The Celtics knew what they had in Daniel Theis.
As lukewarm as that compliment might be to the veteran big man — and as uneven as his return to Boston progressed through his NBA Finals bench — Theis has built so many relationships with key Celtics members over nearly five seasons. that his presence brought some comfort behind Al Horford and Robert Williams III. It wouldn’t be surprising if he once again found himself with the team before his career was over.
However, Theis’ $8.7 million salary became a necessary part of Malcolm Brogdon’s trade, leaving the Celtics without a backup center who logged significant NBA service time on green. It’s a potentially glaring hole in a roster now full of stalwarts and one that would be disappointing to see cost a team with legitimate championship aspirations.
Several options exist to fill it, but Boston has been making slow progress in filling its bottom three spots on the roster as they seek that reliability and comfort, some of which they already see on the roster. The expiration of the $17.1 million trade exception has already closed a way to fix it.
Horford and Williams III staggered minutes at 5 last season and spelled each other’s minutes. The desire to reduce Horford’s workload and Williams III’s perennial injury problems made Theis’ presence all the more important. The burden Horford carried when Williams III tore his meniscus and the long postseason streak that followed created an even heavier burden for Horford to rest this season. As things stand, it might be hard to play it down if Williams III gets injured. While Danilo Gallinari and Grant Williams are focused on providing Horford insurance at the 4, only Luke Kornet plans to make one-off appearances exclusively at center.
Brad Stevens and Ime Udoka have both affirmed the Celtics’ intention to bring another big man into the fold during the Summer League. It’s unclear if Mfiondu Kabengele counts after signing a two-way contract last week.
Stevens and Udoka praised Kornet’s abilities, while previewing smaller lineups and the possibility of a bigger wing in Gallinari spending time inside as well. Grant played center as a rookie and consistently guards the bigs, so there’s potential for the Celtics to creatively make up for the loss of Theis. It’s looking increasingly likely that’s the path they’ll take in free agency, but there are still options out there.
“We will continue to look at what adds to our team,” Stevens said. CelticsBlog earlier this month. “I think at the end of the day, although we started most of last year with Al and Rob, we often played one of them. I think, as I said earlier, that we’re better prepared to play “smaller” than we were just because of the size of (Brogdon and Gallinari) sitting next to us. You’ve got a lot of different options there. We’re very tall on Luke we’ve been really high on Luke we thought he had an awesome G-League season and think he can step up and be a passer and a ball handler and a mover and a screen and a roller when we have to… we really believe in Luke, not just deep down, obviously filling the roster, but also being willing to help us out and help us win. I think he’s at that point where he can We’re still looking, and we’ll add at least one more body to what we call position five these days.
Dwight Howard, Demarcus Cousins, Montrezl Harrell, LaMarcus Aldridge and Tristan Thompson headline the remaining centers available to sign. They’re an uninspiring, aging group largely in decline that didn’t help their teams much a year ago.
Their availability also underlines the decline in demand for depth centers. Some teams moved to small ball later in games and used an increasingly versatile talent pool in the league to play in multiple positions. Think of the Cavaliers — who start three players with center size and have always found cheap backup in Robin Lopez, or the Warriors’ use of Draymond Green and Kevon Looney.
The timing made Boston particularly thin, as they traded Theis after the flurry of free agency signings like Lopez or Andre Drummond. The traditional backup 5 like Theis, who himself could play all four more skillfully than the players listed above, brought a tight set of skills that become less tangible as the playoffs progress. Drummond was taken out of the first round of the playoffs.
What the Celtics need, barring an emergency, is a sleeve eater. Someone who, along with an increasingly interchangeable rotation, can maintain Boston’s defensive stature and provide a solid 10-15 minutes in the middle of regular-season games.
This will require more minutes and stability from Williams III and generally consistent availability from Horford. It’s a gamble, but underplayed by Boston’s ability to play two or even three guards alongside Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, as long as a center is available. If Williams III can log more than 35 minutes, part of Udoka’s focus on growing internally, alongside guards and forwards while Horford sits, that leaves a small difference on the inside.
Kornet won’t inspire much confidence over Williams III, Horford, or even the average big beginner. He only has to be compared to Theis, who was not at his best, averaging 7.9 points, 4.7 rebounds and 0.7 blocks per game on 59.8% shooting (10 /28 3PT) last season at Boston. Kornet posted 4.4 PPG, 2.9 RPG and 1.4 BPG on 47.3% shooting during his time with the Celtics in 2021, while averaging 14 minutes during his on-site appearances. He has made progress in ten Maine appearances this year, shooting 50.6 percent from the field, 31.4 percent from three with 11.9 PPG, 7.6 PPG, 3.9 APG and 2.6 BPG. That production should translate into respectable backup production if Boston loses a near-term center.
“We talked about adding another big one,” Udoka told Summer League. “With nights where Al being a bit older could take a night off or Rob having another possible starter. We obviously have Luke Kornet, who has also grown throughout the season, some of the young guys you’ve seen.
Kornet and even Kabengele could occasionally come on as a substitute and not play in the playoffs at all. He regularly receives DNP-CDs. Given the Celtics’ unconventional starting lineup, which Udoka said will likely stay the same, Kornet’s role could become unnecessary, especially where Boston has built one of the most interchangeable rosters in the league. It’s part, as Stevens noted, of the evolution of the league beyond positions.
Size matters if the label center not though. While Grant can get past crosses and Gallinari may be able to play drop defense inside at 6’10”, neither provide deep experience as a the biggest man down, guarding inside, bouncing at a high pace, or keeping big enemies out of the glass. The attributes you are always looking for in centers.
Basketball Reference credited Gallinari with playing 36% of his 2021 minutes at centre, then 24% in 2022 after never having played at centre. Grant has played 6% of his time indoors as a rookie, 7% in 2021, then 3% this year, dropping to an almost exclusive 4 minutes under Udoka. Gallinari’s inside role has coincided with porous Atlanta defenses, and he’s only averaged 4.4 RPGs and 0.2 BPGs over the past two years, while allowing 48.8% to shoot on goals. opponents in 2022. Williams has slimmed down to a more peripheral role in 2021-22 and has proven better as a wanderer than an inside bruiser.
“My position will save 4, but whatever needs to be done, I will,” Gallinari said on CLNS Media Podcast A-List. “I can play in different positions, I’ve never played 5, but if it’s something that needs to be played, I’ll play. No problem. Whatever needs to be done.
Versatile rim protection was also key to the system that made Boston the best defense in the league. Horford thrived in a drop scheme while Williams III’s move away from weaker perimeter threats away from big man assignments proved borderline revolutionary. Udoka’s instincts will lean towards playing with size, and while Kornet mimics some of those attributes defensively, he’ll need to land shots in the pick-and-pop and smash the glass to make an impact offensively.
If there is an emergency where the Celtics lose several big men, they may need to take a free agent flyer or use their $5.9 million or $6.9 million trade exceptions — which expire around the trade deadline. Khem Birch, Jaxson Hayes, PJ Washington, JaVale McGee, Goga Bitadze and Boban Marjanovic headline some names that fit the smaller TPEs and could possibly become available later if circumstances deteriorate.
That’s probably the Celtics’ bet – don’t force a roster addition that isn’t needed now, trust the depth and versatility of the roster to figure out those minutes and buy later cheaply. They can add up to six more players until the end of training camp. Kornet’s new contract is guaranteed for $300,000 on August 15, with larger guarantees taking effect on opening night.