Saturday night was the regular season debut of Jared Sullinger in the starting lineup. Although it might seem like a promotion from the bench, it was a move made more so to pair him up and play him more with Kevin Garnett.
You remember when you were in the third grade and a kid's desk got moved to the front of the class? It wasn't because they were the star student. To the contrary, really. The teacher wanted them front and center so that they could keep a watchful eye over them. That's what Doc did with Sullinger against the Wizards. I don't think it's an issue of Sully being in the dog house, but Doc recognizes that the best way to get the most out of his draft steal is to surround him with the Big Three.
Inserting him in the starting lineup doesn't only hide his athletic deficiencies, it enhances his strengths. As Garnett points out:
His hard work and perseverance are being noticed. His teammates have embraced him; they understand he is being treated differently only because he just got here. But his knowledge of the game and ability to contribute despite being undersized is paying dividends so far.
"I.Q.," Garnett said when asked what Sullinger brings to the lineup. "No offense against Jeff [Green] or [Brandon Bass], but we have different mixes of people and he brings a different component, more importantly rebounding. He knows how play without the ball. He's a great passer. He blends well with the starting group."
In the past, Doc has been very hesitant to play younger players, especially rookies, but clearly he and the veterans see something in Sully that could help them right now. Winning a championship this year and every year while KG and Pierce are still in Celtic green is the goal and if you can't contribute, you won't play. Boston doesn't have time to develop players. If you can fill an urgent need now, you'll play and Sullinger is doing both. Rebounding has always been an Achilles heel for the team, so it makes total sense to throw him into the starting five. Garnett also highlighted the rookie's passing and ability to work off the ball; what better way to utilize those talents than to surround him with three future hall-of-famers?
Sullinger's most glaring weakness is his defense and to that end, it's important that he spend more time in KG's defensive dojo. As Cedric Maxwell points out, "KG is the engine":
Obviously, Cornbread's right and if Doc is going to stick with the 5-5-5 plan and KG playing 30 minutes a night, he has to figure out how to best maximize that time. To me, it's not unlike navigating the swing states on the electoral college map. Think of KG as Florida: if you've got him, all you need is another small state to put you over the top. That makes Sullinger New Hampshire in this scenario. Brandon Bass and Jeff Green are both average to above average defenders so they're like Ohio and North Carolina. If Doc's math is correct, pairing KG with Sullinger and Bass with Green paves a road to 271 for all 48 minutes.
With KG playing free safety and middle linebacker, he'll help Sullinger focus on finding his footwork in the paint, knowing were to funnel players, and mastering the defensive rotations. Hopefully by mid-season, he should be where Big Baby was when he was a steady contributor off the bench: a solid low post one-on-one defender who wasn't a threat to block shots but would be in position to draw a charge. Sullinger won't get that real time, game speed mentorship unless he's playing with Garnett. The team stressed after winning their first game that this was a defensive team first and foremost and if Sullinger is going to become a defensive player, it's best if a bulk of his playing time is with his sensei.
The other half of this equation is Brandon Bass, and to a lesser extent, Jeff Green. There was some concern from CSNNE's Donny Marshall that Brandon Bass wouldn't be able to handle coming off the bench:
"Brandon Bass played the most consisistent against the Bucks [in a 99-88 loss on Friday night]," Marshall said. "To me, this is sending mixed messages to Brandon Bass because he's going to go in the game, he's going to do whatever you want him to do."
Marshall said Bass "might not have the highest basketball IQ in the NBA, but he makes up for it with his persistence and ability to get to the basket."
He added that BB was "not mentally tough enough to get through this":
We're a defensive team that can score the basketball
I'm going to have to disagree with Donny's assessment. To me, Brandon Bass is the epitome of team first. It's why he re-signed in Boston. He recognizes the depth of this team and if they're going to maximize their talent, a move to the bench means nothing to him and really, he knows that he's a money player. On Saturday night, in the crunch, it was Jeff Green and Brandon Bass substituting offense for defense in the final two minutes of the game. Against the Heat, who do you think Doc is going to trust on pick-and-roll switches vs. LeBron? Like the players say, it doesn't matter who starts. It matters who's closing.
There has been a lot of hand wringing over the C's bench play so far, but adding Bass into the mix might actually help. He's a more dynamic player than Sullinger and some of that versatility may have been lost playing with The Big Three. But by joining Terry, Green, Wilcox, and Barbosa, he adds more punch to a lineup that's been needing a little more punch over the last three games. We play the Wizards again on Wednesday and I'm guessing that Doc runs out the same starting lineup with Sullinger, but the true test will be what happens Friday when the team faces Philadelphia. Even in their depleted state without Andrew Bynum, they're a little more athletic in the front court. Bass is better equipped to go up against Thaddeus Young and Spencer Hawes and it was against the Sixers that BB had his best games in last year's playoffs.