Led by 36 points from Jayson Tatum and 30 points from Jaylen Brown, the Boston Celtics crushed the Sacramento Kings on Tuesday night, 128-75. The 53-point win was the second-biggest margin of victory in franchise history, and moved the Celtics to 7-3 in their last 10 games.
Finally healthy, the Celtics have been playing much better basketball as of late, and boast the best net rating in the league (plus-12.6) during this current 10-game stretch. But despite the recent turnaround, the Celtics are still stuck in ninth place in the Eastern Conference, four games behind the sixth-place Philadelphia 76ers for the final definite playoff spot. That's why the Celtics will continue to feature heavily in trade rumors, as they have ever since their slow start to the season.
In fact, they've already made one move, a three-team deal in which the Celtics acquired Bol Bol and PJ Dozier from the Denver Nuggets, and sent Juancho Hernangomez to the San Antonio Spurs. As the deadline approaches, the real question seems to be "who will get traded?" Not "will they make any more trades?"
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To that point, it's worth considering some recent reports:
The 19-21 Celtics have indicated to rival teams that they want to build around Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown — and have no interest to split up the two All-Star forwards right now, sources said. The Celtics appear open for business around other players on the roster.
According to sources around the league, the Celts have been extremely active in trade talks ahead of the February 10 deadline, looking to reconfigure the pieces around Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
At this stage, sources are indicating that first-year head of basketball operations Brad Stevens is at the very least looking to unload some salary cap burden (as he did in moving Juancho Hernangomez last week) and clear a path for Payton Pritchard, Aaron Nesmith and Romeo Langford to get more playing time.
Robert Williams has drawn interest around the league from teams, but rival executives believe Boston will hold onto Williams and view him as part of the core around Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
While splitting up Tatum and Brown -- likely by trading the latter -- has been a common topic on podcasts, TV and social media, it appears the Celtics' front office has no plans to do so. And for good reason. The players themselves don't want it to happen, and as the Kings game shows, they clearly have potential to be a dynamic duo for years to come. The idea has truly never made sense -- at least not before trying to build a more complete roster around them.
The Tatum and Brown information is important, of course, but perhaps the most interesting note comes from Scotto: Robert Williams III has reportedly become untouchable in trade talks. It's even more interesting when you consider it in conjunction with Tatum's quotes from Tuesday night.
Asked about the Celtics getting healthy and needing their entire roster to succeed, Tatum took a chance to single out Williams, who put up 13 points, a career-high 17 rebounds and four assists against the Kings. "Especially when Rob plays," Tatum said. "I love when Rob's playing"
So how has Williams reached this point? Let's take a closer look:
His teammates love him
NBA front offices cannot blindly follow what their best players say, but they do have to take it into account. Tatum is the face of the franchise, and if he's going out of his way to talk about how much he loves playing with Williams, it matters. And it's not just Tatum.
Here's Jaylen Brown after Williams recorded his first career triple-double earlier this season.
"Rob is great, man. Rob is exceptional," Brown said. "I think he's a really talented player. At times, I think he puts a lot of pressure on himself, similar to me in a sense. But when he comes out to play basketball, there's not a lot of people who can contain him. On both ends, his effect on defense and offense tonight, everybody has seen it, so we need him to be as consistent as possible. I tell him all the time, 'don't be afraid to be great.' I think Rob had a great night tonight and deserves all the praise he should get."
"Rob has a lot to go, he has a lot more to give, we know that, and we love it," Smart said. "He's finally starting to step into his own, and we're excited for him, and he's excited to continue to progress and help himself and better this team. We love everything that Rob is doing. We're excited for him, and everything he does for this team is much needed, and we very much appreciate it."
Contributing on both ends
It's one thing to have your teammates' support, but the front office isn't going to hang up on teams that call about you unless you're also contributing on the court. Williams is doing so, putting up 9.9 points, 9.4 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 2.1 blocks per game, all of which are career highs. He's also shooting 73.8 percent from the field, a mark that would lead the league if he had enough shot attempts.
On offense, Williams is a lob threat for Tatum, Brown and Smart on pick-and-rolls, and a terrific offensive rebounder. On a team that shoots as poorly as the Celtics do at times, Williams' 3.9 offensive rebounds per game (fourth in the league) are a crucial source of second-chance points. And though he doesn't always get a chance to show it because the ball isn't in his hands that much, he's a gifted passer and recently recorded his first triple-double when he dished out 10 assists against the Suns.
Defensively, Williams has come into his own. His 2.1 blocks per game are good for fourth in the league, and he's also one of just four players averaging at least three "stocks" (steals plus blocks). When he's in the game, his presence deters opponents from going to the basket, and he's able to make up for mistakes with his athleticism and hustle -- 10th in loose balls recovered per game (1.2) and 14th in shots contested (10.6). He's also improving as a leader on that end of the floor. "I think Rob's been doing a great job of quarterbacking the defense, calling switches, calling coverages," Josh Richardson said earlier this season.
Another key note in terms of Williams reportedly becoming untouchable: In the 507 minutes he's been on the floor with Tatum and Brown this season, the Celtics have a staggering plus-15.8 net rating.
Finally staying healthy
Williams has always had potential, but one of the major concerns with him was his inability to stay on the court. A series of injuries to seemingly every part of his lower body -- back, hip, groin, knee, ankle, foot, toe -- limited him to 113 games in his first three seasons.
This season, Williams has played in 38 of the Celtics' 49 games, and a short-term knee problem is the only notable injury. He's missed other games due to COVID-19, an unrelated illness and the birth of his child, Hendrix. As of now, Williams is on pace to play the most games of his career.
Given the way he plays, Williams is probably never going to be the most durable guy. But there's a big difference between playing 65-70 games a season and 35-40 -- not only does he improve as a player, but the team performs better. The Celtics were taking something of a risk when they inked him to a four-year, $54 million extension last summer, but that deal could prove to be a major bargain if Williams continues to stay healthy.
"He's more than people think he is," Celtics head coach Ime Udoka said earlier this season. "And I told him about expanding his game, the role, the minutes and everything increasing and what we see as a high, high ceiling for him for a lot of different reasons."