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Staff roundtable on Tyler Zeller

How much is a backup center worth?

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Wes Howard: Sadly, the 2015-2016 NBA season is now over for the Boston Celtics. However, preparations for the 2016-2017 are about to begin! Over the next few months, Celtics brass will need to make decisions about who will stay with the team, who will leave the team, and what new pieces to pursue in the construction of the next phase of the rebuild.

Danny Ainge has some important decisions to make in the near future about which players he wants to keep, and which he should let go. There were 5 players on this past year's roster who will now be free agents (two restricted and one unrestricted) or who have team options on their contracts. We humble writers here at Celticsblog will debate what Danny Ainge should do with each of these 5 players.

Today, we discuss what should be done with Tyler Zeller.

Jeff Clark: I'm probably in the minority but I've always had a soft spot for Tyler Zeller. He's good-not-great at what he does, but he works hard and appears to be a good teammate. He's got legit center size, and he can operate in the post and in the pick and roll. Those kinds of guys don't grow on trees.

He didn't have a big role on the overcrowded roster this year, and he's limited in his upside, but he's a solid backup center option in this league. With a different roster next year (especially if Sullinger is gone) I could see a larger role for him. If he gets a big offer from someone who's just trying to spend money, then obviously I don't want to overpay just to keep him. But if we could work out something short term or at a reasonable rate, I would be happy to see Tyler back in Boston for another run.

Sean Penney: Zeller has had some nice moments for the Celtics, but his role fluctuated drastically last season, and we were left with the feeling that he doesn't have a future in Boston. I could see the team wanting to bring him back at the right price, as he still has value as a backup center. However, the rising salary cap means every team will have cash to burn this summer. Teams that strike out on their top targets are bound to overpay the second and third tier of players, so the trickle-down effect could reach players like Zeller.

Meanwhile, the Celtics already have a crowded roster before factoring in rookies and free-agent targets. Zeller is a fine player but may be the victim of a numbers crunch that sees him get squeezed out as the team seeks an upgrade.

Bill Sy: I'm a huge Tyler Zeller guy. Defensively, he wasn't as good as Amir Johnson (I swear last season, he lost his starting spot after his poor showing against Jahlil Okafor in game #1), but on offense, he's just so much more versatile. Zeller is a good case study in "playing the way you can" vs. "playing the way you want to". I think he's representative of how the Celtics want to play moving forward—fast, scoring from multiple spots on the floor, in transition—but with Johnson in the fold, he didn't get much of a shot. I wouldn't be surprised if Zeller takes the qualifying offer or a 1+1 at a reasonable rate to play one more season for Brad Stevens.

Wes Howard: That's an interesting idea, with the 1+1 deal. While I don't know that $12 million would be an appropriate amount, I like the idea of offering a contract to Zeller similar in structure to the one offered to Amir Johnson.

Zeller has been a hard worker and a consummate professional during his time in Boston. He has great finishing ability as a pick-and-roll man, with spectacular touch around the basket. Defensively, he puts himself into pretty good position most of the time, and is a passable rebounder. He's a solid NBA backup center.

However, that's all he is, and that's likely all he's going to be. He doesn't have the athleticism or shot-blocking prowess to function as a true rim-protector, he doesn't dominate the boards, and he doesn't stretch the floor. Further, while serviceable, he is not a true threat to go to work in the post.

Overall, playing for the qualifying offer makes sense, but I could see 1+1 at $9 or $10 million per year. I would understand, and wouldn't protest, if he fell victim to the necessary consolidation, but it would be nice to see him back in green next year.

Lachlan Marr: It’s good to see everyone else seems to like Zeller, I like Zeller too.

Zeller had a shaky season this past year. As mentioned, he lost his starting spot pretty quickly and ended up riding the bench for a lot of the season, stacking up DNPs and often only getting playing time alongside the rookies.

The words most commonly used to describe Zeller are not ‘amazing athlete’ or ‘future superstar’ but consummate professional. Despite moving from his starting spot to becoming barely a rotation player, Zeller stayed ready. After some extended hiatuses Zeller could’ve been forgiven for having to shake some rust off when he stepped into games, but instead he looked like he knew what he was doing every time he was called up to play.

What’s more, by all accounts, he didn’t complain about his limited playing time or lessened role. These are exactly the things you want from a player who is likely to remain a backup center for the rest of his career. Zeller has a limited skill set and is not likely to be the centrepiece of any team’s frontcourt, but he is a solid, serviceable, backup center that is extremely useful and a necessary piece on any real contender. Better still, he seems to know that’s his role and doesn’t seem bothered by it.

I don’t know what a backup center is worth in today’s NBA and there’s too many variables this offseason to be certain about anything. But I’d like to see Zeller back in green at a good price. Something like a cheaper version of the deal offered to Amir seems reasonable. Particularly if we see Jared Sullinger walk, it would be good to have some stability and continuity in the frontcourt, which Zeller can help provide. I also wouldn't be surprised or particularly disappointed if Zeller fell victim to the roster crunch, but until circumstances shift he remains a good option.

Wes Howard: We've been discussing Zeller as a member of the Celtics, and we all seem to agree that he's a solid backup center, but nothing more. Perhaps, to better settle on how Boston should approach his situation, we should talk about the difficulty in replacing his production.

Is there anyone that the Celtics could select (after the #3, obviously), with their multitude of draft picks, that could be reasonably expected to produce at the same level as Zeller, on a contract that would almost certainly be cheaper? For me, the two big Zs from Croatia (Zizic and Zubac) come to mind, although their games aren't exactly the spitting images of Zeller's. Furthermore, if we could find a rookie at the end of the first or beginning of the second round who could produce at that level, is that how we would be best served using the pick?

Bobby Manning: As a big man in today's league Tyler Zeller unfortunately falls in the middle, figuratively and literally. His skill sets and attitude make him admirable. He went from starter to deep bench player to once again an important role piece on the Celtics down the stretch of the season. He rarely complained even if he looked disappointed with complete non-appearances in games at times. When he played he provided the Celtics with rare quickness at the 5, great ability to get open and quickly put shots up at the rim, and a nice mid-range stroke.

However that's where Zeller's abilities end. The weaknesses are glaring: a complete ineptness on the boards at times, no three point shot, and a thin frame which hurts him in size mismatches down low. When he was the starting center for the Celtics alongside Brandon Bass in the 2014-15 season, their inability to compete with Tristan Thompson, Kevin Love, and Timofey Mozgov in the paint against Cleveland in the first round was one of the major reasons the Cs folded quickly in four games. At some points it looked like Mozgov and company were hopping over Zeller for lay-ups, rebounds, and putbacks.

That's not to rip Zeller. He shouldn't be the start and end point of the Celtics' ability to compete anyways. Once Amir Johnson entered the fold, his admirable traits shined brighter. It would be awesome to have Zeller back in the mix as a depth big, but at the same time he cannot even be close to a priority this summer. I would offer him a qualifying offer to give the team the ability to match any contracts offered to him and see what his market is.

Bill Sy: To the Zeller naysayers, I think you're forgetting how solid he was two years ago. His per-36 stats when he started 59 games in a very tumultuous season of player movement were 17 & 10. He's nifty around the rim and has a mid-range jumper. I know there's a roster crunch, but maybe it won't even take a 1+1 to keep him. It's possible Zeller plays under his $3.7M qualifying offer hoping that it pays off next summer when the cap increases even more.

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