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Conspiracy theory: Boston's big men

Get out the tin foil hats.

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Once in a while, things just don't make sense like when Jordan Crawford was the Celtics' best player in Brad Stevens' rookie head coaching year or whenever Boston plays in the gray pajamas.  There has to be an ulterior motive, right?  With the trade deadline looming and the rotation in flux, CelticsBlog will start looking at some of the interesting decisions the team makes over the next five weeks.  Fair warning: most of this is based on gut feelings and reading between the lines.  For all intents and purposes, these are just the musings of two bloggers/armchair GMs/fans.

BILL SY: So, I have this weird feeling that Kelly Olynyk and Tyler Zeller are the most likely big men to still be Celtics when the 2016-2017 season starts. However, Jared Sullinger and Amir Johnson have normally been starting (with Sully taking a back seat to KO very recently) and David Lee has played more than TZ so far.

SEAN PENNEY: Sullinger has arguably the highest upside of this collection of bigs on the roster and was producing better than any of them until a recent rash of nagging injuries started to curtail his effectiveness. Given his impending free agency, it makes sense for the Celtics to get a good look at him now to help determine if he fits into their future.

BILL SY: I used to be the biggest Sullinger fan, but more and more, I just don't think he's a great fit. He's a talented player, but at some point, you have to start playing the way you want to rather than the way that you can. Sully would be perfect in a slower paced, ground and pound, grit and grind style, but that's not the way Brad Stevens wants to run his offense. I think moving KO to the starting lineup might be permanent.

SEAN PENNEY: I like how the first unit looked with Olynyk moving into the starting lineup in the last game against Brooklyn. He didn't have a great performance in that game, but his presence spreads the floor to open it up for everyone else. The concern is that Sully is by far our best rebounding big. Given how underwhelming Johnson has been crashing the boards this season, that pairing could be crushed in the rebounding battle. Even if KO sticks as a starter, Sully has to remain part of the rotation. If nothing else, they need him to retain some trade value in case the opportunity to combine him with other assets for a deadline deal upgrade comes along.

BILL SY: Maybe I'm undervaluing rebounding a bit, but playing Amir and Sully together seems like two stones for one bird. My concern with Sullinger's trade value is that with the league changing, there isn't a huge demand for his skillset.

SEAN PENNEY: That pairing would have worked better if either of them could shoot. Amir shot a career-high 41.3 percent from deep last season, but has regressed to 25 percent since coming to Boston. He's taking more three's but hitting less. Attempts to turn Sully into a stretch-four haven't worked out, as he's still shooting under 30 percent. That's not enough of a threat to make opponents respect that shot, which fails to accomplish the goal of spreading the floor. He may never be the Kevin Love-lite that we once hoped for, but even with a limited offensive game Sully still has value for his rebounding and improvement on defense.

BILL SY: What's your take on Zeller?

SEAN PENNEY: I was a bit surprised that Brad Stevens went away from using Zeller so soon. Not that he was replaced in the starting lineup, but that he fell completely out of the rotation for a while. He's starting to pick up more minutes in recent weeks, but it's clear that his confidence has been shaken by the sudden role change. Given how effective he was in the pick-and-roll game last year I'd like to see him work more with Marcus Smart, especially if both continue to come off the bench.

BILL SY: I don't get it either, but like I said, my conspiracy theory is that Zeller will get major minutes in the second half of the season and be a Celtic next season. I thought he was as good last year and Amir Johnson is this year.

What are your big man trade targets out there?

SEAN PENNEY: Boogie Cousins is the big name that most of us would like to see, but the Kings may be too delusional about their current state to consider dealing him. I also think Ainge is hesitant to add anyone that could disrupt the chemistry of this team, which is a major factor in what makes the Celtics thrive. I believe that Cousins would be fine when put in the right environment led by strong leadership and a winning culture, but it's still a risk.

Other options could include Brook Lopez or Greg Monroe, but there's no indication that either will be made available no matter how much their teams are struggling. What about Dwight Howard? He seems very much available. He's not the force that he used to be, but he can still rebound and protect the rim better than anyone we currently have. Not saying I'm a fan of Howard, but that's the type of guy that we might be able to get.

SEAN PENNEY: Lee isn't expected to be part of the future and I get the feeling they are holding onto his expiring contract to use as a potential trade chip if a star becomes available mid-season. Don't be surprised if he's not on the roster in about a month. Johnson's contract is also an appealing trade chip, but he's more likely to be moved in the offseason.

BILL SY: I've lowered my expectations and have started thinking about guys like Markieff Morris and Kosta Koufos and Wilson Chandler. It all hinges on the value that people put on Sullinger, I guess. For a team to trade for Lee, it's gotta be a salary dump and with Johnson, a GM would only make that deal if he's the potential missing piece to a contender. I'm thinking Chicago if Noah is hurt or, gulp, the Clippers.

SEAN PENNEY: Lee's contract is useful in that it can help match salary on a trade for a more expensive player. Given that our best assets of value will be young players and/or draft picks, we may need the nearly $15.5 million on his expiring contract in order to make the salary cap math work. Johnson isn't likely to put any team over the top, so I think we save him for the summer when we can trade his non-guaranteed deal to a team that can immediately cut him for cap savings.

You might be right about Sully's value falling to the point of getting only one of those types of guys you mentioned, but is that even an upgrade? No point in trading him if it's a lateral move.

BILL SY: Well, since we started this discussion, DLee has come out and said that Stevens has told him that he's out of the rotation. It's crazy how quickly he went from training camp darling to starter to 5th Beatle. Analytics are a tricky thing. When you watch him play, he doesn't seem like a huge liability. He makes some sweet passes and crafty moves around the bucket. But when you look at the numbers, it's clear that he's a net negative on the floor. Honestly, I wouldn't be surprised to see him get some PT in January. I know that Stevens has said the Celtics are committing to small ball, but with Boston on the road with a 9-games-in-14-nights stretch coming up (with many against bigger teams), I'll bet we haven't see the last of Lee.

For some of those guys, it might be a lateral move in terms of substance, but I think Stevens (and Ainge) are looking for players that fit in terms of style. In the loss to the Pistons, we saw a ton of Olynyk of more Jerebko than Sully. That's by design.

SEAN PENNEY: Lee has a high basketball IQ that gives him value even in a limited role. If the Celtics want to incorporate more small ball then it has to come at the expense of their bigs, with Lee being the odd man out.

I agree that moving Sully for a player that is a better fit for the system Stevens wants to run could be beneficial, but don't we already have guys like that on the roster? Simply giving more minutes to Olynyk and Jerebko could accomplish that without necessitating a trade. If we make a trade then it should be with something bigger in mind, with Sully potentially being a piece of a much larger puzzle.

BILL SY: Like I said, Lee passes the eye test for me. I know what the analytics say, but I still think Lee is a better small ball big than everybody but Olynyk because of his passing and ability to work in the high pick and roll. Unfortunately, his age and his contract don't fit in the grand scheme of things.

Sully has looked better coming in off the bench in shorter spurts, but if Ainge can't find a trade partner by mid-February, my guess is that they'll make him a restricted free agent in the hopes that if a team offers him more than he's worth, Ainge will try and work out a trade.

SEAN PENNEY: Sounds like the days may be numbered for both of those guys in Boston, as neither figures to be a factor in the team's future.

BILL SY: ...and then Lee inexplicably plays 15+ minutes in Memphis!  Go figure.

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