Boston Celtics Must Test Jared Sullinger, Kelly Olynyk Front Line This Season

Michael Pina@@MichaelVPinaFeatured ColumnistJuly 31, 2014

Phoenix Suns guard Eric Bledsoe looks to pass the ball off between Boston Celtics' Kelly Olynyk (41) and Jared Sullinger during the second half of the Suns' 87-80 win in an NBA basketball game in Boston Friday, March 14, 2014. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)
Winslow Townson/Associated Press

The Boston Celtics brought Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk into the fold using two of their past three first-round picks, and playing them together makes a ton of sense this season.

Given the team’s current state (a complete renovation), the two prospects find themselves at the mercy of various trade rumors on a daily basis. Ideally, things wouldn’t be this way. In a bubble, teams draft talented youngsters, then use the life of their rookie contracts to develop their skills and bring them along.

Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

The Celtics would be perfectly fine with this approach, but only if their roster wasn’t as inept as it is. Waiting for Sullinger and Olynyk to evolve takes time. 

Meanwhile, Rajon Rondo is in his prime and could either have his best years "wasted" or be frustrated enough to leave in free agency. And a rabid fanbase that saw its team contend for a title every season before last since 2007-08 doesn’t want to sit around through another lengthy rebuild.

Sullinger and Olynyk are dangled on the vine for logical reasons, but with Kevin Love either on his way to the Cleveland Cavaliers, Golden State Warriors or Chicago Bulls, it looks like the Celtics may have their two young horses in the stable for at least one more season.

Can this situation work to their benefit? Possibly. But in order for even the smallest glimpse of hope to exist, the coaching staff first needs to see what they have in place. Even though Sullinger and Olynyk are better suited to play power forward, Celtics head coach Brad Stevens should place them beside one another in the starting lineup from day one. 

John Raoux/Associated Press

Last season, the pair appeared in just 57 games together, logging 542 minutes—four fewer than the team’s veteran duo of Kris Humphries and Brandon Bass.

Boston’s offense scored a stunning 106.8 points per 100 possessions when Sullinger and Olynyk shared the floor, which was 7.1 points per 100 possessions better than the team’s average. That figure gives Boston the ninth-best offense in the entire league.

On defense, they allowed just 101.9 points per 100 possessions, down from the team average of 105.2. Again, good for a top-10 defense, more stingy than the Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Clippers.

These numbers offer plenty food for thought, but things grew even more intriguing after the All-Star break, when Olynyk finally began to look like a comfortable NBA player and Sullinger had enough floor time to round himself into shape (not to mention the inclusion of Rondo into the lineup for certain stretches). 

In 244 post-All-Star weekend minutes with Olynyk and Sullinger on the court, the Celtics scored a whopping 112.4 points per 100 possessions. If that sounds good, it’s because it is. Very good. Like, "noticeably better than the first-place Clippers" good.

Here’s more on Olynyk from a column written by’s Chris Forsberg last March.

But Olynyk started coming on strong just before the All-Star break and had a solid outing in that weekend's Rising Stars Challenge. In the month's span since Feb. 10, Olynyk has averaged 12.8 points, 7.1 rebounds and 2.3 assists in 22.8 minutes per game over nine appearances. He is shooting 50 percent from the floor in that span and 40.9 percent beyond the 3-point arc.

"I think it's a little bit of everything, just settling down, getting comfortable, getting that mindset, attacking," Olynyk said. "And just realizing that that's what I need to do to help the team and help that second unit."

Dig deeper into the numbers, and Olynyk's play really pops. According to Synergy Sports data, Olynyk is averaging 1.027 points per play over his past nine games. For comparison, Kevin Durant averages 1.117 points per play; Brandon Bass tops the Celtics' regulars at 0.961 points per play. Olynyk isn't seeing heavy minutes, but he has been extremely efficient when he's out there. He's less hesitant with his shot, a product of being a focal point on a second unit that encourages him and Sullinger to be go-to weapons.

Of course, huge asterisks need to be placed on the duo's on/off numbers. For one, the minute sample size is only about five games’ worth (even though they appeared in 20 together).

On top of that, Boston’s competition towards the end of last year was spotty. They faced several teams that were either losing “on purpose” in order to improve their standing in the lottery or resting players so they could be healthy and energized in time for the playoffs.

Still, 112.4 points per 100 possessions is nothing to sneeze at and stands as the most efficient two-man combination the Celtics had on offense—out of the 50 most-used lineups—after the break.

These two can rebound, are in the infantile stages of developing legitimate range on their shots and have potential that goes a little higher than the criticism lobbed their way after solely being viewed as trade bait for Kevin Love. They’re solid now and can be really good on a winning team someday in the near future.

Olynyk is a tremendous passer, too, who should be able to operate at the elbows as well as the low block. Having someone that big facilitate an offensive set is both rare and hugely valuable. Neither Sullinger nor Olynyk is able to protect the rim, but the former is built like an ox and was tenacious last season guarding taller players in the post. 

In the short term, rim protection is certainly an area of concern, but Olynyk is long enough to make an impact.

Christopher Szagola/Associated Press

Even if the pair struggled last season, it’s not like Stevens has too many options that are better this year. Humphries now plays for the Washington Wizards. Bass is expendable, on an expiring contract and will be shopped like mad.

Incoming Tyler Zeller is a 7-footer who can run the floor, set screens, rebound and shoot a little bit from the outside, but he’s a career backup. Vitor Faverani is injury/out-of-shape prone and a broken screen door on defense.

There’s a possibility the Celtics have a very useful front line on their hands already. There’s really nothing to lose by giving it a try.


All statistics are courtesy of or unless otherwise noted. 

Michael Pina covers the NBA for Bleacher Report, Sports on Earth, Fox Sports, ESPN, Grantland and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelVPina.


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