There was a time when the Celtics had visions of unfurling perhaps the most dominant frontline in the NBA this season.
With Al Horford under contract for another year, Boston having the shiniest collection of assets to trade for Anthony Davis, and a rising star in Jayson Tatum, the possibilities seemed endless. But very little went according to plan last year, on the court or off.
In the end, Davis ended up being traded to the Lakers and Horford ended up opting out and bolting to Philadelphia, and center Aron Baynes, a defensive force, was shipped to the Suns so Boston would have the salary cap space needed to sign Kemba Walker.
Suddenly, what appeared to be a position of strength for Boston turned into a glaring area of uncertainty. President of basketball operations Danny Ainge has even openly wondered if he will need to bolster the frontcourt via trade. And for Boston, it is probably most disconcerting that perhaps the top team in the East, the 76ers, boasts a massive, star-studded frontcourt that starts with Joel Embiid and Horford.
Nevertheless, the Celtics feel like the group of big men they have cobbled together has promise. And it’s also true that there will be times when coach Brad Stevens constructs smaller, versatile five-player groupings that don’t even include anything close to a traditional center.
“That’s always a problem, when you have a big, big player on the team like Horford and he leaves, you have to question, how are we going to do it?” said French center Vincent Poirier, who was signed by the Celtics this past summer. “But I think we’re different. We don’t play the same as Horford, but we can add something more. Now it’s on us to find the good chemistry to find the best way to be as big as Horford was for the team. So, we may need some time, but we’ll find a way to have an impact on defense like he used to have. I’m pretty sure we can do good things, too.”
It was widely believed that veteran Enes Kanter would become Boston’s regular starting center. But this preseason Stevens has clearly been experimenting with a different approach.
Kanter is a powerful rebounder and a strong finisher inside. But he is a liability as a defender, and on offense he mostly operates in the paint, potentially clogging that area for Boston’s talented penetrators such as Walker, Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Gordon Hayward.
Center Daniel Theis sat out the preseason opener with an injury but started the next two games and played well in the middle. Although Theis is undersized at 6 feet 8 inches, he has the best defensive awareness among Boston’s bigs. He is also a capable 3-point shooter, helping open up drives for teammates.
“I think Daniel has the most experience of that group of guys with our group,” Ainge said. “I think he’s got a little bit of a head start, just mentally and emotionally and understanding what Brad wants. I think I can see some of the newness of the other guys.”
But there are some hulking big men lurking in the Eastern Conference, such as Embiid and the Magic’s All-Star center, Nikola Vucevic. So there will be times when Stevens will probably rely on more size.
Kanter, meanwhile, has been working most often with the second unit, where he is better suited to do what he does best: outmuscle opponents for offensive rebounds and putbacks.
“We have a lot of shooters and scorers out there, but they’re going to miss some shots,” Kanter said. “They’re not going to make 100 percent. So I think for us to get to the next level I have to give the shooters confidence to know that if they miss, I’m going to get the rebound.”
Robert Williams is Boston’s most athletic big man. He plays above the rim when blocking shots and throwing down alley-oops, but it is clear that he is still learning to play the position.
Poirier is an energetic rim runner and seems to have good court awareness, but it remains to be seen how much he will be able to contribute during his first season at the game’s highest level.
“I just think each of those bigs brings something unique to the table,” Stevens said, “so we have to create a system but also be able to adjust that with each of their individual skill sets.”
Stevens’s hope is that one of the centers will emerge and make a cloudy situation more clear. But Ainge will likely be watching the progress closely as the season goes on, as he tries to determine whether this group will suffice.
The Athletic reported on Friday that Indiana might look to trade talented young center Domantas Sabonis because contract extension talks have stalled. Sabonis would certainly upgrade Boston’s frontcourt, but if the Celtics had interest in him it would certainly cost them, with Indiana perhaps seeking a player such as Brown.
Kanter, for one, would like the chance to see how Boston’s current collection of big men stacks up.
“I’ve got confidence in our bigs,” he said. “We’re going to just go out there and not be distracted, and focus on us.”
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Williams took the next step in concussion protocol and is expected to complete a light workout on Sunday. Stevens said he is hopeful that Williams will be cleared for a full practice on Tuesday in advance of Wednesday’s season opener against the 76ers.
Stevens said Romeo Langford (knee) could be cleared to return to practice this coming week. Center Tacko Fall was hit in the head after Friday’s workout and sat out on Saturday. He is being monitored for concussion symptoms.
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The Celtics on Saturday waived forward Max Strus, clearing the way for athletic wing Javonte Green to snag the team’s final roster spot.
The team also waived Kaiser Gates and Yante Maten, who are both expected to join the Maine Red Claws as affiliate players. Since Strus had a guarantee of more than $50,000, he will be ineligible to join the Red Claws.