I can't even begin to remember how many stories I wrote about Jared Sullinger's big belly last summer. Probably four or five, but it felt like one hundred. Between shirtless pics and spotters in the street catching him jogging, the saga never seemed to end. It bordered on the edge of becoming a distraction for a team that was going to desperately need his interior production but it was all alleviated once he hit the court.
For the rest of the season, the only time I thought about cracking a Sully butt joke was when he was jamming it into opponents in the paint on his way to strong boards or when he powered his way to the basket for tip-ins and other important plays around opposing bigs. For the first time in a while, I didn't see Sullinger's size as a detriment but rather a unique attribute he brought to the table that allowed him to battle in the paint in a league that seems to grow increasingly smaller by the day.
In fact, my mind wandered ahead to the offseason. Of Boston's three free agents, he seemed like the priority, especially after his hot start that had him among the league's player efficiency rating leaders. While he may have looked as big as ever, there seemed to be some effort put on the table, and his production put the full blinders over my eyes.
Produce he did. While it may be easy to forget here in April down 0-2 in the first round, Sully started the season through the end of March averaging 10.4 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 2.3 assists per game on 44% shooting while playing a steady 24 minutes a night. The production may not explode off the page in your face, but it was steady and consistently helpful to a team that was soaring to 43-32 at that point.
He became a fixture in the starting rotation, put in work inside, and gave enough effort that myself and many Cs fans were quickly forgetting about his biggest flaw--those LBs.
They've been put on full display as the team's success has wavered into early postseason failure that is unfortunately thanks in large part to the complete absence of Sullinger's production in any facet of the game. It all began in April and has gotten progressively worse ever since. He hasn't approached 26 minutes of play time since the Golden State win, and he saw his averages fall to 9.6 pts, 4.6 reb, and 2.1 ast on 43% FG in that month.
The drops weren't dramatic but they've deteriorated into such a putrid playoff "performance" that he has stuck out like an infected thumb that needs to be amputated. Between both losses in Atlanta, he has floated on the perimeter, shown an unwillingness to battle with either Paul Millsap or Al Horford, and worst of all has been kept off the boards completely. The latter part is most concerning of all because it reflects a lack of effort more than a bad mismatch.
Marcus Smart said it best after the game one loss: the team can't hang back on the injuries and misfortune they've faced late this year, they need other players to step up and be bigger than ever before. Upon that call, nobody has come up smaller than Sullinger (except on the scale, sorry).
Could it be conditioning-related? Has he broken down under all that weight over a long NBA season? Is he beat mentally as the team faces adversity on the court and physically? All of those questions stem back to one overarching one that has popped back into my head: is this a player worth committing to this summer?
Restricted free agency certainly guarantees the Cs' ability to bring Sully back if they want to, but would that be a sound basketball decision? There are many factors that could point towards that question being answered with a no.
First, the season-long deterioration of his productivity to the point where he has folded in the biggest moment yet.
Second, the fact that Sullinger could be receiving offers of more than $15-million per year over a long-term deal that the Celtics would be forced to match in order to bring him back in restricted free agency.
Third and maybe most importantly, I'm not sure how crucial of a piece Sullinger is to the immense level of chemistry that the team has developed over the length of the season. Sure he's thrown towels at reporters, cracked funny jokes in interviews, and always seems to be having a good time, but would a hole rupture in the locker room if he were to be let go like an Isaiah Thomas or Jae Crowder loss would cause? I have my doubts.
To be honest, even for all his faults, Kelly Olynyk has made the convincing case that he's even better than Sullinger overall this year, and that's no small consideration when re-signing one directly affects the minutes of the other going into next season.
I'm not opposed to signing Sullinger under any circumstance. There's certainly a place for him on this roster, and he's the second longest-tenured member of the team. That's no small factor. But his latest struggles have hit the team so hard in the stomach that it has thrown my head back to the summer. As I reminisce about watching Sully take shirtless pics and brag about his jogs down the street, I begin to wonder if depending on him fulfilling a hefty contract may not be the best idea.
We'll see where the rest of the series brings the team and Sullinger as his free agency looms, but the red flags are raising. Perhaps there could be some money freed up for Evan Turner after all with the departure of a different Cs free agent.