Source: photo by Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports
Danny Ainge has given Celtics fans three major events to remember him by in his tenure as general manager. The championship, the rebuild (work in progress), and the Kendrick Perkins trade. The acquisitions of Shaquille and Jermaine O’Neal in Perkins’ prime created what we expected to be a formidable front court, but injuries shortened the season of all three bigs as the O’Neals combined for just 61 games played.
Kendrick Perkins had returned to the floor fresh off his ACL injury he suffered in the previous season’s finals, an injury many Celtics fans would argue cost them their second banner in three seasons. Perkins was seen as a beacon of hope during a time when the Cs needed someone to defend the paint, but he struggled to play as effectively as he did pre-injury before being traded to the Thunder along with crowd-favorite Nate Robinson for Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic.
In the following seasons, the Celtics struggled to fill the void that Perkins left behind. We’ve seen the likes of Chris Wilcox, Greg Stiemsma, and Kris Humphries stroll through, but the only player to stick for a while who had any consistent presence in the paint was Brandon Bass, whose great defensive effort went largely unnoticed outside of Boston as almost two out of his four seasons there were the dregs of the current rebuild.
Desperate to add some height to the roster, Danny took Fab Melo with the 22nd pick in the 2012 draft, just after selecting Jared Sullinger with the 21st pick. Fab Melo struggled to play consistently even in the D-League and only saw minutes in six NBA games.
It was well known before the draft that Melo was a project, given the fact that started playing basketball at an older age than most, but his stock rose after he was named Big East Defensive Player of the Year while playing for Syracuse. Sullinger, on the other hand, was rated very highly after his freshman year, and was expected to be a high lottery pick before he suffered some minor back issues after his sophomore season.
After back surgery brought Sullinger’s third NBA season to a close, he has proven to be one of the most durable Celtics as he has played in 73 out of 74 games this season (Isaiah Thomas and Evan Turner are the only two to play in all 74). As Sullinger endures the growing pains of becoming an NBA player, he has finally filled the aforementioned void left behind by Kendrick Perkins as somebody who can muscle his way under the basket for critical rebounds and interior scoring. Sullinger’s 8.6 rebounds per game leads the Celtics, not only because of his strength, but his superior ability to position himself under the basket.
Sully’s 10.4 points per game is also something worth highlighting given how distributed the scoring is; Sullinger, Turner, and Olynyk all average about 10 ppg while Smart averages about 9.
Concerns with weight and conditioning had many fans calling for Sully’s head on the trading block last season, and I think that wave of negativity cast a shadow over how instrumental he has been to the team’s success this season. His numbers may not be huge, but his 16.8 PER is second on the team and that speaks volumes about how important his contributions are.
In the current era of small-ball basketball, one could argue that the necessity of a rim-to-rim center has decreased as dominant guards flood the league. At a glance we can see that teams who feature a big man as one their premiere players tend to struggle (see: SAC, BKN, PHI, HOU) and teams with great guards are thriving (see: GSW, OKC, TOR, BOS, LAC, CHA, (Honorable mention: POR)).
So, when you play line ups without centers, who fills in down low?
The Draymond Greens of the league. The bulky guys who can hold their own in the paint on both ends, who can also spread the floor on offense. Every team wants a Draymond Green right now, and Sullinger is Boston’s Green. (See what I did there?)
Source: Shot charts from vorped.com
Sullinger (left) obviously can’t compete with Green (right) as far as percentages go, but on the flip side, he has shown the ability to score in a greater variety of the highlighted zones. What really separates Draymond from the pack on the stat sheet is his 7.4 assists per game as a power forward, and while I won’t act like I expect Sullinger to catch up in that category, I will point out that his 2.3 assists per game ties him for 9th in the league among centers.
Danny Ainge has done a great job in building a team to be competitive in this type of league by building around guys like Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, and Marcus Smart, who bring a potent mixture of deadly scoring to complement their lock-down defense. It cannot be stated enough how vital it is that Boston’s best defenders are capable of locking down the most dominant scoring position in the league.
It has also not been stated enough how vital a guy like Sullinger is to fill out a roster built around its guards. Call him overweight, trade bait, whatever you want, but he’s the anchor the Celtics had been searching for and the fans should be grateful that he’s here.