Boston Celtic rookie Jared Sullinger got the first start of his NBA career on Saturday, November 3rd against the Washington Wizards. Coincidentally (or not) the Celtics got their first win on Saturday, beating Washington 89-86 on the strength of Paul Pierce's go ahead three and Jason Terry's two clutch free throws. Now 1-2 the Celtics are clearly still a work in progress and their bevy of new players are still figuring out how to play together. Coach Doc Rivers is already working hard to figure out his rotations, as a number of players have received extended minutes in Boston's first three games. Now he has another tough decision on his hands; whether to keep Sullinger in the starting lineup or to go back to Brandon Bass.
Sullinger started for much of the preseason and, though many still believed that Bass was the starter, none could fail to notice how well he worked with the rest of Boston's starters. Bass started at the outset, but it only took two games for Sullinger to find his way back with the starting five. His game in college was built on getting fed in the low post, however he has already shown the ability to contribute without getting a ton of isolation looks. Sullinger moves well without the ball, is an excellent passer, and most importantly controls the boards perhaps better than any player the C's have had in the Big Three Era. He was a star in college and many times players like that struggle to adapt to the smaller role that their NBA teams require (e.g. Glen Davis), but Sullinger has made the transition seamlessly.
But should Sullinger really start over Bass? When a player loses his starting job one usually assumes it is because he did something wrong, but Bass has done nothing to deserve a demotion. The Celtics were looking for Bass to improve on the boards this year and he has certainly done that, notably reeling in six offensive rebounds against the Miami Heat on opening night. While other Celtics have struggled to get going this year Bass has been his typical consistent self. He hits shots when he's open, passes when he isn't, and attacks the boards on both ends of the floor. Sullinger probably offers a more varied offensive game, and is still the better rebounder despite Bass' improvement this year. But the Celtics, an inconsistent group if ever there was one, really need a few consistent forces in their starting lineup and inconsistency comes with the territory with rookies, even ones as intelligent and mature as Sullinger. It would be one thing if Bass were really disappointing everyone thus far, but that hasn't been the case, so it's a very tough decision.
What will probably end up tipping the scales is defense. The Celtics defense has not been it's normal suffocating self this year and a huge part of that has been their inability to defend the pick and roll. Boston was utterly awful defending at this in their first two game against the Heat and Bucks, giving up an embarrassing number of lay ups, and weren't much better against Washington, allowing 32 points in the paint. Players have been penetrating into the interior of Boston's defense way too easily and a huge part of this has been the Celtics' bigs failing to cut driving players off when they come around picks. This is an area where Bass has particularly struggled. It is actually quite confusing because he should be very good at it with his quick feet and low center of gravity, but he just can't seem to get the hang of it thus far. He either overcommits to the driver, allowing them to split the double team, or he doesn't commit enough, giving them a different easy lane to the basket. One wouldn't expect Sullinger to be much better. He isn't as mobile as Bass and thus one would expect his rotations to be slower, but Sullinger seems to have a more natural grasp on team defense than the more athletically gifted Bass. He has already stepped in and taken a number of charges this year, including a couple early in Boston's win over Washington which helped the C's jump out to a 17-2. Bass should be the better of the two on defense. He is an excellent individual defender and has the speed and athleticism to rotate well too, but it hasn't happened. As long as Sullinger keeps playing solid team defense he will keep starting.
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