Sully outduels Howard, might be outpricing Celtics

Coming into the year, weight issues and a log jammed frontcourt made Jared Sullinger seem anything but essential. In fact, he seemed downright expendable. But fast forward a half-season later, and the Round Mound of Rebound has clearly cemented himself as the team's most consistently effective big.

Sullinger has been posting double doubles seemingly every night, and his decimation of Houston last Friday -- albeit in a losing effort -- showed exactly how Sullinger has molded his game to complement those around him and made himself integral to the Celtics' success in the process.

While he did can a three pointer en route to his 24 points, it is inside the arc that Sully has found his natural habitat. A soft touch inside, as well as a mid-range jumper that is vastly more effective than his three point shot, allows him to complement Isaiah Thomas' drive and kick game, part of the reason his scoring and shooting have been relatively consistent besides a December slump due to a wrist injury.

Sullinger encapsulated all that he does against Houston, grabbing 12 rebounds (6 offensive) against a Dwight Howard led Houston front line, all while playing his usual ground bound -- but altogether solid -- brand of defense. Meanwhile, those six offensive boards helped fuel a show of force by the former Buckeye, who outmuscled and outhustled Howard on multiple occasions.

That such a performance has become, if not the norm, at least not entirely surprising for Sully has certainly helped the Celtics in their hunt for a top 3 seed in the Eastern Conference. And the fact that Sullinger outplayed a guy the Celtics were rumroed to be after to upgrade their frontcourt for the stretch run must have felt like a real taste-of-your-own-medicine moment for a player who has gotten criticism (fair or unfair) form a variety of angles since joining the league. But it has also helped Sullinger's free agent stock as he nears restricted free agency.

Restricted is the key word in that sentence, as the Celtics can match any offer their young power forward receives. The question is whether they are comfortable matching an offer large enough to cut into their ability to chase a star like Kevin Durant or Al Horford. Tristan Thompson, a similar player who thrives as an offensive rebounder and defender while lacking rim protection, got the max just last offseason.

Sullinger isn't going to get the same deal -- his health and weight issues will still drive down his price a little -- but there is always an NBA GM out there who evaluates a guy playing well in less than 30 minutes per game on a team where he isn't featured and sees something that might not be there. That is how you turn an asset into an albatross.

And beyond doubts on terms and fit with possible targets, the Celtics have to wonder whether Sullinger -- who by the eye test looks only slightly slimmer than last year when his weight issues may or may not have contributed to a broken foot -- can remain effective without actually shedding the pounds he says he will.

If the Celtics do start acquiring the superstar talents we all want, they are going to have to sacrifice some depth to do it, and if they deem Sullinger a part of the core group of guys they keep, he needs to be able to play more than 24 minutes a game as he does currently. And depending how the salary cap falls out after the new collective bargaining agreement (don't be so sure it will just keep going up indefinitely) the kind of four-year deal Sully would require might not be the steal we think it to be after another round of negotiations. 

With Danny Ainge having already said he is interested in re-signing Evan Turner, along with interest in outside free agents and perhaps even a desire to retain the resurgent Tyler Zeller, Sullinger again looks like he could be on the outside looking in. But if he continues to speak with his play, however, he might just be welcomed in in time for dinner.

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