Resetting the big men: Is it time to reconsider starting Robert Williams?

Robert Williams swatting a shot into the ninth row | Photo courtesy of The Boston Globe

The Boston Celtics have started three different players at center this season. After starting in the season opener, Enes Kanter has not played since. The Celtics seem to be taking an extremely cautious approach with his knee. And what’s the rush when you’re 7-0 without him?
Daniel Theis guarding Demar DeRozan | Photo: Darren Abate/AP

Daniel Theis has been the starter in Kanter’s absence, aside from the one game Theis missed with injury. He has done a serviceable job. I’d actually say I’ve been pleasantly surprised with him. Although his three-point shot has not fallen yet (22.2%), Theis does not hurt you. In fact, his knowledge of the team-defense concept has allowed him to contribute with 3.8 blocks per 36 minutes. He also has the second best defensive rating on the team for Celtics players that have played in over 100 minutes this season.

The player on the team first in blocks per 36 minutes (3.9) and defensive rating per 100 possessions (90) is, yes, Robert Williams. Williams has gotten the only other start at center for the Celtics this season. In a reserve role, Saturday night’s game against the San Antonio Spurs may have been Timelord’s best career game. Over 22 minutes, he had a career-high 11 points and six blocks, while also chipping in seven rebounds. He flashed elite athleticism and did things like this:

It’s not all flash for Williams, though. He has played really well against the best big men the Celtics have faced this year. Timelord has guarded the likes of Tristan Thompson, LaMarcus Aldridge, Jakob Poeltl, Bismack Biyombo, Marc Gasol, Bobby Portis, Al Horford and Brook Lopez for a total of just over 18 minutes of court time (or parts of almost 80 possessions). Those eight players are a combined 1-10 shooting for four points when Williams is guarding them. Biyombo is the only player to earn a basket, while Horford knocked down a couple free throws after getting fouled by Williams.

The best offensive player of the bunch is Aldridge, who didn’t even get a shot off against Williams. Aldridge also committed a turnover in Williams’ 2:46 minutes (11.7 partial possessions) guarding him.

Of the players that Williams has guarded for seven or more partial possessions (9 players) in a game, the only player that has gotten the better of Timelord is Mitchell Robinson. Robinson went 3-3 for six points while being guarded by Williams for 2:40 minutes (11.2 partial possessions).

At the beginning of the season, Brad Stevens made us believe that he would start his centers based on match-ups. I still think that's going to be the case. I’m not convinced that Kanter would have been the starting center throughout the season even though he got the nod in game one. Kanter has played well against Joel Embiid throughout his career and had the most size and experience to get the opportunity against the Philadelphia 76ers. I trust(ed) Brad.
Enes Kanter going for the ball over Joel Embiid | Photo: Chris Szagola/AP

Kanter comes to the Celtics with a pretty clear reputation of being a good scoring big and one of the more elite offensive rebounders in the league. He is not known for his defense, though, as he has trouble moving his feel at times.

Daniel Theis was seemingly going to get reserve minutes. His biggest asset is that he can step away from the basket and knock down the three (38.8% last year) and stretch the defense. It always made sense that Brad was going to give Theis a shot due to his understanding of what the team is trying to do on defense, which is why we haven’t seen much of Vincent Poirier yet. Poirier is a little behind on what the Celtics are trying to accomplish. Theis is a little small to bang down low with the biggest of the league's centers, but with his steady play, he should remain a key part of what the Celtics big man rotation.

For Williams to get spot-starts and earn significant minutes, he needs to play the way he did on Saturday more consistently. Kanter and Theis do really good things, but they don’t do things that Williams can. Williams plays above the rim and can go get those lobs on the offensive end that the Celtics are connecting on. And although Theis is blocking shots at a high rate, Williams is an elite shot blocker.

There are 48 minutes to be played at the center position in a game. If Brad is using the aforementioned three players to split those minutes, someone is likely going to get squeezed a bit. Simply math says that it would be 16 minutes a piece, but you normally want to get in rhythm with one guy. So, if one guy is going to play 24-26 minutes, that means that one or two of the others are going to be playing less.

It is not a bad position to be in for Stevens. The more players that play well, the harder decisions you’ll be left with. On the other hand, the old adage says, if you have three centers, do you really have one?

You can follow me on Twitter @Mike_Auc.