The Celtics are coming off of their worst season since 2006-07. Despite high expectations this offseason, the team is entering 2014-15 with a similar roster to last season, which comes with similar expectations. However, Brad Stevens will be in his second season as coach, Rajon Rondo will begin the season healthy and Danny Ainge has added some new, young talent. But it’s still clear that the Celtics are entering another rebuilding season, leaving us with some major questions. We’ll try to find some answers in this five-part series called Rebuild Spotlight.
Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger are keys to the Celtics‘ youth movement in the frontcourt. (Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
In the minds of many, the Celtics were a relatively guard-heavy team last season. One of the main reasons Danny Ainge traded away the likes of Courtney Lee and Jordan Crawford (aside from clearing cap space and adding assets) was simply to make room for Rajon Rondo when he returned.
This season, Boston will begin the year with not only a healthy Rondo, but the additions of guards Marcus Smart, James Young, Marcus Thornton and Evan Turner to the roster. To say the least, the backcourt will be a crowded one yet again.
Brad Stevens‘ frontcourt is a far different story.
Stevens is going to need to rely heavily on young bigs to produce — Jared Sullinger, Kelly Olynyk and newcomer Tyler Zeller to be specific. Sure, guys like Brandon Bass, Joel Anthony and Vitor Faverani are still around. But the former trio provides much more youth and potential, the direction in which the C’s seem to be trending.
Take a look at how they performed on the court last season:
Sullinger: 13.3 ppg (42.7 FG%, 26.9 3P%, 77.8 FT%), 8.1 rpg, 1.6 apg , 0.7 bpg, 27.6 minutes in 74 games
Olynyk: 8.7 ppg (46.6 FG%, 35.1 3P%, 81.1 FT%), 5.2 rpg, 1.6 apg, 0.4 bpg, 20.0 minutes in 70 games
Zeller: 5.7 ppg (53.8 FG%, 71.9 FT% — attempted and missed one 3-pointer), 4.0 rpg, 0.5 apg, 0.5 bpg, 15.0 minutes in 70 games
It’s worth noting that Zeller came off the bench much of last season. He posted averages of 7.9 points and 5.7 rebounds in 26.4 minutes during his rookie campaign in 2012-13.
Sullinger clearly has the most star potential of the group; it’s evident whether you are judging by the eye test or simply eyeing the numbers. Sully is locked in as the starting power forward in Boston. The question is: Can we expect to see growth from Sullinger for a second straight season? If he can find consistency, then the answer is yes.
Sullinger had 19 games in which he scored 19 or more points last season, highlighted by his 31-point, 16-rebound performance against the Kings and a 25-20 game vs. the 76ers. But Sully seemed to suffer from “Jeff Green syndrome” at times, finishing with 20 games when he was only able to score in single digits. But unlike Green, Sullinger’s inconsistencies hinged on … well, Stevens’ inconsistencies with distributing playing time.
Green played in all 82 games last season, only playing under 30 minutes on 12 occasions. Sullinger played less than 30 minutes 39 times last year, and that’s while sitting out eight games. On top of that, Green played 38 or more minutes in 22 games while Sully only got that many minutes only twice.
Sullinger made major strides in his game last season, but this year should provide an opportunity to reach another level. If Stevens gives him the chance to play big minutes on a nightly basis, Sully could find himself developing into a star.
So who gets the nod at center for the Celtics? Zeller or Olynyk?
Both had strong finishes last season. Zeller averaged 15.7 points and 7.5 rebounds in his final four contests in a Cavs uniform, while Olynyk went off for 25.6 points, 9.3 boards and 3.6 assists during his last three games as a rookie. Sullinger happened to be sidelined during those final games, but when given the minutes, both Olynyk and Zeller have shown they have potential.
The starting center job most likely will be an ongoing battle through training camp, and probably beyond. But I would give the slight edge to Olynyk at the moment, simply because he has already been in Stevens’ system for a year and has familiarity with the majority of the players on the roster. Like last season, I would also expect Stevens to tinker with lineups, creating constant battles for starting roles, particularly between Olynyk and Zeller.
The verdict still is out on Olynyk and Zeller, so this season is going to provide a lot of clarity as to if either are going to be part of the future in Boston. Ainge is going to keep a close eye on them, as well as Sullinger, and monitor their development. Fair or not, all three will be counted upon in major roles if the Celtics are going to have any success up front.
Check out previous Rebuild Spotlight posts:
Rebuild Spotlight: What to expect from Brad Stevens
Follow Julian Edlow on Twitter @julianedlow