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Celtics roster review: Tyler Zeller’s ill fit in Boston

Tyler Zeller’s skills don’t align with the Celtics preferred style of play, and it’s time for both to move on.

NBA: Orlando Magic at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

It’s hard to believe that Tyler Zeller led the Boston Celtics in win shares just two years ago. That team was a lot less talented than this year’s iteration, and Zeller had an easier time finding minutes, but roster context aside, conceiving of him as even a league-average player any time in recent memory is difficult.

Zeller was very bad this year, struggling to find playing time despite somewhat of a dearth of competing frontcourt talent. He managed to average only 10.3 minutes in the 51 games he played and posted career lows in points, rebounds, assists, blocks, and steals.

Obviously that’s not a fully fair analysis. Zeller’s limited minutes reduced his averages, but in a year-five season, at the age of twenty-seven, the type of production he provided is decidedly disappointing, particularly given that Boston paid him $8 million for it. The process that under-girded that production was difficult to watch.

On offense, Zeller shied away from the rim. He’s developed decent touch on his midrange jump shot over the years, but made only 37.8 percent on long twos, inefficient opportunities that made up 28.5 percent of his total shot attempts (per basketball reference).

When Zeller did get near the rim, he frequently rushed layups to avoid blocks, finishing the year with just eight dunks. Take a look at the following play against the Bulls.

Zeller’s first instinct is to put the ball on the glass as quickly as possible, rather than looking to dunk. He gets blocked by the smaller Michael Carter-Williams because of it.

Zeller isn’t completely devoid of offensive utility. He is quicker than many opposing bigs, and runs the floor well. He’s a decent cutter and is just a good enough shooter to give defenses pause about leaving him open. There are things he can do that benefit a team, but he never did them consistently enough to outweigh the negatives of his game this year, many of which came on the defensive end of the floor.

Zeller struggled mightily to defend in space. He lacks the defensive chops to switch onto guards and wings in the pick and roll, and he isn’t nearly enough of a deterrent at the rim to make up for that fact.

Statistically, Zeller actually rates as a fine rim protector (one of the better options on the team in fact), but his limited role skews that analysis a bit, and the eye test certainly leaves one wanting more. Zeller showed decent positional instincts when helping near the rim, but all too often found himself unable to stop anyone. Perhaps he was just a second too late, an inch too short, or simply not physical enough. Whatever the reason, opponents consistently finished over Zeller by the bucket.

The net result of layups and dunks was concerning at its best and infuriating at its worst, and ultimately Zeller’s defensive deficiencies were likely what kept him on the bench. Brad Stevens loves versatility, and the Celtics employed a lot of switch-heavy schemes, that Zeller was simply unequipped to participate in. The same was fairly true on offense.

Zeller has very discrete skill sets on both ends of the court, and neither of them fit into Boston’s style of play, or modern basketball more generally for that matter. He’s good enough to find a new home, and he deserves credit for not making a stink about his minutes, but it’s time for Zeller and the Celtics to part ways.

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