It's a simple concept. With Kelly Olynyk stretching the floor from the free throw line to the three point arc, Sullinger has room to roam in the paint and gain position for post-ups and rebounds. At the start of the season, the pairing succeeded with mixed results. While they were above average rebounding the ball and scoring respectably, they lacked the defensive chemistry and toughness to justify starting both of them.
On November 30th, Brad Stevens replaced Olynyk with Tyler Zeller. Initially, he claimed it was a possibly temporary defensive switch to combat Tim Duncan in the paint, but as that tactical move became more permanent, it started to make more sense. Since last season, Sullinger and Olynyk have been groomed to be stretch-4's. Conceptually, inverting the offense seemed logical based on the team's personnel, but to truly maximize all 48 minutes, it was more effective to bring Kelly in as a reserve and serve as a playmaker for the bench.
For Olynyk, there have been some growing pains, but he's come on in the last five games with a new found aggressiveness. Inversely, Sullinger had slumped over the same stretch posting point totals of 5, 0, 5, and 5 against inferior competition. Initially, he flourished alongside Zeller and the team won 3 out of 4 games, but he hit a bump in the road with his new old role as the starting unit's floor spacing big. In effect, he's had to become Olynyk with Zeller on the floor with him.
Jay King over at MassLive has some data showing Sullinger's inside game taking a hit alongside a similarly-minded Zeller:
Though Sullinger's outside shot has come along (46.2% in his last nine games), which is nice, his interior numbers have fallen off a cliff and landed on the jagged rocks below.
The inside woes may have something to do the shifted lineup. Check out Sullinger's stats per 36 minutes:
Without Zeller (431 minutes): 19.2 points, 10.7 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.1 turnovers, 47.7% FG, 39.3% 3PT, 0.4 blocks against, 39.3% FG inside 5 feet
With Zeller (206 minutes): 12.6 points, 10.0 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 2.6 turnovers, 35.9% FG, 26.3% 3PT, 1.4 blocks against, 61.5% FG inside 5 feet
Most alarming has been the shooting near the rim. Without Zeller on the court, Sullinger has finished with the efficiency of DeMarcus Cousins. With Zeller, Sullinger has finished more like Phil Pressey.
Let's dive deeper into the numbers. Here are Sully's stats with Olynyk and Zeller in the starting lineup:
|Kelly Olynyk*||Tyler Zeller*|
|less than 10 feet||FGM||4.5||1.4|
|touch time less than 2 seconds||FGM||5.5||2.4|
* To qualify a little, these aren't on/off stats with Sullinger and Olynyk vs. Sullinger and Zeller; they're just Sully's averages pre- and post-November 30th. However, since that adjustment, Sullinger and Olynyk's shared floor time has taken a drastic hit. Before that game with the Spurs, the duo averaged 15.2 minutes a game with each other as starters. Now, with Olynyk playing most of his time with the bench, Sully and Kelly only duet 5.5 minutes a night.
In summary, while Zeller's production in the starting lineup has been a revelation for the C's, it has come at a cost and Sullinger. He's not only shooting less, but he's getting considerably less shots near the basket, fewer looks when he doesn't have to put the ball on the floor, and half the finishes where he's catching and shooting right away. That's recipe for disaster for a player that doesn't really create his own shot. The silver lining has been Sullinger's increased production from behind the three point line, but if Sullinger's really going to get on track, he's going to need more paint touches between the blocks.
On Wednesday night against the Magic, there seemed to be more of a concerted effort to get Sullinger going and more specifically, going in the paint.
First of all, you can see how the spacing works with Sullinger and Zeller working together in the starting unit. Right from the tip, Boston runs a double pick for Rondo with Sully popping out to the three point line and Zeller rolling to the rim. Had Olynyk been starting, it probably would have been the other way around with Sullinger finishing at the rim and Olynyk flashing above the break.
Later, early in the shot clock, Rondo calls for a simple iso with Sullinger being defended by Channing Frye. It's not the prettiest play in Stevens read-and-react playbook, but with Sully slumping, it was good to get him some early touches in his comfort zone.
On the subsequent play, Rondo calls Sully's number again. This time, Frye keeps him from catching the ball on the block, but Sullinger chases down the offensive rebound with Frye flopping and gets the easy put back.
Olynk and Sullinger were on the floor together against the Magic for almost 6 minutes. In that time, the team was 7-for-11 from the floor and 5-for-7 from three. Here's one of them. The play perfectly illustrates how the two work together in contrast to Sully and Zeller. With Olynyk spacing the floor, Sullinger can stay close to the rim. Green acts as a decoy and with Vucevic helping on Green's curl, Sullinger hits him with a blind side screen and frees up Kelly for a three.
At the start of the second half, the Magic elected to put Vucevic on Sullinger after he ate up Frye in the first quarter. The Celtics countered by running a pick-and-pop and found Sully in the mid-range several times.
Sullinger's outside shot has become a weapon for the Celtics, but he's still finding his way pump faking and attacking with the dribble. He's a bit limited athletically and most of his drives have resulted in floaters like this. As a former point guard, Olynyk seems more comfortable putting the ball on the floor, but for Sullinger to become a more complete player, it's something that he needs to add to his repertoire.
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Rondo's departure signals a commitment to a longer term rebuild and while we can wax prophetic about what these nine first rounders in the next five years can be for the Celtics, there is also the not-so-distant future of how Sullinger fits into Ainge's plan. As many have noted, the rebuild started in earnest when Danny swooped up Sullinger with the 21st pick back in 2012. Since his rookie season and back surgery, he's steadily improved and become one of the more consistent players on the team.
After this season, Sully will be eligible for a rookie extension or he could play out the fourth year of his rookie deal and become a restricted free agent in 2016. That may seem like a long ways away, but the time is now for Sullinger to prove his worth. He's the starting power forward for the Boston Celtics. He's patterned his game similar to Kevin Love's, but will he be able to reach the next level? When the game is on the line, will he be the type of player that you can throw the ball down into for a late game bucket? So much of what he's accomplished has been less Rondo-centric than many of his front court teammates (mainly, Zeller), but will he be able to command the ball like Rondo, draw a double team, and create for the perimeter players?