The Boston Celtics will face one of their toughest decisions since the Paul Pierce-Kevin Garnett trade next summer: whether or not they should re-sign Jared Sullinger.
Sullinger will be a restricted free agent during the 2016 offseason, meaning the Celtics can match any offer that is made to the 23-year-old. The question is, what kind of offers will the big man be getting?
Sullinger is now in his fourth season and has flashed considerable talent. Those who have watched him cannot deny that.
He has great touch and range on his jumper, good post moves, he is an outstanding passer, a tremendous rebounder and a good post defender due to his size and strength.
The Ohio State product can be the most dominant player on the floor at times.
However, he is also has his share of deficiencies.
He doesn’t get to the free-throw line, he isn’t long or athletic enough to contest shots at the rim, he has conditioning issues and, perhaps most important of all, he has had some injury problems.
Remember: the reason why Sullinger even fell to Boston at No. 21 during the 2012 draft was because teams were worried about his troublesome back.
Sure enough, Sullinger was forced to undergo back surgery halfway through his rookie season. His back hasn’t given him any issues since then, but there is no doubt it is a concern, especially taking into consideration his weight.
Sullinger did miss a sizeable chunk of the 2014-15 campaign, however, thanks to a foot injury that required surgery.
So, the 6’9″ forward already has two surgeries under his belt in three-plus years of professional experience.
That’s definitely worrisome.
The contract offers Sullinger gets are going to come down to risk versus reward. Are there ballclubs out there that would pay significant money for his talent in the hope that he can get in shape and stay healthy?
A player to keep in mind here is Tristan Thompson. Not because Sullinger and Thompson are similar players in terms of style or health, but because they are both power forwards, and Thompson just earned himself a five-year, $82 million deal from the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Now, by all accounts, Sullinger is probably a better all-around player than Thompson. Thompson is essentially a rebounder and energy guy while Sullinger can represent a concrete offensive option.
This isn’t to say that Sullinger will get $82 million, but you have to think that he and his people will use Thompson’s contract as a barometer in determining his worth.
That could mean something like a four-year, $60 million deal, and that could prove too steep of a price for the C’s to pay.
Here’s the problem, though: Sullinger is clearly the Celtics’ best and most talented big man. If they let him walk, they are basically resigning themselves to the fact that they must promptly find a consistently productive big with potential to replace him. That could mean through a draft pick or through a trade, but no matter what method the Celtics decide to use, it would have to be done. They absolutely cannot go into the 2016-17 season with Amir Johnson, Kelly Olynyk, Jordan Mickey and potentially Tyler Zeller (also a restricted free agent next summer) as their only interior players.
There had better be a Plan B in place.
At the same time, you could hardly blame Danny Ainge and Co. if they decide that $15 million annually for a player who missed two huge chunks of time over his first three seasons is too rich for their blood.
Of course, this could also come down to just how well Sullinger plays for the rest of the year.
Right now, he is playing very well. He is averaging 10.5 points and 9.5 rebounds in 25.1 minutes. He has a total rebound percentage of 20.3 percent, good for sixth in the league, and even ranks seventh in defensive rating and 12th in defensive win shares.
Finally, he is recording .180 win shares per 48 minutes.
There will also likely be an improvement in his field-goal percentage of 44.6 percent. The reason is because he is currently shooting just 50 percent at the rim, which is well below his career average of 61 percent. That number will likely progress toward the mean, which will result in a more efficient field-goal percentage overall.
As you can see, Sullinger is bringing it so far this season, and his performance has surely caught the attention of Celtics brass.
But, the caveat is that he is only playing 25.1 minutes. If he were to play 30-35 minutes, would his statistics begin to dip due to fatigue? Conditioning has always been an issue with Sullinger, so it’s only right to assume that he would begin to tire out if he were playing more minutes.
It’s a pickle, I tell you.
Re-signing a young player who is already producing at that level would seem like a no-brainer on the surface, especially if the market value has already been set at about $16 million a year by a guy who is probably an inferior player to Sullinger.
It’s not that easy, though.
The Cavaliers are trying to win a title, so they can kind of “afford” to overpay for Thompson. Is Thompson worth $82 million in a vacuum? Almost certainly not, but Cleveland is in a position where it essentially has to spend money right now.
That’s the difference.
The Celtics aren’t in that spot. They are a rebuilding team that is still a long way away from seriously challenging for a championship, so they need to make sure that they are allocating their resources appropriately.
Yes, I get that the cap is increasing, but that still doesn’t mean you should spend carelessly. The last thing you want to do is jeopardize your chances of landing a max-level player because you gave top dollar to a No. 3 option.
So, should Boston invest in Sullinger long term?
Not to give a copout answer, but it ultimately depends on what type of contract he gets offered. If all the C’s have to do is match a four-year, $44 million offer, they should absolutely pull the trigger. However, that probably won’t be the case.
There will almost surely be some team that comes along and offers Sullinger around $15 million annually, if not more, and if that happens, the Celtics may have no choice but to walk away.
You can’t place that many eggs in such a flimsy basket. You don’t know if Sullinger is going to stay healthy, and you don’t know how his weight is going to affect him down the line.
If you told me right now that Sullinger would avoid injury and be able to give you 30 minutes a night without wheezing, I would say it would be in Boston’s best interest to retain him, but you can’t guarantee either of those things.
This is hardly a knock on Sullinger as a player, because he is unequivocally talented, but talent is not the only factor that comes into play.
If he isn’t able to stay on the floor, what good is his talent?
Don’t even discount the possibility of Ainge shopping Sullinger at the trade deadline, and if that happens, then the writing is on the wall.