The National Basketball Association is no different from the other major sports that dominate the US market. It is an all-year thing. The media and fan interest doesn’t stop when the games halt. We have speculation. We have the ongoing narratives.
The Cavaliers hoisted the Larry O’Brien trophy in mid-June. Our television and computer screens were awash with scenes of a victorious Cleveland. It was unbridled jubilation in the previously downtrodden streets. LeBron James had made good on his championship promise to a much-maligned sports community.
Then … we were quickly on to the next story.
Kevin Durant’s long-term basketball future had been bubbling under the surface as he entered the last year of his Oklahoma City Thunder contract. With the silverware suitably assigned and no gameplay to distract the viewership, the discussion turned to the potential landing spots for the megastar free-agent. The intensity of the coverage increased when it emerged Durant would be taking — what would effectively amount to pitch meetings — from a very limited number of invited suitors. What had originally seemed like a remote possibility was now being sold as a real probability. Kevin Durant — one of the top five NBA performers — was ready to leave the Thunder.
The Boston Celtics were invited to join the chase. This opportunity, if seized upon, would be the franchise altering deal they had effectively been rebuilding towards for a number of years. This was the prize asset that had eluded them thus far. It was the acquisition that moves them from playoff hopefuls to genuine NBA championship contenders. To be considered as an option was encouraging but the Boston organization were not content to simply take this as a compliment. They went to work. The coaching staff, with the full support of the executive branch of the organization, would be prepared to sell the Celtics as a natural home for Durant’s talents. Key players would be on hand to represent the current roster and lend their perspectives. This pitch was so important to the Celtics they enlisted the help of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Considered Boston royalty he was brought to the meeting to offer further insight into the New England sports market. He brought gravitas to their bid. He exuded super stardom. He epitomized success.
Kelly Olynyk, the twenty-five year old Canadian, wore a tie-dye t-shirt to the meeting.
In the interest of fairness and/or clarity it should be stressed it wasn’t of the garish neon Grateful Dead variety. It was a muted off-purple color. Not the Face of the Franchise is not a fashion blog. It doesn’t consider Kevin Durant’s eventual decision to relocate to Oakland as being in any way influenced by Olynyk’s wardrobe decision. But there was something reassuringly goofy and incredibly predictable in Olynyk’s attire. There was a relaxed authenticity. What is perhaps more significant — and certainly more worthy of note — is the fact he was part of the meeting at all.
At this crucial juncture the Boston Celtics wanted him in the room.
Kelly Olynyk stands at seven foot tall. This, in NBA parlance, earns him the informal designation or classification as a ‘Big’. This terminology is widely used throughout the league to distinguish between players in a rapidly evolving league. Generally this is a league of very tall players. Being considered a team’s Big, in reality, relates to more than height. The NBA Big has a skill-set. It’s more than a just a hulking presence on the court. A Big is deployed in certain circumstances — very often to counteract or diminish the opposition’s use of a larger player. There is a simple logic that a large player is best defended when matched with a player of similar physical stature. Height can be such an advantage in terms of scoring close to the basket. It often directlytranslates to rebounding success. Such factors make a dependable Big an asset to any team. The best Bigs in the league will tend to be cornerstones of their teams offensive and/or defensive success.
There is no limitation or governance that prevents teams from utilizing multiple Bigs — and the physical advantage they bring — within their lineup. But the evolution of the modern game has itself impacted the level of a Big’s involvement. The emergence of ‘small-ball’ and, more significantly its recent level of success, has seen teams give greater focus and priority to smaller lineups. The huge seven foot athlete tends not to be nimble.
It is becoming increasingly evident that success can be achieved in the NBA with uptempo basketball and reliable perimeter shooting. Height is less of a factor when the ball can be zipped around and shots are made from distance. The most successful and competitive teams in the NBA are those who can implement multiple styles with the players on their rosters. The very best teams can expertly use their rotations to match an opponents approach yet are able to force their own will on the game. With this in mind flexibility can be a player’s most valued attribute.
Kelly Olynyk is not a typical Big.
He was selected as a first round pick in 2013 draft. He had a relatively successful college basketball career at Gonzaga. In his junior year at the college level he took the brave decision to actively choose to sit out a year. This is not an unprecedented move but remains somewhat rare. Olynyk, he has since confirmed, looked at the players entrenched as starters. He calculated his likely playing time and elected to withdraw his availability for selection. He spent the next year developing his game before returning to the team a much improved player. This considered approach and active participation in his own development would be a precursor to his professional career.
Coming out of college there was an undeniable rawness to his game. Boston, it seemed, were accepting of that but remained suitably impressed with his skills. There was something in Kelly Olynyk they wanted to develop.
His size, in many ways, is deceptive. Kelly Olynyk doesn’t play like he is seven foot tall. This can, to the casual viewer, be impressive and frustrating in equal measure. His game is not dependent on strength and aggression. On the contrary he has a real subtlety in his play. He regularly displays a deftness of touch around the basket and the decisive and calculated mobility to be effective there.
But an uncommon skill-set does little to impress if we cannot see what we naturally expect of a Big. There is fight within Kelly Olynyk. He doesn’t shirk a challenge. But he is competitive in the paint without being dominant. He doesn’t project a sense of physicality. He has, throughout his time as a Celtic, added no real mass to his frame. There are only minimal signs of physical development. He has never been considered lightweight on the court but Olynyk lacks the defined muscularity often found in other Bigs. He can, in comparison, seem almost ‘doughy’.
But would any of this even matter if he were six inches shorter ? If Olynyk wasn’t considered a Big would we view his skill-set differently ?
The question — as hypothetical as it is — misses the mark. Kelly Olynyk is a Big. Not the most traditional or even the best. But he has developed his game throughout his career to make the most of what he cannot change. His height means he has to be respected when he is close to the basket. He cannot be ignored. But what he has added to his game is perimeter shooting. He has clearly worked on this element of his game and is starting to reap the rewards of his endeavors. When he moves further from the basket he has to be closed down quickly. The upturn in his shooting means opposing teams are no longer happy to surrender the chance to him. As a more consistent shooter from mid-to-long range he forces teams to defend him more aggressively. He is then able take the shot or elect to use his mobility and speed to evade his defender. He can drive to the basket. He is a multi-dimensional Big. From a defensive standpoint he is growing into a match-up nightmare.
This is made all the more intriguing when we consider the offseason acquisition the Celtics were able to secure. Whilst there was a true sense of disappointment Kevin Durant couldn’t be lured to Boston they did sign Al Horford. He represents an All-Star level addition to their front-court positions.
As we look toward the 2016/17 season it has yet to become clear how Boston plan to use Kelly Olynyk. He is currently recuperating from a shoulder injury and has been extremely limited in terms of practice time. But Horford brings a physicality, scoring dimension and veteran presence to the center and power forward position. It doesn’t require too much imagination to envisage Olynyk directly benefitting from Horford’s addition to the rotation. Rather than a competitor for his playing time Horford is more likely to be a complimentary player. Al Horford undoubtedly upgrades the Boston Celtics roster. He is a starting caliber piece that may allow Kelly Olynyk to concentrate on what he is naturally good at whilst utilizing the skills he has developed.
Throughout his own offseason Kelly Olynyk has appeared on the Boston Celtics’ media channel several times. He has played a part in environmental awareness campaigns and chaperoned homeless kids on their visit to a local zoo. Throughout each of these carefully constructed media events there is a sense Olynyk genuinely enjoys this part of his profession. Video footage of him walking around with the young underprivileged kids lends a sense of perspective on many levels. He looks enormous. The kids look on in awe as he hauls his goofy seven foot frame onto a camel. He wears a huge grin throughout.
One branch of the Celtics media department designed a t-shirt that they wore court-side during their playoff run last year. It carried the slogan ‘We’re One Superstar’. The message was in strong defiance to the detractors who saw Boston’s lack of a genuine NBA superstar as reason to deny their credibility as a contender. Kelly Olynyk wore the t-shirt. It wasn’t tie-dye. But he wore it nonetheless.
The Boston Celtics are potentially building a very special basketball team. It’s not a team that over-flows with household names. It’s not an immediate Championship contender. But they are building something. This organization appreciates Kelly Olynyk.
They want him in their meetings. They want him in a Boston Celtic uniform.