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Addressing the elephant in the Boston Celtics' locker room

Who is it?
Who is it?
Warren Little

There's an elephant in the Boston Celtics' locker room that no one wants to talk about. He's in his tenth year in the NBA, a highly respected veteran, and by all accounts an extremely hard worker.

But for the 2014-15 Celtics, his presence doesn't give as much as it takes away.

That player is Brandon Bass.

Bass does it all. He's a versatile defender, with his ability to man-up on small and power forwards, and he's arguably the best spot-up mid-range jump shooter in the entire league.

The 6-foot-8 forward has been a godsend for the Celtics since the team traded for him in 2011, but as time has passed, the philosophy in the organization has evolved and the need for a player like Bass has diminished.

Bass is averaging a mere 15.5 minutes per game, after three-straight years of averaging at least 27 per. He's still draining jumpers and playing solid man-to-man defense, so what's the issue?

Tyler Zeller is playing only 12.2 minutes per game, that's the main problem. Zeller is clearly Boston's best interior defender, especially after proving himself against goliaths like Dwight Howard and Roy Hibbert.

Zeller might not be a block artist like some of the league's best rim protectors are, but his added strength has brought his low post defense to a new level, and his intelligent play puts him in the proper positioning to contain penetrating ball handlers.

The seven-footer has also shown an aptitude for finishing around the rim on passes from his point guards, as he is a combined 9-for-9 on dishes from Rajon Rondo, Evan Turner, and Phil Pressey. His ability to set strong screens and dive to the rim in the pick-and-roll has been a pleasant surprise for those who didn't watch him excel in Cleveland.

Brad Stevens is only playing Bass for 15.5 minutes per game since he's a proven, reliable 10-year veteran, and because sitting him on the bench a la Gerald Wallace wouldn't fly. Bass is capable of helping a contending team win games, never mind the emerging Boston Celtics.

"That's one of the things that's weighing on me is how to figure out how to put him in the best spot possible, because I think he can help us more than he's playing minutes-wise right now," Stevens last week when asked about how to get more out of Zeller. "I think he's best with a really skilled guy next to him, because his rolls are his biggest strength, and his ability to run."

The Celtics have played two games since then, with Zeller playing 33 minutes to Bass' 35. Zeller is flourishing with his slight uptick in playing time, but his full impact on the defensive end of the floor won't be felt until he's playing a consistent 20 to 25 minutes per game.

If Zeller hypothetically starts getting those minutes, even with Bass still getting 15 per game, then someone else on the roster will see their on-court time slip. Right now, here is how Boston's depth chart looks based on their approximate season averages on a "normal" night with everyone healthy.

Position Player / Approximate Minutes (*** = Starter)
(C & PF)
Jared Sullinger *** 31 Brandon Bass 16 Vitor Faverani 0
Kelly Olynyk *** 29 Tyler Zeller 12 Dwight Powell 0
(SF & SG)
Jeff Green *** 34 Gerald Wallace 0
Marcus Thornton 14 James Young 0
(SG & PG)
Rajon Rondo *** 33 Evan Turner 21 Phil Pressey 0
Avery Bradley *** 30 Marcus Smart 20

Let's assume Zeller jumps up to 22 minutes per game, there'd be 10 less minutes that could be distributed to other players. Someone like Marcus Thornton or Evan Turner could feel the blow, but that'd be counterproductive to Stevens' guard-heavy lineups. With Marcus Smart out for two weeks, Wallace is playing, and both Bass and Zeller are able to coexist, but once the rookie returns the rotation will once again be cramped.

Boston "tried like hell" to deal Bass this past offseason, according to Grantland's Zach Lowe, but the Golden State Warriors backed off. The Celtics knew even before the season began that they had a crowded depth chart at the big man position, but that didn't factor in the absence of Vitor Faverani, who underwent more surgery in October.

"Vitor's back. He looks good and feels good, but he's still a long way from being back on the court," Stevens told the media last Wednesday. He was then asked how Faverani's extended absence could hinder his placement on the depth chart once he returns.

"I don't know, but I think there will be a transition period once he gets back on the court practicing," Stevens responded. "Hopefully we can make that up once he does get back."

Faverani is long, can stretch the floor, and he has potential as a rim protector. He's only 26-years-old coming off of a promising rookie season, so he's going to play once he's healthy, because the Celtics are going to want to see what they really have in him before the fully guaranteed portion of his contract expires that summer.

Once he's ready, Boston's frontcourt situation will be even more convoluted, assuming everyone else is still healthy. Will Olynyk or Sullinger see their playing time dip for Faverani? Not a chance. What about Zeller? Doubt it. Bass? Probably not happening, since they'd risk agitating him, and thus disturbing locker room chemistry.

In a way, Faverani's injury is a blessing in disguise for the Celtics. Even though Zeller isn't playing as much as he should, it allows them to somewhat comfortably keep Bass, and hopefully see his trade value rise, which would increase their chances of shipping him away closer to the trade deadline for something of value.

Bass added a corner three-pointer to his arsenal this offseason, which could help his trade value. Even though he's 0-for-2 this season, he's 2-for-5 from long-range if you go back to the preseason. Maybe with limited usage, he'll prove that he is at least capable of hitting those shots, which could convince another team that he's a better fit than they had previously thought.

But it's not easy dumping off a guy like Brandon Bass. He's a proven, reliable player, has succeeded in the playoffs and filled the shoes of starters who have gotten hurt in the past. Bass isn't a superstar, but he's a grinder who comes to work everyday and does his job. Even if Zeller isn't playing heavy minutes, Bass provides value off the bench; if Sullinger or Olynyk were to go down, Bass would be able to help fill the void.

When you think about it, it's sort of surprising teams aren't calling Danny Ainge about Brandon Bass more often, because almost every contender could use a veteran like him.

Things could still work out well for the Boston Celtics. Come January or February, Vitor Faverani could be ready to return, and another team may offer something of value for Bass. Stevens would be able to have a tighter, consistent rotation, which would only help the team make a potential playoff push.

Maybe Brandon Bass' expiring $6.9 million contract could even be used in a larger trade package for an impact player, but we'll save the fun speculation for another time. Until then, Brad Stevens is going to need to work with what he has to try and get Tyler Zeller on the floor for more minutes.

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