There's nothing quite as polarizing as hitting free agency with a sour taste in your mouth. Jared Sullinger had a good season, making modest improvements in some vital areas, while throwing in the towel on some of his biggest goals. But the stain of the disaster against the Atlanta Hawks will decimate his value in restricted free agency.
Sullinger worked this year to become a full stretch big, continuing to live behind the three-point line in an effort to give the Celtics Kerr-like spacing. But when the season was passing the turning point and with his first big contract becoming a present reality, Sullinger abandoned the three-point shot, which makes him unattractive as a free agent power forward to much of the market.
During the first two months of the season, he attempted at least 3 threes 10 times. In the final four months, he did it only twice. As GMs look to build starting lineups with at least three deep-range shooters, paying big money for a starting power forward who shrinks your spacing by four feet is undesirable at best. But while Sullinger stopped stretching himself to fit into Stevens’ system, he has no desire to run away from it.
"When you spend four seasons in the same area and then play for the greatest organization of all time, you see the likes of Bill Russell sitting courtside, Kevin McHale, Bill Walton, and all these people that cheer, it's very hard to walk away from this situation," he said after the Celtics' season ended two weeks ago.
Sullinger has constantly said he needs to improve when bombarded with questions about the various aspects of his game and weight that have fallen short of expectations. Coming out of a tumultuous end to the season in which Paul Millsap and Al Horford made him essentially useless, he was candid in his frustration.
"I've got to do a lot of things better, but it was okay," Sullinger said. "My window is getting smaller and smaller of constantly talking about I need to improve, I need to improve."
While there are clearly defined areas to improve such as weight, athleticism, three-point shooting and a more complex post game, put up or shut up time has passed. Sullinger's main incentive to complete all these objectives was to have teams begging him to be their $15-million-dollar stretch big.
While the silver-lined side of the coin would imply that Sullinger is not motivated by money, the other side would question whether anything, or anyone, can push him to live up to his abundantly clear talent. He constantly cites his infamously tough family as the kick in the butt to push him forward, but his physical transformation is still in a state of "to be continued."
At this point of his career, Danny Ainge will not be interested in paying a high price of admission to find out the end to this story. ESPN's basketball savant Kevin Pelton floated the $15 million annual average value as the possible market price for Sullinger ahead of the playoffs. But with such a horrid performance against two of the league's best bigs, what is the point of investing a starting salary in that kind of a player?
During the regular season, he ranked in the top 20 in contested rebound percentage. But he was toward the bottom of the league in defensive field goal percentage within 10 feet of the basket at 54.9 percent. Conversely, Amir Johnson finished fourth in the league at 46.3 percent, just ahead of Draymond Green.
Sullinger, even at his current production level, is a valuable player who can be in the rotation of a contending team. But if there is a GM out there willing to give him an offer sheet over $14 million, he may get a "best of luck" call from Boston.