. "He gets his shots, he’s fierce, he’s big. It’s hard to guard him 1-on-1 during the game, so it’s a team effort.“

“That first game, Kanter did well. He tried to wear him out, try to get him tired. I take it as a challenge against him. With Jokic, and [Indiana’s Domantas] Sabonis, and Joel — it’s fun.”

The Celtics will keep their antennas up as trade season arrives on December 15 but, because of their lack of tradable salaries (as detailed in this week’s Celtics Mailbag), it feels like it’s going to be hard to make a move that isn’t an overpay for what might ultimately be a marginal upgrade. Maybe the buyout market could present an intriguing body, but there’s a lot of basketball before that point.

Grant Williams has earned Stevens’ trust with his smarts and an ability to make the right play more often than not. But he’s still a rookie and one who hasn’t made a lot of shots. Robert Williams oozes athleticism and raw potential but for every loud lob he throws down or volleyball block he uncorks, there’s a defensive lapse or a head-slapping turnover.

Robert Williams has one notable supporter in his corner: Horford. The two shared a moment after the season-opener in Philadelphia with Horford offering a vote of confidence about Williams’ potential in this league. Robert Williams said he’s eager to model parts of his game after Horford, who he tried to absorb from before the roster maneuvering began this past summer.

Stevens doesn’t have the luxury of a Horford or Baynes to clog up the back line any more. But his team isn’t struggling because of it. Games like Thursday might help determine if it’s sustainable.

Yes, it's another chance for Boston’s new group of bigs to show that this team doesn’t need an upgrade as badly as some seem to think they do.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-76ers, which tips off Thursday at 7 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Mike & Tommy have the call at 8 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.