When the Boston Celtics signed Enes Katner for the midlevel exception over the summer, the assumption was that he would be replacing Al Horford as the team’s starting big man. However, head coach Brad Stevens’s recent comments suggest that the team could be more comfortable bringing Kanter in off the bench. It might end up being the best way to utilize Kanter’s considerable skills, but it leads to an obvious follow-up question: if they go that route, which of the team’s big men will end up getting the starting nods at center?
Let’s start with the idea of the Celtics utilizing Kanter in more of a sixth man role. The veteran big man out of Turkey is a potent offensive threat, a fantastic rebounder capable of scorching hot scoring streaks, but the book has long been out on his defense. He simply lacks the skills to reliably stop opponents on the other side of the court and that’s not something that the Celtics can expect him to improve upon at this point in his career. He’s a known quantity.
If Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward and Jaylen Brown are all part of the starting lineup, a safe bet at this moment, Boston should have plenty of offensive firepower coming out of the gate. It’s hard to see how they could get Kanter the touches he would need to be effective by running him out there with that group of players. Putting out a more defensive minded player among the starters would make sense for the team and it would give Kanter a featured role on offense that he otherwise wouldn’t have. It’s quite possible he would instantly become their best scorer off the bench, the role they attempted to use Hayward in last season.
In this scenario, who would head coach Brad Stevens pencil in as their starting center? The good news is that Boston has plenty of candidates, but the bad news is that there isn’t an easy answer among them. In a perfect world, an NBA without a hard salary cap, they wouldn’t have had to trade Aron Baynes to the Phoenix Suns to free up the space to sign Walker as a free agent. Alas, that ship has sailed.
Daniel Theis, who they re-signed over the summer, could be the answer by default. Theis, however, is something of a low-ceiling player, and there’s a chance that the Celtics might want to see what they have from some of their younger guys. It seems notable that the team game Robert Williams the starting nod in the team’s first preseason game, where he showed flashes of his obvious talent but also showed signs that he was still a work-in-progress. One wonders if things would have been different had he gotten a chance to get more minutes at the NBA level last season.
France’s Vincent Poirier could also be in the mix. Poirier has plenty of EuroLeague experience, so he’s in that weird position where he’s an established professional but one who hasn’t played a regular season NBA game yet. This makes it doubtful that he will be handed a starting gig right out of the gate, although it wouldn’t be shocking to see him play a greater role with the team once he gets acclimated.
During the offseason, there was some discussion of power forward Grant Williams playing the role of a smallball center but expecting the 20-year-old to play as a starting center right out of the gate is probably a non-starter. If they were going to go small at the five, the Celtics would be more inclined to play third-year player Semi Ojeleye (especially if they’re playing the Milwaukee Bucks). If Tacko Fall makes the roster, still not a guaranteed thing, it would be as the 15th man and he would likely be spending most of his time learning the ropes with the Maine Red Claws.
Going through the Celtics’ options, it becomes clear that there’s not an ideal situation when it comes to the starting center position. It’s possible that Stevens could end up just mixing-and-matching based on who Boston is playing until he gets a better feel on who plays the best with the other starters. It might not even end up mattering who happens to get the starting nod because they may not end up playing the most minutes of the available big men. (Heck, that could still end up being Kanter, defensive deficiencies and all.)
Unlike last season, where it looked like the Celtics had everything figured out, the 2018-19 Celtics are going to be an experiment. The truth is that no one player was ever going to replace what Horford brought the team night-in and night-out over the past three seasons. The team always knew it would take multiple players to fill that hole, which is why they brought in so many big men over the offseason in the first place. Now Stevens and company will just have to figure out how the various pieces will fit together.