Brad Stevens is looked at by many as one of the best coaches in the NBA. He took a Boston Celtics group that was expected to be a lottery team to the playoffs last season and actually turned Jordan Crawford into a valuable asset back in 2013-14. He generally gets the most out of his guys and has done a superb job of putting them in a position to succeed.
However, Stevens’ decision to roll with a starting frontline of Tyler Zeller and David Lee this year is puzzling, to say the least.
The Celtics have several players fighting for playing time up front. Along with Zeller and Lee, Boston has Amir Johnson, Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk in tow, not to mention Jonas Jerebko, who can play power forward in small-ball lineups. Each and every one of those big men would probably get legitimate minutes on any team in the league, and that actually presents a problem.
If there is such a thing as “too much depth,” the C’s have it. Not only do all of those players play the same position(s), but they are also all very similar in terms of style of play. Other than Johnson, none of them are rim-protectors, and all of them can spread the floor and pass the basketball.
It’s not like the Houston Rockets where each member of their loaded frontcourt brings something relatively different to the table.
So, one can understand why Stevens feels the need to experiment with different lineups, probing and analyzing to see which one(s) can best do the job night in and night out.
But going with Zeller and Lee? That’s strange.
First and foremost, neither Zeller nor Lee are particularly good interior defenders.
Zeller has length at 7’0″, but he has been unable to utilize that size to block shots. Over the course of his career, Zeller averages 0.7 blocks per game. On top of that, Zeller tends to get pushed around by other post players. For example, Jahlil Okafor was ripping Zeller to pieces during Boston’s first contest of the season before Stevens opted for Sullinger’s bulk down low.
As far as Lee is concerned, he has always been a poor defensive player. Throughout his career, Lee’s teams allow 109.3 points per 100 possessions when he is on the floor as opposed to 106.8 points per 100 possessions when he is sitting on the bench. He doesn’t protect the rim, doesn’t move his feet well and is not a good pick-and-roll defender.
Second, Lee is 32 years old and is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2015-16 campaign. Barring a miraculous revitalization, Lee will almost certainly not be a Celtic next year. Why, then, is Stevens playing Lee and cutting into Sullinger and Olynyk’s minutes in the process?
Sullinger and Olynyk are 23 and 24 years old, respectively.
In Sullinger’s case, the Ohio State product is probably Boston’s most talented big man. He can score in the post, shoot from the perimeter, find cutters with his outstanding passing ability, crash the glass very well and at least be passable defensively due to his strength and his penchant for drawing charges.
Olynyk is wildly inconsistent, but there is no doubting his talent. Like Sullinger, the third-year seven-footer can also spread the floor and play the role of facilitator on occasion. He isn’t a great defender or rebounder, but he provides more value than both Zeller and Lee on the offensive end.
Through three games, Lee is averaging 20 minutes. In those 20 minutes, he is 5-of-20 from the floor. What’s more, he has been brutal around the rim ever since the preseason, per Kevin O’Connor of Celtics Blog:
FWIW since Oct 15 David Lee is shooting 30% (11-37) within 8-feet and 34% (10/29) within 5-feet. He's also been blocked 10 times within 8ft.
— Kevin O'Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) November 2, 2015
That is beyond atrocious.
Yes, it is a finite sample size, but, again, we are talking about an aging upcoming free agent who doesn’t play any defense. If he isn’t even providing anything offensively, why play him over the kids?
By contrast, Sullinger is averaging 19.7 minutes per night. He is hitting on 56.5 percent of his field-goal attempts and looks improved defensively.
Olynyk is averaging just 15 minutes in two games (he missed the first game of the season while serving his one-game suspension for his role in dislocating Kevin Love’s shoulder during last year’s playoffs) and has been struggling, shooting 4-of-13. Still, we know what he can do when he is engaged.
Yes, Sullinger and Olynyk both have their warts. Sullinger is a bit overweight and has conditioning issues. Olynyk can be too passive at times. However, they are very young and have ample room to get better. Allowing Lee to take their minutes is stunting their growth, not to mention their potential trade value, as well.
In fairness to Zeller, he is only on the floor 11 minutes per game, but the problem isn’t necessarily that he is on the floor as much as it is who he is on the floor with. Zeller has good hands, can finish around the basket and has a solid mid-range jumper, so he is hardly a stiff out there. The issue is that pairing him with Lee is a disaster defensively.
If you go with Zeller and Johnson or Zeller and Sullinger, Zeller’s deficiencies are masked a bit. Johnson can defend the paint, and Sullinger can compensate for Zeller’s lack of rebounding (Zeller has totaled a measly two rebounds through three contests).
The best solution at the current point in time would be for Stevens to bench Lee and extend the minutes of the other bigs. He can still start Zeller if he wishes, but instead of giving Sullinger 19.7 minutes, he can give the 6’9″ forward around 25. Instead of giving Olynyk getting 15, he can give him 20.
It would also open up more time for Johnson, who is the Celtics’ best interior defender.
“We’ve got a lot of bigs,” Stevens said after his team’s Sunday afternoon loss to the San Antonio Spurs, per Darren Hartwell of NESN.com.
That much is obvious, but just because you have a large quantity of something does not mean you have to overlook quality. Not only do Sullinger and Olynyk factor more into Boston’s future, but they are better players than Lee right now, too. That should mean fewer minutes for the 11-year veteran and more burn for the youngsters.
Fortunately, Stevens has a lot of time to come to that decision. Let’s just hope he realizes it soon.