What are the Boston Celtics going to do with Jared Sullinger?
It's a question that Danny Ainge probably doesn't even have an answer for yet, but one he'll soon need to address as Sullinger approaches restricted free agency this summer. The Celtics are flourishing this season on their way to the No. 3 spot in the Eastern Conference, with Sullinger playing a significant part in that success. Do they pay up to keep Sully in green beyond this season in order to retain the cohesiveness of a roster that thrives on chemistry and teamwork, or do they pass in hopes of luring a bigger star to take his place?
Jackie MacMullen weighed the pros and cons of re-signing Sullinger on CSNNE's Early Edition show this week while questioning what the Celtics should do with their young big man.
"He didn't lose the weight, he didn't do any of the things that Danny Ainge wanted him to do," said MacMullen. "But you watch him play and you're like, wow, nobody on this team has better hands. I'm not sure anybody on the team has a better sense of how to play the game in the low post. What do you do with Sullinger at the end of the year?"
Host Gary Tanguay went on to answer that the Celtics shouldn't go "bananas" with their offer to Sullinger but insinuated that Boston should be open to bringing him back as long as the price is right. That's a level-headed approach to the dilemma, particularly since his restricted status enables them to match any offer Sullinger receives. This allows Ainge to sit back and let the market dictate the price, while only matching if it comes in at a figure he's comfortable with.
Sounds good, right? Sure, but it's not without risk. An exploding salary cap ensures a number of teams will have gobs of cash to spend this summer. Teams that strike out on the top free agents need to spend that money somewhere, so we can expect to see teams go bananas by overpaying lower-tier free agents like Sullinger.
Ainge has carefully crafted this roster to maintain maximum flexibility, so overpaying Sully would go against everything he's been building toward. If that were to happen, then he almost has no choice but to let him walk. In that scenario, who do they replace him with?
As Jackie Mac points out, Sully does certain things better than anyone else on this Celtics team. His career-high 8.6 rebounds per game leads the team by a comfortable margin, so you have to question if an undersized team that struggles on the glass can afford to lose Sullinger.
On the offensive end, Sullinger's scoring may be down this season, but that's a result of his usage rate declining, which is a function of how coach Brad Stevens has designed the offense. He's still as capable as anyone on this team of scoring easy buckets in the post, particularly when a slashing Isaiah Thomas draws a double-team or forces opponents to switch on a pick-and-roll to create a mismatch in the paint for Sully.
There were times earlier this season when Sullinger was coming off the bench when his minutes were in flux, and he seemed in danger of falling out of the rotation. That's no longer the case, as he's been averaging a double-double over 27.5 minutes per game since the All-Star break.
Is the 23-year-old's recent strong play a sign of development, or is he simply more motivated to finish strong with a big payday in his sights? If he didn't lose weight last summer like he was asked to do, how motivated will he be to improve his conditioning after he gets paid? This is a risk that the Celtics need to factor in when determining whether or not to re-sign him.
Sullinger never did develop into the stretch four that the team envisioned when he was given free reign to launch shots from beyond the arc the last two seasons. His outside shooting has actually regressed to a rather pitiful 25.3 percent from three-point range, crushing any hopes that he was turning into a reliable floor-spacing big. Thankfully he has cut his attempts from deep by more than half this season, so at least he's learning what his limitations are. However, if he's not able to stretch the floor then he may not be an ideal fit in the system that Stevens wants to run. That alone may make the team hesitant to lock him up long-term.
Financially the Celtics should have no trouble affording Sullinger. They currently have just over $51 million in salary committed to next season, which doesn't factor in non-guaranteed contracts for Amir Johnson and Jonas Jerebko that could free an additional $17 million if they aren't brought back or are used as trade bait. With the cap projected to eclipse $90 million next season, there should be plenty of room to bring back Sullinger and still afford a max free agent.
Bringing Sully back shouldn't prohibit the Celtics from making a major move next summer, but they still need to be cautious of overspending on a player with questionable conditioning that isn't a perfect fit for this system. Ideally they will target an upgrade at his position using their plentiful cap space and treasure trove of assets to land a star. Using Sullinger in a sign-and-trade could end up being part of that plan.
If Ainge ends up striking out again on his quest to land a star that would take this team into contender territory, then that could increase the chances of Sullinger returning. There are worse fates than keeping this young core together while also adding pieces around them to push them to the cusp of contender status. It's not the quick fix fans are hoping for, but it's still a step in the right direction.