Fortunes change quickly in the NBA. It wasn’t that long ago that the Boston Celtics were seemingly set for an incredibly bright future with two young, emerging superstar wings in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The plan was to put another big piece next to the duo and compete for titles for the next decade.
Armed with a trove of future draft assets, the Celtics had multiple plays for the final piece of their championship puzzle. They tried Kyrie Irving. Gordon Hayward. Kemba Walker. Hayward and Walker, mostly due to a cruel twist of injury fate, were never the players they were supposed to be in Boston, and Irving pretty much checked out before bolting for Brooklyn.
Celtics czar Danny Ainge stepped down. Brad Stevens moved upstairs. New head coach Ime Udoka has chosen the public call-out route on multiple occasions, and that, too, isn’t working. After a win over the Knicks on Saturday in which Brown posted the first triple-double of this career, the Celtics are just 19-21, good enough — or bad enough — for the No. 10 spot in the Eastern Conference, directly on the cut line for the postseason play-in round.
Part because they’re the best players and part because there’s no one else left to blame, Brown and Tatum are taking the brunt of the heat. Everyone knows they’re great players, but doubt is bubbling as to whether they can be great together. If the Celtics don’t have any other assets that anyone really wants — which, outside of Robert Williams, they don’t — the only remaining mechanism for change becomes trading one of the Jays.
Brown, for his part, rejects this notion.
“I disagree, I think we can play together,” Brown said on Saturday, per Jared Weiss of The Athletic, when asked about the possibility of he and Tatum being split up. “We have played together well for the majority of our career. The last year or so hasn’t gone as expected. But the adversity we’ve gone through will help us grow and get better in the future.”
Brown also said that he and Tatum spoke recently about Boston’s struggles to this point and what they can do, as a duo, to better impact winning moving forward, and that they are on the same page and remain convinced they can successfully coexist long term, per Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe.
You can understand Brown’s optimism. It’s easy to forget the Celtics have gone to three conference finals in the last five seasons. They were one win from the Finals in 2018. On one hand, today’s NBA is all about two-way wings that can switch defensively and create offense at an elite level. To have two of those guys, one 25 years old (Brown) and the other just 23, is a luxury.
On the other hand, there’s no denying the offensive complications of a Brown-Tatum pairing. They’re almost too similar. You want to think they can play any style because they’re both so skilled and versatile and they can both shoot 3s, but at heart they are isolation scorers who want to take matters into their own hands. Earlier this season, Marcus Smart flat out said that Brown and Tatum “don’t like to pass the ball.”
Tatum loves coming out of his bag into a pull-up jumper. Over three games leading into Saturday’s win, Brown collected 96 points and just six assists. If the Celtics had a connecting, pass-first point guard, they wouldn’t have to rely so much on Brown and Tatum to fill the playmaking hole, this allowing them the freedom to do their comfortable thing. But Dennis Schroder wants his buckets all the same. This was a problem when Kyrie was in Boston, too.
In the absence of a Ricky Rubio-type floor general, Brown and Tatum, one could argue, are miscast and ultimately set up to fail under a coach in Udoka, whose ball-and-player-movement principles are a square peg in the round hole of his roster. Tatum and Brown are not possession hijackers of a Harden-in-Houston ilk; there are stretches in which they, and the Celtics, play with half-court pace and share the ball, and it is these times when they look like a team that actually adds up to the sum of its talented parts.
But they don’t do it consistently, over stretches of schedule or even within individual games. They’ll come out playing with pace then sink into a standstill. Opponents go on runs, and Udoka isn’t exactly quick to interrupt runs with timeouts. The Celtics have lost four games this season in which they led by at least 19 points, the most in the league.
The closer the game gets, the more Tatum, in particular, reverts to his most individual instincts. He loves coming out of his bag into a contested jumper, but he’s shooting just 35 percent, including a rotten 2-for-19 mark from 3, in the clutch (when a game is within five points with five minutes or less to play) this season.
As a whole, Boston ranks 24th in clutch-time offensive rating with a minus-7.6 net rating. Last season it was the same story: 26th in clutch offensive rating with a minus-9.8 net rating. Admittedly, it’s a contradictory sentiment to bemoan Tatum and Brown tending to take matters into their own hands in crunch time when we all speak on the importance of “bucket getters” down the stretch of close games. This is when you need guys who can create for themselves.
It is, perhaps, a fitting microcosm for a duo that looks so good on paper but is starting to stagnate in practice. It feels like the Celtics should be good, but they just aren’t. And they haven’t been for a while now. No organization wants to pull the plug on a plan in which it has invested just about everything, but we’ve seen multiple star duos run their course.
The Raptors eventually conceded that Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan had topped out. Washington came to the same conclusion with John Wall and Bradley Beal. Portland is probably headed for a splitting of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.
If the Celtics do decide to move Tatum or Brown, the latter seems likeliest to go. Either one would net a significant return, which is to say Boston wouldn’t be rebuilding so much as retooling with such a trade. It would be a tough pill to swallow, but then, so is playing below-.500 ball with a team, and in a city, that expects to compete for championships.
For years the Celtics could always fall back on a promising future whenever frustration popped up in the present, but now the future is here, and it doesn’t look that great. The assets are all gone. Tatum and Brown are all that’s left, and Boston has to decide whether they’re worth more on the court or the market.