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Losing Grant Williams Takes Another Bite at 2022 Celtics Identity

Grant Williams‘ departure long looked like a foregone conclusion.

The Celtics facilitating the move still came as some surprise on Wednesday. Williams’ restricted free agent market largely dried up as teams utilized cap space on their own or other available players. Even the Dallas Mavericks, long-rumored among teams interested in Williams, utilized their mid-level exception and offer sheet time on RFA Matisse Thybulle.

A path back to Boston appeared to widen for Williams, until Boston traded him to Dallas in a three-team deal that netted the Celtics three second-round picks, allowing Dallas to add both Thybulle and Williams. The assets, in a vacuum, compared favorably to most S&T returns, though Williams’ base year compensation status limited the trade exception created in his place to $6-7 million. Reggie Bullock and a 2030 Dallas first-rounder went to the Spurs. The context, following a bizarre year where Williams fell out of his rotation role following his and the Celtics’ NBA Finals run further pulled from that team’s 2022 identity — now something of a memory.

Marcus Smart and Williams, keys to Ime Udoka’s vision of a defense-first, switch-everything attack now play in the west, with Kristaps Porziņģis, a 2024 Warriors first, Jordan Walsh and an array of future second-rounders remaining. Luxury tax and new collective bargaining agreement considerations undoubtedly led, in part, to Williams’ departure, but The Boston Globe reporting that his desire for playing time played a part in the Celtics not paying Williams the $54-million themselves raises questions about the team’s desire to ever retain him. Boston reportedly offered that same contract before his extension deadline in the fall, incentive-based.

That followed the Celtics utilizing their mid-level last summer on Danilo Gallinari, who projected to compete with Williams following an uneven Finals performance and reported hopes by Williams to attain a $20-million salary. Williams’ stardom, desire to show more offensively and voice grew through his impactful 2022 campaign, though his play in the 2022 Finals fell well short of keeping the Celtics in play for a championship. He vowed to never get played off the flor by competition again, only to land on the bench for much of the 2023 calendar.

Gallinari never played for the Celtics, and Williams averaged 27 minutes per game into January, in line with his 2022 role as a borderline starter. He averaged 9.0 points and 4.7 rebounds per game, shot 51.7% from the field while flashing the ability to attack closeouts and converting 44.3% from three. An early-season ejection for making contact with an official marked a low point, but complaining about calls and vocalness always came with the package. Udoka encouraged his talking while stressing a narrow role on the court.

Eventually, Joe Mazzulla phased out Williams’ role in the latter category. Inconsistent returns on defense played a role, as did a desire to play two guards and one big man and Williams faced his first DNP-CD since 2021 on Mar. 1 against Cleveland. He sat against Atlanta on Mar. 11 and watched his playing time fall to 21.0 MPG, and only limited fourth quarter stretches against Portland and Houston after. The team also acquired Mike Muscala, who played on a two-year deal, at the February trade deadline. Mazzulla stuck to short answers alluding to matchups discussing Williams’ diminished role. Williams took the high road, and never cast judgement on Mazzulla’s decision, accepting whatever it took to win. His role dwindled further into the playoffs.

Calling his shot, then missing two potential game-winning free throws in an eventual loss to Cleveland didn’t help during that stretch. He called his number following a final in-bounds against Utah and drove into a Walker Kessler block. A right elbow injury, along with a left hand ailment that he re-injured in the east finals and required surgery last month also plagued a difficult season. Williams’ name appeared rumors in February, and the team tried unsuccessfully integrating Sam Hauser and Muscala to the rotation ahead of the playoffs. None of the three, or veteran Blake Griffin, factored significantly into the team’s uneven postseason run.

Yet when Williams found spot opportunities against Atlanta and Philadelphia, he hit four threes in separate games. Mazzulla didn’t look back to him until following his DNP-CD in Game 1 against Miami and Malcolm Brogdon’s injury early in the series. That ailment still looms over Boston’s bench outlook next season. As does the scoring question in that department, which losing Williams pulls another solution from.

Boston’s offseason isn’t finished. It’s also difficult to imagine anything significant following the S&T, with the Celtics adding two league minimum additions in Oshae Brissett and Dalano Banton. Trading Williams could signal a desire to stay beneath the second apron this year, and delay the draft pick penalty by one year. The mid-level exception won’t help the Celtics either, Boston sitting too close to the hard cap using the MLE now enacts. Jaylen Brown’s unfinished extension only raises an eyebrow, with reports indicating it’s coming soon.

Talent-wise, you could argue the Celtics improved. Porziņģis, at 7-3, provides a size, skill and versatility improvement over Williams in the front court. Derrick White allowed the Celtics to sustain losing Marcus Smart to add him. Al Horford plays similarly enough to fill Williams’ role for less than $20-million over the next two seasons, while benefiting from the minute reduction Porziņģis and Robert Williams III can provide. If Boston wouldn’t play Williams anyway, why pay him? The question remains — why didn’t Mazzulla play him?

The number and sheer presence of who the Celtics will miss at Auerbach Center this fall would’ve been startling if announced after the 2022 Finals run. Smart and Williams became the team’s most vocal leaders. Will Hardy and Udoka’s assistants quickly crafted an on-court culture now shaken up by Mazzulla and Boston’s front office. They’ll try to solidify it with Sam Cassell and Charles Lee joining a staff still losing Udoka hires.

Spacing and offense is king. Defense now focuses more on dropping the big man, surrounded by additional length and height, taking away the key areas on the floor, rather than taking the fight to the offense and defending across multiple positions like Smart and Williams did. The Brissett and Banton (7ft wingspan) signings added to that mindset.

Both philosophies fell short of a championship, perhaps reason for shaking up who’s in the room around Brown and Jayson Tatum, while challenging them to grow the leaders themselves. Whatever growth they achieve in that area assumes that losing important on-court contributors won’t create new problems elsewhere. Smart and Williams’ contracts will look increasingly reasonable as the increases.

Porziņģis’ extension pay-cut helped build a big three in Smart’s place, and you can’t keep every player who becomes a free agent like Williams. The Celtics can return to drafting and developing. The same process that lifted Williams from unsung selection to mid-level money.

The CBA that Williams fittingly helped create led to his flexibility to find a new home. Boston’s decision felt more deliberate than that, part of the plan, and despite what they added — and time remaining this summer — the intangibles and depth lost could prove costly. Even while maintaining the league’s most talented team on paper.

“I feel like we tried to execute it well, we’ve tried our best to make sure there’s competitive parity,” Williams said last week. “Make sure every team has a competitive opportunity, because we didn’t prevent the super team idea. The whole idea was, if you’re gonna have those teams, it’s gonna be very hard to maintain them. Yes, there might be the teams like the Celtics, Suns and those guys, but then there’s gonna be competitive teams like the Pacers and other teams down the line that have really made their teams better with not only role guys, but just making sure the league is more balanced and make sure every single night, you never know who is gonna win.”



Bobby Manning

Boston Celtics beat reporter for CLNS Media and host of the Garden Report Celtics Post Game Show. NBA national columnist for Boston Sports Journal. Contributor to SB Nation's CelticsBlog. Host of the Dome Theory Sports and Culture Podcast on CLNS. Syracuse University 2020.

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