Celtics

The next crucial step for Rob Williams in 2021: More opportunity

(Ashley Landis/Getty Images)

The 2019-20 NBA season lasted nearly an entire calendar year for the Celtics and other teams making deep playoff runs, which created the opportunity for a considerable amount of in-season growth for both teams and players. The Heat and Lakers made the most of those opportunities in their trips to the NBA Finals with one look down their roster. Tyler Herro clearly took his game to a different level in the NBA bubble from the start of his rookie year, while trade additions like Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala were better able to acclimate to the Heat’s scheme with a full training camp. The same goes for the Lakers after they added a free agent forward Markieff Morris back in February who has turned into a vital contributor this postseason (10.5 ppg vs. Miami).

With the Celtics standing pat at the trade deadline and the buyout market, they didn’t have the benefit of better integrating any roster upgrades, a valid second guess of the front office. However, there was still plenty of growth internally during the calendar year, beyond just big names like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

If you look further down the bench, a meaningful leap was made by Robert Williams in Orlando, especially considering he started the seeding games out of Brad Stevens’ rotation.

His 84.6 percent shooting from the field in six seeding game appearances proved to be far from a flash in the pan as he ended up leading all postseason players with 74% FG (minimum: 20 FGA) during his 11 playoff appearances. His defensive weaknesses were on display against teams full of crafty pick-and-roll ballhandlers and 3-point shooters yet Williams still provided enough offensive upside to outweigh those weaknesses most nights in his limited minutes, particularly against the Raptors when strong efforts in Games 1, 2 and 7 gave the C’s a needed boost in all of those wins.

Despite that encouraging consistency, Williams faded from the rotation as the postseason continued. After a rough defensive outing against the Heat in Game 1, he played a total of just 15 minutes over two games during the remainder of the series, despite being a +13 in those appearances.

Enes Kanter got the call over him later in the series, but a strong offensive outing by the veteran big man in Game 5 did not translate to Game 6.  On a night the C’s were getting exposed defensively, the big man added to the problems. Kanter didn't finish efficiently and was a huge liability defensively in the first half (-11 in 7 minutes) contributing to the worst defensive outing of the postseason for the C’s. In contrast, Williams (+2) played just four minutes at the end of the first half when Daniel Theis was in foul trouble. He did not appear in the second half.

Stevens had done a nice job staying away from Kanter in the postseason after his main use was completed as a big body to battle against Joel Embiid in the first round. However, Stevens’ tendency to trust veterans over his young guys came back to bite with Kanter and Semi Ojeleye getting runs they didn’t necessarily deserve in the Heat series at times over the likes of Grant Williams and Rob Williams.

Rob Williams especially provided everything that Kanter did offensively during his time in the bubble, except at a more efficient rate. He shot 74 percent from the field (Kanter was 52 percent) and the second-year center ranked second in the NBA postseason in offensive rebounding rate (10 games minimum) right behind Kanter.

As the Celtics look forward now, it’s hard to justify Rob Williams not getting regular run on the bench over Kanter on a nightly basis if he’s putting up those kinds of offensive numbers since he's a better defender than Kanter by default. A lack of opportunity for both Williams on the roster this past season is something that Danny Ainge pointed to in his postseason evaluation of the C’s.

“I feel like there’s a lot that we don’t know about our team just because the opportunities haven’t come for so many of our players that are on our bench,” Ainge said. “We saw Grant finish up pretty strong with a few short minute opportunities. Robert had a good finish to the season. Enes gave us a big boost many times throughout the year. Daniel Theis had a terrific year. I think there’s a lot we learned about each of the individuals and about our team collectively. I think that we learned that we’re not good enough.”

Theis (probably) isn’t going anywhere since he’s a great value contract at $5 million and offers Stevens more defensive and perimeter flexibility than any other big on the roster. However, when looking at the C’s bench rotation, having R. Williams, Kanter and Vincent Poirier all taking up roster spots behind Theis feels redundant, especially when Grant Williams is capable of playing center as well. One big (less expensive body) taking the place of Kanter and/or Poirier might be the answer on that front, allowing the C’s to free up some payroll and roster space.

There are some appealing center upgrades on the trade market but with the C’s having so much