After Tyler Zeller lost his spot in the starting lineup and then eventually playing time altogether, Brad Stevens said that Zeller still had a lot to contribute to this team and would have a "huge role" as the season progressed. Over the last four games, he's averaged 20+ minutes per game and a very efficient 13.8 points and 6.5 rebounds. He's found success running the floor in transition and pick-and-roll in the half court and forced Stevens to expand his rotation to 10 deep. He's played more than Amir Johnson, Kelly Olynyk, and Jonas Jerebko and has the highest plus-minus for any big this week.
Zeller isn't the prototypical big man for Brad Stevens' system--he's not versatile on the defensive end and doesn't stretch the floor as a shooter and playmaker--but his revival poses an interesting question: with the trade deadline near, is Zeller a trade asset or a building block for the future? Over the next two weeks, Danny Ainge's plate is pretty full. He is already looking for a landing spot for David Lee and his expiring $15M contract and has Jordan Mickey waiting in the wings as a potential March/April call up. Zeller is a restricted free agent this summer and Ainge won't have to make a decision on him until July, but with Zeller providing positive play for the team of late, you have to wonder if Zeller is making a strong case for present and future consideration.
If Stevens plans to stick to his 9-man rotation, Zeller could conceivably replace Amir Johnson. Offensively, both are pick-and-roll threats with Zeller having the edge because of his mid-range jumper and array of shots around the rim. On the other side of the ball, AJ is historically considered the better defender. Unfortunately, that just hasn't been true this season. According to Synergy, Johnson ranks in the 14.6th percentile in defending the roll man in a PnR, allowing 1.15 points per possession. To his credit, Johnson has been a staunch post-up defender (73.5th percentile, 0.74 PPP), but matchup-wise, it's been Jared Sullinger that's usually drawn the assignment on opposing team's best post-up big man. So, you get a little more offense with Zeller, but is it worth the less-than-expected drop off in defense?
In a recent interview with WEEI, Ainge talked about not targeting players in their thirties. That's a pretty good indication of how he sees the timing of the rebuild and how big a championship window he's looking at. Adding a LeBron James doesn't make much sense, but if he can find players on the verge of becoming a star, he'll consider that deal. He's got a core group of young players and a bevy of draft picks and anybody he adds to it should be able to play right away and grow with them. Johnson will only be 29 entering next season, but he's three years older than Zeller and has more mileage in his eleven-year career (14,385 minutes) than Zeller does in four (5,168 minutes).
However, what may be a bigger factor are each player's contract situation. Johnson's $12M next season is not guaranteed, so in addition to his on court value as a veteran big this season, he also makes for an interesting trade chip heading into the off season; if he's included in a draft night deal, the receiving team could decide to not pick up his contract and clear cap space. Lee is obviously still the more likely trade candidate as we head toward February 18th, but if a contender would rather trade a young asset for Johnson rather than Lee, Ainge would have to take a hard look at giving up Boston's starting center.
Zeller on the other hand is a restricted free agent with a $6.5M cap hold this summer. After being instrumental in last year's playoff run, he hasn't played much this season, but if he continues to close strong, he could command a multi-year deal in the $6-8M range per season. The Celtics will have his Bird Rights and could fit him into the cap after any free agency signings.
It may be unfair to pit Zeller's value against Johnson's (because Jared Sullinger is certainly in a similar boat) especially with the team playing so well. But with the trade deadline on the horizon and the team still in rebuild mode, any move that helps in the future should be welcomed. And all things considered, I can't help but think of Johnson as an asset and Zeller as a potential piece to the puzzle.