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Still looking for the right mix

3/27/2014 - NBA Rajon Rondo Boston Celtics + more

After the Rajon Rondo/Jared Sullinger combination nearly helped the Boston Celtics rally from a double-digit, fourth-quarter deficit on Wednesday night against the Toronto Raptors, Rondo noted how he's told coach Brad Stevens of his desire to share the floor more often with Sullinger.

"I like playing on the court with Sully," explained Rondo. "I told Brad I wanted to play with Sully as much as possible, not as a knock to any of our other bigs, but one thing that Sully does that doesn't show up in the stat sheet is he's probably the best outlet passer we have."

Let's be honest, if we're identifying the two best all-around players on the Celtics at the moment, that list is probably topped with Rondo and Sullinger. What's more, while those two could bubble in trade whispers this summer, it's more likely that they'll comprise 40 percent of the team's starting lineup next season.

Rondo's comments only got mailbaggers thinking more about the future and the players on this roster who could be building blocks for the next iteration of a contender.

So the Rondo/Sullinger combination is where we start this edition of the Celtics Mailbag:

Q: Rondo asked Stevens to be on the court with Sullinger as much as possible. What does this mean for the future? -- @JohnnyBarlow (via Twitter)

A: Let's start with the now, and the surprising fact that the Rondo/Sullinger combo hasn't put up particularly glossy numbers this season. Even on Wednesday night, the Celtics were minus-6 in differential during their 19 minutes of shared floor time. What gives?

The Celtics have struggled defensively with that pairing on the court, owning a defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) of 108.1, which is nearly four points above the team's season average. For the 10 games and 177 minutes of floor time shared in March, the defensive rating is up at 110.8. A true rim protector could shore up some of those struggles, while allowing Sullinger to play in his more natural power forward position.

But none of those struggles should discourage the Celtics from exploring more of the Rondo/Sullinger combo over the final 11 games. Increased reps will allow Sullinger to get a better idea of where Rondo will typically be after defensive stops and those outlet passes can become second nature to both players.

It's worth noting that during the 2012-13 season, when there was Kevin Garnett to protect the rim and more individual talent, the Rondo/Sullinger combo was far more successful than we've seen this season. In 24 appearances in December and January (before both Rondo and Sullinger suffered season-ending injuries), the combo owned a defensive rating of 97 and was a plus-5.3 in net rating (compared with minus-9.3 this season).

What the Celtics need to find is the right players to complement the Rondo/Sullinger combo. Sullinger can ignite the break with the outlet and, with a developing 3-pointer, can be a threat behind the play (or as an offensive rebounder with the opposing team scrambled defensively). Boston needs wings and a center capable of running the floor with Rondo and creating transition opportunities off those defensive stops.

Q: I'm confused why Kelly Olynyk isn't playing more minutes at this point. -- @BostonsportZ / Scott (via Twitter)

A: The Celtics seem content to run with the starting pairing of Kris Humphries and Brandon Bass, and when you add in 30-plus minutes for Sullinger, it just doesn't leave a lot of consistent time for Olynyk. The guess here is that the Celtics are OK with the minutes that Olynyk is getting and see a greater value in riding Humphries and Bass, who hold value as offseason trade assets and can benefit from playing well late in the season. Let's remember that Olynyk is already up five minutes per tilt from January (16.3 minutes per game) to March (21.1), but we wouldn't mind seeing that number climb to 23-26 minutes over the final 10 games considering Olynyk is likely to be a key role player next season.

Q: Do you think Olynyk is capable of being a starting stretch center for the Celtics? -- @ro_thegreat / Ro (via Twitter)

A: No, I think he can log some time at backup center against smaller lineups, but his defense just isn't sustainable against true bigs, at least right now. Olynyk is getting annihilated in the post this season (opposing bigs are shooting 54.3 percent against him there, getting fouled at an alarming rate even for a rookie, and averaging better than a point per play per Synergy data). Olynyk's defense is improving, but there's still plenty of work to do on that end, including adding muscle to his frame. We still see him more as an offensive-minded stretch 4 playing quality minutes off the bench.

Q: In 2007, the Celtics were very fortunate to acquire a game-changing player like Kevin Garnett. Can you see another trade like that happening in the summer of 2014? -- Jamal (New York City)

A: Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck has mentioned the potential for "fireworks" this offseason and I do think the Celtics are positioned well for potential moves. Now, they might be more like sparklers than your typical Fourth of July finale. Whether it's Boston's treasure trove of draft picks, its available trade exceptions, or movable nonguaranteed contracts, the Celtics will have an ability to add talent this summer. Is there a move to be made with shades of Garnett? It's hard to imagine you can find a game-changer of that caliber, but Danny Ainge and his staff are certainly going to explore all options.

Q: If the Celtics were going to go after a player the same way they did in 2007 for Garnett, who is worth going after? Kevin Love? LaMarcus Aldridge? Personally I think [Greg] Monroe should be the Celtics' top target. Thoughts? -- Mike (Syracuse, N.Y.)

A: Monroe is certainly intriguing, but tricky as a restricted free agent. Given the base of talent the Celtics have at the moment, I remain convinced a rim-protecting center is the most important target (and if he can run the floor in transition with Rondo, all the better). I wish there was some sort of season simulation we could run if Boston had carried a 7-footer with above-average defensive skills this season. I don't think it's a stretch to say Boston would be a playoff team in the East if that had happened. This armchair general manager would still be calling Houston about Omer Asik given that it could make a lot of sense for both sides.

Q: Can Jeff Green have a stiff neck the rest of the season so Chris Johnson can take his minutes? -- Chester (Natick, Mass.)

A: You know, if the Celtics wanted to plug Johnson in with the starters for a game before the end of the season and see what happens, it wouldn't be the worst thing (even if just from a pure curiosity standpoint given that Green has played every game in a starter's role). As Stevens noted after Wednesday's game: "Chris makes us better, there is no question about it." The Celtics get a jolt with Johnson, his energy remains infectious, and he goes all out during his floor time. What's more, his 3-point shot has been a consistent weapon, particularly in transition when defenses tend to let him wander free to the corner. Getting some additional time with the likes of Rondo could help gauge his true potential, while also giving us a glimpse at Green in a bench role. What's the harm in experimenting at this point of the season?

LIGHTNING ROUND!

Q: If the Celtics were to get the first overall pick in this year's draft, who should they draft? Joel Embiid, Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker? -- Swaggy (Toronto)

A: Don't worry, my Canadian friend, I'm going with Wiggins here. While the Celtics' most glaring need is at the center spot and, like many, I'm insanely intrigued by Embiid, you always take the most talented player available and that's Wiggins. If the Celtics end up further down in the draft and manage to emerge with Embiid, then that's a heck of a consolation prize.

Q: I notice Rondo broke out a headband for Wednesday's game vs. the Raptors, first time in a while. Any insight as to why the headband made a return? -- Dean (Rockville, Md.)

A: My best guess: To keep us all guessing. Rondo started wearing double white wristbands recently, it got noticed, and away went the wristbands. You just get comfortable seeing him without the headband and, boom, it's back. If he actually wore a LeBron James-like black mask -- the sort he playfully joked about after getting nine stitches to his face Wednesday -- would you really be surprised?

Q: Do you think Jerryd Bayless is back next season? -- Bob (Reading, Mass.)

A: I think it probably depends on if the Celtics add guard talent through the draft and the initial burst of free agency. His combo skills can help the team at the right price, but the way Phil Pressey is playing backup point guard could make it tough to keep Bayless if the team adds another rotation shooting guard.

Q: Ummm... Errrrr... I've got nothing for you. Sorry. Been a long season. -- Joe (Boston)

A: Even mailbaggers are ready for the offseason.