A few days ago, WEEI’s Paul Flannery wrote a very convincing argument for starting Jared Sullinger. And if Doc Rivers were to use those reasons as justification for starting Sullinger, I’d probably just nod a little and move on. It’s a solid case.
But you can make just as solid a case for Brandon Bass, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If you have two starter worthy guys at one position, that’s going to make the one coming off the bench very dangerous. I just so happen to believe, however, that Sullinger is better suited for a bench role, at least to start, right now for the Celtics.
First and foremost, it’s Bass’ defense that stands out as the best reason for him to start. Bass has developed a continuity with the starters where he has a full grasp of what is expected of him. Everyone will tell you Bass is an underrated defender, but the numbers bear it out.
Bass is viewed as a stretch-4, a big who can shoot and stretch defenses because of it. But, according to Synergy Sports, Brandon Bass gave up 0.69 points per possession last season, good for 16th in the league. He was 14th in the league in isolation plays (0.58 PPP), 7th in post plays (0.56 PPP) and second in pick and rolls where his man got the ball (0.58 PPP).
Doc Rivers’ biggest gripe about this preseason is defense. The Celtics, to quote Jason Terry, hang their hat on D. We’ve known that since Kevin Garnett walked through the door. If the Celtics want to make an impression on their opponents right away, then Bass is the guy you want on the floor to start games. The Celtics only have seven minutes at the beginning of a game before Kevin Garnett comes out. That’s seven minutes to establish their dominance on one end before the man who runs that D on the floor comes out. This is no time to throw a rookie in there learning the ropes.
Sullinger has proven to be a better rebounder and post player than Bass. You can toss it into Sullinger with his back to the basket and chances are he won’t hurt you. He’ll either make a move and get a good shot off, or he’ll find someone with a smart pass. He has a tremendous knowledge of where to position himself for rebounds, putting himself in spots where his odds of getting the ball go way up.
And that’s why I like him better on the second unit. Bass has a better mid-range shot, but the gap between him and Sullinger isn’t as wide as some might like to think. You can play pick and pop with Sullinger very effectively. And if he’s not spacing the floor for Courtney Lee and Jason Terry to start the season, he will be by the end of it when defenses respect his mid-range game. Still, it’s his rebounding and smarts that will help when Terry and Lee are on the floor.
Terry and Lee are tremendous shooters, but they take the lowest percentage shots on the floor. If ever there was a need for rebounders, it’s when you’ve got a couple of guys who will be taking a majority of your long-distance shots out there. Meanwhile, with those shooting threats outside, you can drop the ball into Sullinger without worrying about him being double-teamed… because who wants to double a big man with good passing skills when Jason Terry is waiting behind the arc?
Beyond that, I like Sullinger getting a chance to work against reserves rather than opposing starters. I’d rather not see him go up against David West or Amar’e Stoudemire all that often. Not yet anyway. Let’s ease the kid into it a little. He’s good, and his best chance to use the gifts he has now is if maybe he doesn’t have to face some of the best 4’s the league has to offer.
As Flannery points out, there will be plenty of opportunities in the game for Sullinger to play with the starters, and even together with Bass. But at the start of games, I prefer the continuity of Bass with that starting unit. I prefer to put a proven veteran out there to set the tone rather than a rookie who, as good and impressive as he’s been, is still prone to mistakes. I prefer to spend seven minutes with your best possible defensive line up on the floor and hope to see teams call time outs at the 9 minute mark so they can adjust to the Celtics pressure.
I’m not saying that doesn’t happen with Sullinger out on the floor. But I am saying it’s very much more likely to happen with Bass on the floor. And when the curtain rises on the season, with the Miami Heat staring at you from the other end of the floor, would you rather have someone who has been there, and done that… or would rather have a rookie who can’t help but be awed by the stage?
I really like Sullinger. I agree that he’s got the potential to be something special. But I don’t want to go overboard after summer league and a preseason that often featured non-NBA, and second or third-tier talent. I think he’s still got a lot to learn, and throwing him in there as a starter, while tempting, may not be the best thing for his development as a player, or the team’s development as a championship contender.
Start Bass. Go with the proven vet, a really good defender, and a damn good shooter, and let the starters throw the big punches. Bring Sullinger off the bench and let this promising rookie grow as a player, learn the game, and help the team, all at the same time.