LAS VEGAS — Jared Sullinger’s tenure with the Celtics has almost certainly come to an end, as the team renounced its 2016-17 qualifying offer to the forward, making him an unrestricted free agent.
“Jared’s a good kid and I’m grateful for what he gave us and I wish him well,” Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said by telephone Sunday. “I hope he gets a good opportunity. We just feel this is the best thing for our team.”
When the Celtics guaranteed Amir Johnson’s $12 million contract and Jonas Jerebko’s $5 million deal last week, they needed to free up salary cap space to sign Al Horford to his four-year, $113 million deal that will pay him $26.5 million next season.
Coach Brad Stevens said that when the Celtics signed Horford, it forced them to make difficult decisions such as this one.
“The thing that stinks about that is having to move on and move forward, both for him and us,” Stevens said. “But he’ll do great. Jared’s one of the more talented guys being able to get the ball off the glass, and he’s got beautiful touch and he’s a good guy, and so I think he’ll do well. I’m hopeful this move will benefit him as well, and I think it will. We’ll see where he lands, but I know there’s a lot of interest in him based on how my phone’s been ringing.”
The Celtics’ primary options were renouncing their qualifying offers to either Sullinger, who had a $5.7 million cap hold, or restricted free agent Tyler Zeller, who has a $6.5 million hold. A cap hold is a figure that is charged against a team’s cap number for a former player who has become a free agent.
Although the Celtics technically could still sign Sullinger, that is an extremely remote possibility.
By renouncing Sullinger’s cap hold, the Celtics gave up his “Bird Rights,” which would have allowed Boston to go over the salary cap to re-sign him because he had spent three years with the team.
Sullinger’s father, Satch, declined an interview request, saying in a text: “It’s a touchy subject until after his signing.”
Point guard Terry Rozier said the Celtics would miss Sullinger’s locker room presence, but he was confident the forward would land in a good situation.
“He’s a smart guy on the court,” Rozier said. “He’s definitely not a downfall for the team. He’s going to score points. He’s just great to have, great to have around. Once you’ve got one of those good locker room guys, good guys to be around, a great veteran, you need that. That’s why he’ll be fine. He’ll find a home.”
The Celtics selected Sullinger with the 21st pick of the 2012 draft. The 6-foot-9-inch, 260-pound forward averaged 11.1 points and 7.7 rebounds over his four seasons with Boston, as flashes of potential were mixed with injuries and questions about his conditioning.
Sullinger played 45 games as a rookie before a preexisting back issue sidelined him for the rest of the season. In 2014-15, he was limited to 58 regular-season games due in part to a stress fracture in his foot.
There was a sense that Sullinger’s weight and fitness played a role in his inability to stay healthy. Last summer he took part in much-publicized training sessions with ex-NBA coach John Lucas and said he had gotten in better shape.
Although there was not an obvious difference at first sight, Sullinger was more durable last season, as he played in 81 games as well as the playoffs. Sullinger did struggle in Boston’s first-round loss to the Hawks, though, averaging 5.2 points and 4.5 rebounds in 13 minutes per game while shooting just 31 percent from the field.
Nevertheless, Ainge said he was confident Sullinger still could find success in the NBA.
“He’s a smart player and he’s a very good rebounder,” Ainge said, “and he’s unafraid of big moments.”
Last Friday, Ainge said the Celtics were not finished making moves this summer and that they were looking to add some help at the center position.
He reiterated that point Sunday, and the departure of Sullinger, the team’s leading rebounder last season, will bring added urgency to that quest.
The Celtics remain in trade discussions and they continue to comb the free agent market, which is drying up quickly. A league source said that nothing appeared imminent for the Celtics, but acknowledged that the situation can change suddenly.
With the departure of Sullinger, the Celtics’ roster picture does become slightly more clear. But Rozier said the big man will be missed.
“He’s a great guy, first of all,” Rozier said. “He’s a great person to have in the locker room with the jokes. He’s definitely a guy you’d notice if he’s not around.”