Celtics Summer Forecast: Center of attention

Amir Johnson is the favorite of our 14-man panel to start at center for the Celtics. AP Photo/Steven Senne

The Boston Celtics didn't necessarily make a big-splash addition this offseason, but they most certainly added depth. President of basketball operations Danny Ainge admitted in July that coach Brad Stevens' most daunting task could be figuring out how to keep 15 players happy when all of them believe they deserve ample court time.

And distributing minutes appears to be a particularly daunting task up front, where Boston added Amir Johnson and David Lee this offseason, while re-signing Jae Crowder and Jonas Jerebko, two versatile forwards who spent a lot of time at power forward late last season.

Poor Stevens has to find a way to keep those four players happy, along with returning big men Tyler Zeller, Jared Sullinger, and Kelly Olynyk. We'll let him figure out exactly how to divide up those mere 96 minutes typically available for two big-man bodies. What we simply wanted to know from our Celtics Summer Forecast panel is: Who will start at center this season?

To simplify this exercise, we designated Jared Sullinger as the other half of the team's starting frontcourt. This drew some grumbles from our panel, but it's our belief that Sullinger, especially coming off a summer of what appears to be intense training, has the best chance of landing the power forward role (the one he occupied for much of last season before his foot injury).

With that in mind, Johnson emerged as the favorite of our 14-man panel, earning 71.4 percent of the votes for starting center. Zeller grabbed 21.4 percent, while David Lee earned the other 7.1 percent.

The Celtics made Johnson an immediate target at the start of free agency in large part of his versatility. Even if you don't love the idea of Sullinger in a starting role, we'd make the case that Johnson is the big man most likely to earn a starting job regardless of who is next to him.

Stevens clearly prioritizes defense above all else, and that gives Johnson the edge over the likes of Zeller and Lee. Even at 6-foot-9, Johnson might be the best rim protector on the team.

But we fully expect Stevens to engage in an awful lot of mixing and matching, especially in the preseason. Finding the right pairings off the bench might be just as important as determining the right starting combination. Chemistry will dictate exactly how Stevens pieces together this puzzle.

Here is what our panel's crystal balls say about Boston's starting center:

Brian Robb, CelticsHub (Amir Johnson)

The dirty little secret about the Celtics' starting lineup during the team's second-half run is that collectively, the group had awful plus/minus numbers. Johnson is a proven starter and provides more reliable outside shooting and defense than any of the big man incumbents on the roster. I expect him to be starting out of the gate and wouldn't be surprised to see Lee next to him at power forward.

Tom Westerholm, MassLive (Tyler Zeller)

As the season stretches on, I don't think Zeller will remain the starter, but on opening night, he has probably earned enough cache with Brad Stevens to deserve a chance in the spotlight. Lee and Johnson are both better players, but Zeller made a significant impact last season, and Stevens seems like the kind of coach who would honor that and allow him the chance to defend his position as the starting center.

Kevin O'Connor, CelticsBlog (Johnson)

If Sullinger is starting, the Celtics likely will start a defense-oriented center, making Johnson the obvious choice. He has a positive net rating in all but one season of his 10-year career, largely due to the impact he makes on the boards and as a defender. Though his defense has declined in recent years, due to his disintegrating ankles, he's still the best rim protector on the roster. Zeller is also a solid player, but Johnson has more going for him -- he's the shiny new toy, set to make $12 million, and he has been a starter for almost his entire prime.

Jay Ouellette, Red's Army (David Lee)

I think Lee and Johnson will flip-flop here often, but Lee was their big splash this offseason, so barring injury he'll be at the starting center.

Jared Weiss, CLNS Radio (Johnson)

The Celtics gave eight figures a year to a free agent this offseason, but not the type of player that was anticipated. The Celtics already had a roster full of role players and Johnson is one of the best in the league. Johnson comes to one of the league's most overachieving teams with a reputation as one of the league's most unheralded players. He provides all the intangibles a run-and-gun team looks for in a low-post player. Putting him next to an effective post scorer with range like Sullinger should provide balance on both ends of the floor.

Mike Dynon, Red's Army (Zeller)

Zeller may not start every game, but at 7 feet he's Boston's only legit center and should be at the 5 to start the season. Zeller has a nice scoring touch in the paint and can step outside for effective mid-range shooting. He produced career-high points and rebounds for the regular season, and did not suffer the dropoff that many expected after Rajon Rondo was traded. Zeller even finally beat his brother's team. Amid speculation of a possible contract extension, it seems the starting job will be his.

Mark Vandeusen, CelticsLife (Johnson)

Given what the Warriors did in winning a title and the way Stevens likes to play, I'm not convinced anyone will start at center for the Celtics. But since somebody has to jump the opening tip, I'll say Johnson. He was the team's premier free-agent signing and is Boston's second highest-paid player after Lee, who's already used to a bench role. Johnson started 72 games in each of the past two seasons for the Raptors. I wouldn't rule out the possibility of a Lee-Johnson frontcourt, though. And regardless of who starts opening night, I expect Stevens to try out about a million different lineups over the course of the season.

Bill Sy, CelticsBlog (Zeller)

Sullinger starting is a huge assumption, but let's go with it. IF Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley are opening up games in the backcourt and IF Jae Crowder is at the 3, the starting lineup won't necessarily need a great rim protector. That rules out Johnson (who I love coming off the bench with Isaiah Thomas, anyway). Olynyk has proven to be a great utility man as the first big off the bench and doesn't fit that grit-and-grind vibe of the starters. That leaves Zeller. It's so easy to forget how solid he was last season. Whether he was rolling off picks with Rondo or popping and hitting that free-throw line jumper, Zeller's skill set and agility makes him a good complement to Sullinger. Stevens and Ainge will want to get a good look at both before their qualifying offers are due next summer.

Cory Prescott, CLNS Radio (Johnson)

Lee, who started 276 out of 278 games played in Golden State prior to Draymond Green's emergence last season, will certainly be looking to start after averaging his lowest minutes per game since his rookie season in New York. Lee has never averaged more than a half a block per game, and presuming Sullinger is in the starting lineup, the Celtics will have a clear deficiency on the back line of the defense. Johnson has averaged more than a block per game over the course of his 10 years in the league, has the range to knock down 3-pointers at a consistent rate, and has the flexibility on defense to guard multiple positions.

Jeff Clark, CelticsBlog (Johnson)

I don't know that I'd assume that Sully is one of the starters, but I'll play along. Johnson is the gear in the machine that is going to make a lot of things run smoother this year, in particular on defense. He fills a lot of holes that the Celtics had last year. I think, for that reason, he needs to be a starter and he'd fit very well next to Sullinger or anyone else.

Jon Duke, Celtics Stuff Live (Johnson)

While the backcourt is crowded, the frontcourt might be even more difficult as far as determining who plays where and when. Stevens likely will go with the hot hand, but trades will be necessary before long, or the complaining about minutes will actually stand out.

Eddie Santiago, CLNS Radio (Johnson)

You have to do something to offset what Sullinger lacks defensively and Johnson brings that. Lee is a notoriously poor defender. Olynyk and Zeller may be a little better defenders than Lee, but they don't bring any rim protection. Johnson is a good rim protector, and also can hold his own on the perimeter when asked to switch on the pick and roll. The team will be strong on the perimeter, defensively, with Smart, Bradley and either Crowder or Turner, but Johnson brings a presence defensively that the others do not.

Ben Mark, Red's Army (Johnson)

I think one of the new guys gets the nod at center to start the season. If Sullinger is going to start at the 4, the Celtics will need Johnson's length and defensive ability next to him. Lee, Olynyk, and Zeller all can provide offense off the bench. Johnson will be the defensive anchor on the back line and makes sense in the starting lineup.