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NBA Daily: Center Position Key to Celtics’ Fate

The Boston Celtics are walking the tight rope as they fight for their playoff position in the Eastern Conference. Brad Stevens must solve the riddle at the Center position if Boston wants to avoid being part of the Play-In Tournament.

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After a disappointing and confusing start to the season, the Boston Celtics have seemingly turned things around. Boston went 11-5 in April but is still a full game out of the coveted sixth seed in the Eastern Conference. The ultimate goal is to avoid the new Play-In Tournament. To do that, they will need to play excellent basketball in these last seven regular-season games.

It was a wild weekend of basketball for the Celtics at TD Garden. On Friday, Jayson Tatum scored a career-high 60 points to cap a 32-point comeback win over the San Antonio Spurs in overtime. Tatum joined Larry Bird as the only Celtics player to reach that scoring mark and became the first player in team history to have multiple 50-point games in a season.

Following that victory, Boston was unable to stop the Portland Trail Blazers at home. Making matters worse, both Tatum and Jaylen Brown were injured after colliding with one another with just 40 seconds remaining in the game. The good news is that it appears both of Boston’s All-Stars are going to be okay.

Boston has road trips to Orlando, Chicago, Cleveland, Minnesota and New York. Those are games they should win but their two remaining home games will be pivotal. Both are against the Miami HEAT, who sit directly ahead of them in the standings. These two games could ultimately decide which team goes to the Play-In Tournament and which one will get a much-needed week of rest before the playoffs.

Brad Stevens has proven to be one of the elite coaches in this league, but even he has found this puzzle difficult to solve. On paper, the Celtics have all of the talent needed to content for one of the top teams in the East. Stevens has had to experiment with different lineups throughout the season as they have dealt with many of their players missing time for various reasons.

While Boston’s depth chart is fairly solidified, the one spot that has plagued them most this season has been the center position. With the playoffs right around the corner, it is a riddle they are still trying to solve.

When the Celtics traded Enes Kanter before the start of the season, it opened the door for free agent Tristan Thompson to join the fray. The two-year, $19 million contract that Thompson signed seemed to solidify him as the starting center going forward. His lack of production and versatility was part of the reason why Boston struggled coming out of the gates. Daniel Theis was a much better fit around the rest of the guys on the floor.

When Boston decided that the 30-year old Thompson was not the answer, the window of opportunity opened for Robert Williams. The 23-year old is in his third season and has been highly productive with his increased minutes. When Boston traded Theis to the Chicago Bulls at the trade deadline, part of that was proof of their confidence in Williams.

Looking at Boston’s other options, none of them have the upside that Williams possesses. Grant Williams has improved slightly but has not become a difference-maker. Mo Wagner was acquired at the trade deadline but has since been cut. Luke Kornet has stuck around since the trade but adds little value. Tacko Fall provides tremendous length but little to nothing else at this stage of his development.

The trio of Tatum, Brown and Kemba Walker account for about 60 percent of Boston’s scoring this season. While these three have shouldered the load on most nights, it has been the hustle, rebounding, and rim protection that Williams provides that has been vital to their success.

The raw numbers also point to Williams as the better option for Boston against most teams.

Williams currently ranks inside the top ten in PER (Player Efficiency Rating) this season. By comparison, the only other Celtics players are Tatum in 31st and Brown in 50th. Williams also ranks inside the top ten in offensive rebounding rate and ranks third in the league in terms of true shooting percentage. One other notable ranking lists Williams 14th overall in Value Added. Thompson, meanwhile, ranks 49th in the league in that same category.

Williams and Thompson are neck-and-neck in many of these other statistical categories but Williams has the slight edge in all of them. Overall he has been much more efficient despite playing fewer minutes on average. His versatility and athleticism are valuable skillsets that Thompson simply cannot match at this stage of his career.

In a starting role, Williams has produced some impressive numbers. As a member of the starting rotation, Williams averages 10.1 points, 9.1 rebounds, 3.4 assists and two blocks per game while shooting 69 percent from the floor. Most importantly, the Celtics have a 9-1 record when Williams starts.

Williams nearly averaged a double-double in March and started April on a tear as well. He posted 20 points, 9 rebounds and 8 assists against the Houston Rockets, followed by a solid performance of 16 points and 8 rebounds versus the Charlotte Hornets. He missed a handful of games with soreness in his left knee but has since returned to the lineup.

The brief absence of Williams opened the door back up for Thompson, who has played better over the past two weeks. His movement on the floor and his production on it have improved, but his real value for Boston is his size. The Celtics will need his interior defense to match up with MVP candidate Joel Embiid in a potential playoff matchup. Williams is the better option against most teams but he has not shown the ability to slow down the Philadelphia 76ers’ star big man.

Another important attribute that Thompson brings to the table for this team is championship pedigree. Winning a title with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Thompson adds some valuable championship experience to a young team that sorely lacks it. He is the only player on Boston’s roster that has even played in the NBA Finals.

The fact is that while Williams and Thompson share some similarities, these are two vastly different players on the court. That should bode well for Stevens, as he can throw another wrinkle into the opponent’s game plan. He can also play to his strengths, which is something that is often overlooked in coaching.

While there may not be a clear and obvious choice to their center position right now, they don’t necessarily need to have one. What they have been doing is working, and appears to finally have them headed in the right direction. They are far from the top tier in the East, but then again so too are the other 11 teams.

Chad is a Basketball Insiders contributor based in Indianapolis.

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