The strengths and weaknesses of the Celtics' centers

One of the most interesting, yet annoying things to me this season has been Brad Stevens’ rotations. I mean talk about inconsistency, Brad has been all over the place with how he is substituting players. Some days he’ll play 13 players in a game, or he won’t play someone (Jeff Teague) for three games and all of a sudden he’ll throw him in at the end of the game when the team needs a late push or other weird stuff like that. The players haven’t been making it easy on him though considering that the bench players took a while to start gaining separation from each other. I do feel like recently we’ve gotten a better idea of who the regular bench guys are: Robert Williams, Pritchard, Nesmith, Ojeleye and either Thompson or Theis when Marcus gets back. As the guy who started the “Grant Williams is untradeable” narrative, it sucks to admit that it looks like Brad is moving away from playing him every night.

The hardest thing about managing this roster has been balancing the minutes between the three centers. They are all pretty different in their own ways, so Brad has been able to make substitutions based on the situation. I’ll give Brad credit because it seems like he’s figured out a way to rotate them in a way where they are able to make an impact on the game. He’s gotten a lot of shit for running the double big lineup so frequently in the beginning of the year, but now it seems like it is working more now that Theis and Thompson have been gaining chemistry. The double big lineup with Kemba/Jaylen/Tatum/Theis/Thompson has a net rating of +7.1 so far.

I think the three centers have all been pretty productive this year in their own ways. Clearly they haven’t been productive enough to give us more wins, but they've had their moments like last night where they all played well. Now the unfortunate truth is that if the Celtics want to make a move before the TPE deadline, it’s likely that they might have to move away from one of the three centers. They each have their different strengths and weaknesses, so it's tough to assess which one brings the most value to the team.

Tristan Thompson
Strengths: Rebounding, IQ, leadership

I’ve definitely had my fair share of criticism toward Tristan Thompson this season, but I honestly I didn’t take into account how difficult it must’ve been to transition to a new system without any practice or preseason games. He has still been overall inconsistent production wise, but if one thing is for sure it’s that he is always grinding in the paint. He battles for the boards on both ends, averaging 8.2 rebounds a game, 3 of them being offensive rebounds a game. His paint battles will also result in the other team hitting the ball out of bounds or him being able to pop the ball up to another Celtic. His effort on the boards on a nightly basis is his most valuable quality, but he is also decent offensively. He is great at knowing when to set picks and executing the pick and roll, he knows how to keep the ball moving and he is fairly reliable at making his little 3-5 foot shots. He may not be as athletic as he used to be before, but his ability to understand how the offense works gives him playing time. I hope to see more of this in the future:

Biggest Weakness: Defense

The reason why TT has been in and out of the starting lineup so much this year has been because he just hasn’t been that great of a defender. His team defense is fine, but he has been getting dominated by other teams centers. It’s one thing for Embiid to score 24 points and go perfect from the field and for Jokic to score 21 on 9-11 from the field on Thompson alone, but then Clint Capela comes to town and scores 13 points on 6-6 from the field against Thompson in the two game mini-series. Obviously they are all great centers, but Thompson isn’t showing much resistance against them on the defensive end. He doesn’t provide great rim protection in general either, only averaging .4 blocks a game this season. This is where Theis and Timelord have him beat. For the Celtics to get better as a team defensively, it’s important to have a solid defensive center. Thompson is already kind of one-dimensional, so he needs to make more of an impact on the defensive end if he wants to keep his job.

Daniel Theis
Strengths: Spacing the floor, on-ball defense, versatility

Theis is probably the best all-around player out of the three centers. He brings the most valuable strength to this Celtics team out of the three: being able to space the floor. In a Brad Stevens offense, it’s important to be able to have a center who can take jump shots. His ability to be able to shoot the ball allows him to sit in the corner if someone who needs a lot of space (like Kemba) wants to drive the ball. Then if nothing is there, kicking it to Theis for a likely open three is a viable option, considering that ⅓ of his shots are three point attempts and he shoots a healthy 39% from that range. Theis is also a great cutter off-ball so if he finds himself open on the baseline or from the elbow, the team is comfortable with him taking a shot from that range as well. His improvement shooting the ball so far has allowed him to play the four. On top of his great offense, Theis is a consistent shot blocker averaging 1.1 blocks a game. We saw it last year in the playoffs, but he is able to keep up with a lot of different players on defense and his great on-ball defense leads to a great contest or a block.

Biggest Weakness: Size

Despite his improvements in almost every category from his rookie season to now, one thing that won’t change is the fact that he is 6’8 and plays center. It is a lengthy 6’8, but still he gets outbodied from the bigger centers. That’s just how it’s going to be, because he is still able to be successful against bigger centers at times too, but for the most part he will always be at a disadvantage going against them. Going against bigger centers could be the biggest reason why he commits so many fouls. Teams are able to succeed with undersized centers, it just depends if that’s the type of team Ainge and Stevens wants; are they okay with a skilled center who is undersized? Luckily, he has been doing well at playing the four, but I don’t know if Daniel Theis playing the four is exactly what the Celtics have envisioned for their future. Regardless, Theis has been a good center even though he is 6’8, but it’s still a possible liability if he doesn’t continue to play well.

Robert Williams
Strengths: Rim protection, athleticism, length

Timelord is one of the most electric players to watch if I’m being honest. It’s like every time he is in the game he does something that makes him stand out. It’s usually a ridiculous block or dunk, but he is capable of being a legitimate piece of this team. He has a crazy sense for swatting shots, whether he is playing on-ball defense, chasing someone down or coming in from a slide, he’s a nightmare for the opposing team. He’s such a superior shot blocker that the Celtics are able to run a hybrid defense where Rob Williams runs the middle purley for rim protection. Even when he isn’t blocking shots, his 7’6 wingspan makes it hard for players to get shots over him. Rob Will gets the least amount of minutes out of the three centers, but his per 36 stats give a good representation of his efficiency: 15.7/12.7/1/7/2.6/3. He usually makes the most of his minutes and his flashiness makes him a fan favorite. He has improved in a lot of ways, but I think this year he has gotten pretty good at spacing the floor. He has developed a mid-range shot while he is also a sneaky good passer. He has definitely earned his minutes this year and his efficiency leaves people asking why he isn’t playing more.

Biggest Weakness: Experience

Now this is more of a short term weakness, but right now it is a legitimate reason why he might not play as much as the other two centers. TT has obviously been in the league for a while and Theis has been a regular rotation piece for the Celtics for about three years now. Rob Will got some great experience in the playoffs last year, but he hasn’t played more than 32 games in a regular season yet due to past injuries. He still has a lot to learn about being a regular rotation piece. He still needs to know what it feels like to make it through the majority of the season to the playoffs, in terms of taking care of his body and health. If he wants to make it to the next step and possibly be the starting center, then he needs more experience against the elite bigs like Embiid, Giannis and Sabonis. Rob Will also hasn’t really had the time to try and develop his offensive post game or creating his own shots in the paint. He’s only 23 so he still has a lot of time to develop, and now he is finally getting consistent minutes. He will continue to improve in multiple aspects of his game, but for now I don’t know if he is quite ready for that next step, yet. It's also fair to mention that Timelord is a little undersized as well as Theis, but his long arms don't make it as bad.

There really wasn’t that much of a point for writing this post, I kinda just wanted to compare the three centers. I think they all bring unique value to the team, but that doesn’t mean that we are necessarily strong at the center position, we're just deep. We’ll see what happens with these three as the rotation begins to figure itself out and the TPE deadline approaches.

Thompson stats
Thompson matchup stats
Theis stats
Timelord stats