The Celtics have stressed that their unusual depth should separate them from most opponents this season. When key players have been sidelined, secondary options have stepped in and looked more like primary ones.
But now the Celtics are mostly whole. Aside from forward Danilo Gallinari, who continues to work his way back from an ACL tear, coach Joe Mazzulla has his full allotment of players to choose from.
It’s a good problem to have, of course. But it’s inevitably going to leave some itching for a larger role. Point guard Payton Pritchard, a key bench piece over the last few seasons, has fallen completely out of the rotation. And in Wednesday’s win against the Cavaliers, he was joined on the bench by Grant Williams, who had not missed a game he was available to play in since May 2021.
Mazzulla instead went with big man Mike Muscala in Williams’s usual slot, with Sam Hauser getting minutes at forward. The Celtics acquired Muscala at the trade deadline last month. He sat out the first two games after the All-Star break, but Mazzulla praised the offense’s flow and spacing when Muscala was on the floor during Monday’s loss to the Knicks, and on Wednesday he received another chance.
When Mazzulla was asked about the decision to bench Williams, he said it was mostly specific to this game against Cleveland.
“Just matchups on the offensive end, as far as spacing the floor and having rim protection,” Mazzulla said. “And so when Mike was in, we were able to play a different defensive lineup. Didn’t want to switch these guys as much in that second unit.”
In most cases, Williams should be just as effective at spacing the floor as Muscala. But he has struggled from beyond the arc recently, shooting just 32.5 percent in February, and 1 for 8 in three games since the All-Star break.
For the season, though, Williams is still shooting 40.4 percent from beyond the arc, while also averaging career highs in points (8.4) and rebounds (4.8). He has good defensive versatility, too, as evidenced by his relatively successful turns guarding big men such as 76ers star Joel Embiid this season. Boston has outscored opponents by 5 points per 100 possessions with Williams on the court, a net rating that is near the bottom among regular rotation players.
It’s also possible that Mazzulla simply needs to get a longer look at Muscala as he determines whether he deserves a role in a playoff rotation that figures to be even more condensed. He knows what he has in Williams.
“For Grant, just keep his head,” Celtics forward Jaylen Brown said. “He knows what he brings to this team and the type of player he is. He’s been able to carve value out in this league, so a couple games here and there based upon whatever the coaching staff thinks doesn’t mean any more or less. Grant has helped us win playoff games. Grant has helped us get to the Finals last year. So, obviously we’re going to need him. So keep his head. He’s going to be all right. He’s a professional.”
For Williams, the situation could be complicated by his contract situation. He and the Celtics were unable to agree on an extension prior to the October deadline, so Williams will be a restricted free agent next season, giving the Celtics the option to match any offer sheet he signs with another team.
Williams bet on himself, and when he seized a key role at the start of the year it looked like it would pay off. But if he finds himself outside of the regular rotation moving forward, it could negatively impact his value.
He showed no signs of frustration during Wednesday’s game. He was the first player standing to encourage teammates during breaks, and he remained noticeably engaged in the action. But it was also just one game. A longer demotion probably would be harder to stomach.
“If you become too overwhelmed or concerned with [your contract], that’s when you start focusing on your play or you start doing things that aren’t necessarily characteristic of yourself,” Williams said earlier this season. “But for me, my No. 1 focus and goal is allowing and helping this team to win a championship, and everything else takes care of itself.”