WALTHAM, Mass. -- It's easy to forget now, but before DeAndre Jordan crashed down on Kelly Olynyk's right shoulder in the final game before the All-Star break, the third-year big man was one of the Boston Celtics' most impactful players this season.
No Celtics regular had a better on-court net rating than Olynyk did through 55 games, standing at plus-6.4 points per 100 possessions while balancing a 102.9 offensive rating with a 96.5 defensive mark. Olynyk and Boston's bench mob were a big part of the team's 13-5 run to close out the first half of the year -- a surge that put Boston in position to challenge for a top seed in the second half of the season.
The shoulder injury initially didn't seem like much of a concern and Olynyk trekked to his native Toronto to take part in festivities at All-Star weekend. A couple days later he was in Los Angeles seeking a second opinion on a shoulder that failed to improve. Thanks to a forgiving schedule, Olynyk missed only 12 games but over a month's worth of time before returning on March 16.
Over the final 15 games of the regular season, Olynyk's on-court net rating dipped to plus-0.9 (103.1 offensive, 102.2 defensive). Part of that decline can be chalked up to Jae Crowder's ankle injury, which forced Boston to shuffle its rotation. Olynyk's individual production dipped slightly, too, from pre-All-Star (10.1 points on 46.1 percent shooting) to post (9.3 points on 43.1 percent shooting). The 4.1 percent dip in his 3-point percentage was maybe most noteworthy and suggests he never quite found his shooting stroke in the aftermath of the injury.
The playoffs were an unmitigated disaster for Olynyk. He aggravated the shoulder injury in Game 1 and spent more time talking about the injury in media sessions than he playing on the court the rest of the series. In 32 minutes of total floor time, Olynyk had a net rating of minus-51.2. Not only did Olynyk miss eight of the nine shots he took, but the Celtics were outscored by 32 while he was on the floor.
After going through exit interviews with team brass on Friday, Olynyk said there are no immediate plans for him to undergo surgery and he suggested he'll seek opinions on the best way to regain the strength and mobility in his shoulder.
The shoulder injury and the fallout will at least temporarily overshadow the promising strides the 25-year-old Olynyk showed in the first half of the season. Before the injury, the big story lines with Olynyk were either playfully breaking down his shooting percentages based on hairstyle (manbun vs. headband) or wondering if he might sneak into the 3-point contest.
The season ends with some questioning Olynyk's toughness after sitting out a couple playoff games in a series in which much of Boston's roster was banged up. It's hard to be too critical without knowing the full extent of the injury, but the fact that Olynyk isn't scheduled for surgery leaves some leery.
It's worth noting that coach Brad Stevens was staunch in his defense of Olynyk during the games he missed, stressing that Olynyk would be on the court if he was physically able to play and help the team. Stevens also limited Olynyk's floor time later in the series because of obvious rust and the troubles that Atlanta's athletic and undersized frontcourt gave Boston.
"I felt like [the shoulder] was improving [before the Game 1 aggravation]. I had games where it would feel good and games where it wouldn’t," said Olynyk. "It’s just like it would get hit every game and kind of pinch and set you back, kind of. So it was tough. I never really felt 100 percent the whole time. I never felt 80. It’s tough to deal with and tough going down that stretch of games, you want to be at your best when your best was needed. Unfortunately, we weren’t."
Olynyk was asked if the injury made it difficult to function on the court.
"Definitely difficult to function. Difficult to guard, rebound," said Olynyk. "It’s one of those things where you don’t have the same strength as you usually do, so when you’re trying to just shoot your shot normally, it’s not normal. So you really gotta focus on shooting the shot in a different way than your muscle memory is and that’s what makes it tough. You can’t really make any excuses."
Olynyk said he planned to get multiple opinions on his shoulder then huddle with team decision-makers to come up with a firm recovery plan. Olynyk and the Celtics are left to wonder what might have been if the team had better health in the postseason.
"Throughout life -- 'What if? What if?' -- but everything happens for a reason," said Olynyk. "I’ll come back stronger next year."
The frustrating finish shouldn't totally take away from what Olynyk accomplished. There're not many 7-footers who can shoot better than 40 percent beyond the 3-point arc and space the floor the way Olynyk did. He finished 37th overall in the league in ESPN's Real Plus/Minus metric at plus-2.71 (just two spots behind the often-compared-to and much-idolized Dirk Nowitzki).
A healthy Olynyk is a bargain at $3.1 million next season and that could make him an attractive trade chip as Boston tries to add impact talent this summer. If he sticks around, the Celtics can chat contract extension (he's set to reach unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2017).
The key is getting Olynyk healthy as to ensure a chance to build off what he accomplished over the first four months of the 2015-16 season. Asked for his summer plans, Olynyk said, "Try and get this shoulder right and then just keep working, keep getting better."