Should Robert Williams be back in the Celtics’ starting lineup?

“If we’re rolling with something, I feel like we’re supposed to keep rolling with it.”

Robert Williams is set to return to the Celtics lineup on Friday.

For most of the Celtics’ season to date, the only real drama was when Robert Williams would return to the court.

The Celtics shed the questions about Ime Udoka’s departure almost instantly, deep-frying the NBA over the first 22 games en route to an 18-4 record, leaving very little to criticize. After losing five of six games, the Celtics righted the ship again with three straight victories, including an impressive, high-profile win over the Bucks on Christmas. Jayson Tatum is playing at an MVP level. Jaylen Brown has been so good, he almost hurts Tatum’s MVP case. Marcus Smart is better than he’s ever been, particularly on the offensive end. Al Horford is shooting so well from deep, he could be a co-host on J.J. Redick’s “The Old Man and the Three” podcast. 


Now Williams is back after recovering from a procedure on his surgically repaired knee shortly before the regular season began. The Celtics achieved all of their success so far despite just 192 possessions of meaningful basketball by the center who was part of the best starting lineup in the NBA last season. Williams, Horford, Smart, Brown and Tatum outscored opponents by 24.3 points per 100 possessions last year, per Cleaning the Glass. Swap Horford for Grant Williams, and that number ballooned to an eye-popping 33.3. 

So Williams’s return to the starting lineup is a matter of “when” rather than “if” … right?

“Um, are we going to do that?” Joe Mazzulla answered, when a reporter asked him when Williams might start again on Tuesday. “I just think it depends on what’s best for our team at the time.”

So do we have our first moment of true controversy since Udoka was suspended? 

Not exactly. 

“[Mazzulla] talked to me about it before I came back, which was expected,” Williams said after Tuesday’s game, when asked about coming off the bench. “I’m a team player. If we’re rolling with something, I feel like we’re supposed to keep rolling with it.”


Even if that means coming off the bench?

“If we’re winning,” Williams said. “If we win, whatever it takes, however we’ve got to do it.”

To Williams’s point (and Mazzulla’s), the Celtics are doing plenty of winning. Their 25-10 record is the best in the league, as is their net rating of +7.9 (with garbage time filtered out). Their offense is scoring an NBA-best 118.9 points per 100 possessions, while their defense – which slipped from last year’s lofty numbers – is back up to seventh, allowing 111 points per 100 possessions. 

Williams, meanwhile, is yet to fully look like his best self. He isn’t always in the right place, particularly on the defensive end, and he’s biting on pump fakes again, which was always one of his worst habits (and helps explain why he is averaging 3.5 fouls per 36 minutes after getting down to 2.7 last year). 

But even as he works his way back to form, Williams is still really good. In his 192 possessions, the Celtics have outscored opponents by 9.1 points, which makes him +1.2 as compared to the team’s overall net rating. On Tuesday, shortly after Mazzulla told reporters that Williams might continue to come off the bench, he grabbed 15 rebounds in 21 minutes, becoming the first Celtic to accomplish that feat since Paul Silas in 1971. As Williams gets healthier, his defensive presence will ramp up, and he adds insightful passing and an explosive element to the Celtics’ offense that no one else on the roster can offer. 


In simpler terms, the Celtics are very good with Williams on the floor, and they are likely to improve significantly as he does.

So why would the Celtics keep a potential All-Star on the bench?

A few reasons. First (and easiest): Why rock the boat?

“We’ve fluctuated the starting lineup a little bit throughout the year, which I think has given us some flexibility,” Mazzulla said Tuesday. “But we’ve found consistency in what we have now. It’s just a matter of, if it makes sense we’ll [switch it up]. If it doesn’t, we won’t.”

When Williams returned, the Celtics had the league’s best record and net rating. They remain in first with the league’s best net rating. Whatever balance they have found is worth keeping. 

Second: The current starting lineup is playing nearly as well as last year’s double-big group. With Derrick White in place of Williams, the Celtics are outscoring opponents by more than 20 points per 100 possessions. White is struggling mightily from 3-point range (17.6 percent over his last 10 games), but he has the best on/off numbers on the team – his lineups are 8.7 points per 100 possessions better than the Celtics’ already lofty baseline. While White struggles to re-discover his shot, he still gives the Celtics additional ball-handling and speedy defensive versatility. 

The ball-handling is particularly important, since White helps limit turnovers and push the pace without taking possessions and shots away from the Celtics’ stars. Lineups with White and Tatum (+12.7) and White and Brown (+14.0) are both excellent. White makes the stars better, and perhaps the biggest lesson the Celtics have learned over the last two years is that their best formula for winning involves accentuating the skills of their stars.


Of course, Williams also accentuates Brown and Tatum. He can close games and play big minutes without starting, and as Mazzulla pointed out, the Celtics can always switch things up based on what’s best for the team at that time. They could try swapping Williams in for Horford, if they want White to continue starting. They could try both Grant and Robert Williams together. 

But there’s no reason to push their luck at this stage. As long as the Celtics keep winning, and Williams is fine coming off the bench (his easy-going nature suggests he will be), Mazzulla can’t lose following either path.

Being the best team in the NBA really tamps down the drama. 


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