WALTHAM, Mass. -- Tyler Zeller isn't hiding amid early season struggles. The Boston Celtics' starting center admitted Tuesday that he's searching for a way out of his funk but isn't overly concerned about limited playing time through the team's first three games.
"I had a pretty good preseason, so that’s encouraging," said Zeller. "It’s not like the last month has been tough for me. The last week has been, but it’s something you have to work through. I have to work my way out of it and get back to playing well."
The 25-year-old Zeller owned the best offensive rating on the team during the preseason, with Boston averaging 111.1 points per 100 possessions while he was on the court. Those numbers made it easy for Celtics coach Brad Stevens to run with a starting unit that featured Zeller at the starting center spot. But Zeller's offensive rating has plunged to 90.1 in 34 minutes of regular-season floor time through the team's first three games and the starters are struggling as a unit.
Zeller's defensive numbers have also been an eyesore. He owns a team-worst defensive rating of 111.6 (the next worst is still more than six points better). The NBA's player-tracking data suggests that the players Zeller has defended are shooting 60 percent from the floor (9-for-15 overall) or 11.8 percent higher than their season averages. Opponents have converted five of six shots inside of six feet against Zeller, and seven of 10 inside of 10 feet. Maybe most damning: Zeller has grabbed only two rebounds, an impossibly low 3.2 percent of all available caroms.
To his credit, Zeller was upbeat before Tuesday's practice and acknowledged he must do more.
"Obviously you have to make an impact when you are on the floor," said Zeller. "It’s something I haven’t done a great job of yet, whether it’s scoring or just getting opportunities for other guys. It’s something I’ve been watching film of and trying to get better at. It’s something I have to keep working at."
Neither Zeller nor fellow Class of 2012 draftee Sullinger received a contract extension before Monday's deadline. Both players said Tuesday that they weren't disappointed.
"It’s part of the business," said Sullinger. "And my main objective is to focus on this basketball team and try to make us better. That’s just the main focus going into this year. It’s not really about extensions."
Asked about the possibility of a lucrative payday this summer when the salary cap is set to rise, Sullinger added, "That’s a question you can ask me in June. Right now my main focus is on the Boston Celtics and how we can move forward, and get a win [Wednesday].”
Did the Celtics make the right decision in electing to table extension talks until the summer? Boston seemingly believes the value of flexibility outweighs the risk of exposing both Sullinger and Zeller to an open market that's been lukewarm towards restricted free agents in recent summers.
The Celtics currently have only $34 million in guaranteed money committed to nine players next season. Boston has two nonguaranteed salaries -- Johnson at $12 million and Jonas Jerebko at $5 million -- that leaves $17 million in potential wiggle room should the Celtics believe they're capable of attracting top-tier free agents. Sullinger ($3.7 million) and Zeller ($3.3 million) will also have manageable qualifying offers at the start of the summer and teams have been hesitant to tie up money chasing restricted players.
With a salary cap projected to jump to around $90 million for the 2016-17 season, the Celtics could have ample space to spend -- enough to potentially track two maximum-salary players, though the actual number will hinge on cap holds, including those associated with rookie first-round picks (of which Boston could have four if picks from the Mavericks and Timberwolves are delivered and utilized this summer).
The Celtics were willing to at least explore potential extensions with Zeller and Sullinger because serviceable big men are going to get paid, especially in a league with a rising cap, but Boston preserved flexibility in being willing to roll the dice in restricted free agency.
The Celtics have managed to lock up their restricted free agents early in free agency the past two summers, signing current starters Avery Bradley (four years, $32 million) and Jae Crowder (five years, $35 million) the previous two offseasons. Those appear to be team-friendly deals when you consider that the Hornets re-signed Jeremy Lamb to a three-year, $21 million extension before Monday's deadline.
While the Celtics are high on both Zeller and Sullinger, there are risks associated with both. Zeller's role remains unclear, particularly in a front court that is currently overstocked. Sullinger must answer the conditioning and durability questions that have surrounded his pro career.