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Why David Lee is playing over Jared Sullinger

Jared Sullinger is one of only two Celtics that played under Doc Rivers and with the Big Three. Could he be on his way out, too?

Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

We've been hearing it all training camp and definitely after his first game against Milan.  David Lee fits the system.  David Lee is a dream big for Brad Stevens.  David Lee is a born playmaker.  Honestly, I had to see it to believe it.  When I initially thought about Stevens' potential 10-player rotation, I thought Lee would be the odd man out in favor of Jared Sullinger in the starting lineup.  I couldn't have been more wrong with Sully coming in as the 5th big behind Lee, Tyler Zeller, Amir Johnson, and Kelly Olynyk.

There are a couple of factors going against Sullinger right now.  First of all, there's the conflicting perspectives that he and Stevens might have on his role and fit.  After a rehabilitating summer with John Lucas, Sullinger got in the best shape of his career and vowed to "get his big butt back on the block."  However, at Media Day, Stevens stressed the importance for Sullinger to be as versatile as possible.  Sullinger in the paint is probably his best position, but he's less of a threat in Stevens' pace-and-space attack if that's all he'll do.  Maybe I'm reading into sound bites too much, but it sounds like there are philosophical differences between player and coach and there are a number of players on this deep roster than can replace Sullinger in the lineup.  Jordan Mickey looked pretty good in limited time on Tuesday, too.

Secondly, David Lee is on the final year of his deal.  That either makes him attractive trade bait come February or paradoxically, an interesting Bird Rights candidate to re-sign next summer.  At 32, Lee is looking at what could be the final contract of his career.  He's been very complimentary about the franchise, its direction, and Brad Stevens and if the season works out for him, he could sign a 2-3 year deal to finish his career in green.  On the other hand, Sullinger is due an extension by the end of October or he enters restricted free agency in 2016.  If he's not putting up the same numbers that he did last year or show the same progression and steady improvement over this season, he could be looking at underwhelming offers in July.  Is Ainge that diabolical?  Doubtful, but Danny does want to win now and if Stevens thinks that Lee is a better fit than Sullinger, that could help Ainge on the back end and bottom line.

Ultimately, Lee and Sullinger just see the floor differently.  Like Olynyk, Lee has always been point forward with a late growth spurt making him a big vs. a wing.  Sullinger, for better or for worse, is a classic forward, feasting on contact to create room to work rather than spacing the floor with his face up game.  You could see it in Boston's pre-season game in Italy.



Early against EA7, Lee came off two pick-and-rolls with Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart.  He gets the ball in space and immediately, his head is up and he's scanning the floor for either a pass or a lane.  He may be on the decline of his career, but Lee is still very good at surveying the floor and making the right basketball decision.

DL to AB 3

Even with his back to the basket, he recognizes Milan helping down on the weak side with Sullinger on the block and whips a cross court pass to Bradley for the 3.  Sullinger is many things, but I don't think he makes that pass.  With the smaller defender, he'd use his size to back him down and bowl over him with his size advantage.


With Sully in the game, he started most of his possessions on the low block either calling for the ball, setting pin down screens for the wings, or setting up dribble hand offs at the free throw line extended.  There's no doubt that he could benefit greatly from the team's new focus on fewer long 2's and more penetration, but is he any better than Amir Johnson or Zeller at the rim?

DL to JS

This is a busted play after Jae Crowder bricks a fall away jumper, but it best illustrates the best of both worlds for Lee and Sullinger.  After Crowder's miss, Sully works the offensive glass and keeps the ball alive.  Lee takes the tip pass and zips it over to Sully for an easy lay up.  That play doesn't happen if those guys aren't playing to their strengths, but for now, Lee is just a better fit.  Bob Ryan thinks we should "move on," but we're less than two weeks into training camp with only one preseason game under the belt.

It's easy to forget that Sullinger was one of the most consistent players last season.  It's hard to just give up on a player that could easily average a double-double.  Just ask David Lee.

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