BOSTON -- A year ago this time, Amir Johnson was on the verge of unseating Tyler Zeller as the Boston Celtics’ starting center.
Could we be seeing a bit of role reversal now?
The two are once again sharing minutes at the center position with Johnson starting and Zeller serving as his backup, and while it is very small sample size, Zeller has been as good -- and in some cases better -- than Johnson thus far.
“It’s been fun,” Zeller said recently. “Our first group is very talented and fun to play with. I haven’t had a lot of time with them.”
When head coach Brad Stevens made the lineup change last season after three games, the Celtics had dropped two of their first three. But with this season’s team having won two of their first three games, there may be greater reluctance to make a change especially if the difference between Johnson and Zeller’s play isn’t as significant as it was last season.
Johnson has averaged 18.8 minutes compared to 16.3 for Zeller, although Zeller is averaging more points (7.0) than Johnson (5.0).
In addition to scoring, Zeller has shot the ball better from the field (58.8 percent compared to 50 percent for Johnson), averages more assists (1.7 compared to 1.3) and blocks (1.7 compared to 0.3) while both are averaging 4.3 rebounds per game.
But Johnson has the better defensive rating (98.5 compared to 105.3 for Zeller) in addition to allowing Boston to play with a higher Pace (102.85 compared to 98.53 with Zeller) which is pivotal to Boston being able to control the flow of games.
Johnson’s defense more than anything else is what makes him such a key part of Boston’s starting five. Because of his length, size and versatility, Johnson has the ability to serve as both a good individual defender as well as someone who can run the floor quickly to help prevent teams from scoring in transition.
Boston has the top-ranked defense in limiting fast-break points in which the Celtics are giving up a league-low 6.5 points per game. And Boston’s interior defense has been solid as well, giving up 40.0 points in the paint per game which is the seventh-lowest mark in the league.
But Zeller as a defender, while not as versatile as Johnson, isn’t too shabby either. According to NBA.com, the defensive differential on shooters guarded by Zeller is -7.8.
In other words, players shoot 7.8 percent less from the field when Zeller is defending compared to what they normally shoot overall. It becomes even more impressive when you consider Johnson has a defensive differential of -6.0.
Whether he's starting or coming off the bench, Zeller's approach to the game remains the same.
“I’m just trying to do whatever I can to help the team, and be ready when my number is called,” Zeller told CSNNE.com recently. “That’s all I can really do. And when I do get a chance to play, just make the most of the opportunity.”