When the Boston Celtics moved to add Daniel Theis back to their roster at the February 14 trade deadline, most fans saw it as a positive. By adding the center back to the Celtics rotation, Boston was getting a versatile player who already knew how to play alongside the team’s core and was experienced in how the team’s stars like to play.
Theis knows where Jayson Tatum likes to take his shots, or where Jaylen Brown is most comfortable driving from. Sure, there was a slight hint of nostalgia in bringing Theis back too. It was clear that Brad Stevens wanted to keep him around last season, but due to salary cap implications, the team had to wave goodbye to a player who has always given his all in a Celtics jersey.
But, when he returned to the team, nobody expected the 30-year-old center to be thrust into a prominent role. Theis was added to the roster to provide back-up to Al Horford and Robert Williams, with the idea that he would give a solid 10-15 minutes per night. An unfortunate injury to Williams changed that, opening up more playing time for Theis.
Luckily, Theis is experienced in the playoffs, and was the starting center for the Celtics during their run to the NBA finals in what has now become widely known as “the bubble season”. Yet, while Theis continues to receive praise for his versatile skillset, it feels like we’re not giving him enough credit. After all, it’s one thing to say “he’s so versatile” but it’s another to point out what makes him such a multi-faceted threat.
We could dive into each aspect of the role-playing big’s game, but a lot has already been covered elsewhere. However, one of the more underrated aspects to Theis’ impact, is his cutting, and how he uses it to aid the teams spacing, so that’s what we’re going to focus on today.
Intelligent off-ball movement
In Ime Udoka’s offensive scheme, off-ball movement is key to creating high-quality looks. Sure, the ball movement has been exceptional for most of the season, but without smart movement off the ball, passing lanes don’t always open up – that’s where Theis comes in. The Salzgitter native is incredibly gifted as a cutter, and understands how movement can manipulate a defense, allowing the offense time to create and attack advantages.
When watching the fifth-year big man, you will often see him dive towards the basket while screening actions occur on the strong-side, dragging a defender with him, allowing a shooter to re-locate to offer a passing outlet for the ball-handler.
If you watch the above video, Theis’ cut is rather understated, but it provides immense value. First of all, Theis has a mismatch with Jrue Holiday, and by cutting off the perimeter, Holiday is taken away from the point-of-attack which is where he excels as a defender. Removing the Milwaukee Bucks best perimeter defender from the action is vital, because it allows you to build out your play without being hounded.
But the cut also provides Marcus Smart with an easy passing option to Derrick White if the defense decides to trap or force him towards the baseline. Both outcomes are favorable for the Celtics – Holiday is now isolated around the rim, where Theis can jockey for post-position and call for Smart to initiate a punch action. White, who was hot from deep in this game, is now one pass away with Sam Hauser (one of the Celtics best shooters) open in the corner.
Here’s another example of Theis’ cutting ability and advantage creation. Against the Chicago Bulls, we see Theis dive to the rim, dragging Nikola Vucevic with him. As Theis enters the paint, Tatum passes the rock, to Smart, who then swings it to an open Al Horford who attacks the close-out to find Theis in the dunker spot.
Why is this important? Because without Theis’ initial dive to the rim, the spacing for this play would never have existed. When Theis cuts, it forces the defense to react, leaving both Horford and Jaylen Brown open on the weak-side. By the time the defense reacts to Horford having the ball on the perimeter, the veteran big man has already begun to attack the close-out, which tests the Bulls defense and their ability to shut down a second-side action while already playing two-steps behind.
Horford’s cut eventually engages Vucevic, who steps up to cut off Horford’s driving lane, leaving Theis open for an easy finish. Here’s an annotated version of the play that I’ve made, courtesy of Instat Basketball’s editor.
As you can see, a cut can make or break a play. So, having players like Theis, who embrace the importance of off-ball movement is essential to a modernized offense that’s predicated on ball movement and rim pressure. Boston knew what they were getting when they made moves to reunite themselves with their former center and will now reap the benefits heading into the playoffs.
A welcome return
During the off-season, Theis signed a four-year deal with the Houston Rockets, which means the Celtics have the opportunity to keep their back-up center around on a team friendly deal for the remainder of his prime. According to Spotrac, Theis will earn $8 million next season and $9 million the year after, with the final year of his deal being a team-option.
Considering the positive impact Theis has had since re-joining the team, and how his willingness to operate without the ball in an unselfish manner has helped his team find a new level offensively, the trade to bring him back to Boston is looking like a great piece of business. And if Theis can slide back into the bench rotation once Robert Williams returns from injury, the Celtics could have the perfect balance of athleticism, intelligence, and floor spacing to make a deep run in the post-season and could potentially be fighting for a finals appearance – but that’s something to worry about later this month. For now, we can rejoice in the incredibly selfless performances Theis is providing the Celtics, because whether we notice it or not, the big man is providing incredible value.
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