The Boston Celtics have played with such maddening inconsistency over the past two seasons that we understand why a lot of people have lost their minds watching this team.
But even at the rock bottom-est of moments -- and last week’s 25-point, national-TV meltdown against the Knicks sure felt about as low as this limbo line has sometimes gotten -- it seemed like an overreaction to suggest that the Celtics needed to break up the Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown combo.
Now, it’s 100 percent fair to ponder all paths forward when a team with two young All-Stars has woefully underachieved over two full seasons worth of regular-season games. The Celtics overhauled their front office and much of the team's supporting cast this summer and little has changed. But the idea of ripping out one of the team's pillars seemingly only makes the future that less sturdy.
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Brown reeled in the "blow it up!" mafia a bit on Saturday night by producing his first career triple double. The Jays even had a few moments working in concert that offered subtle reminders of what this can be.
Brown then confronted the notion that he and Tatum cannot thrive together head-on in his postgame press conference.
"I disagree. I think we can play together," said Brown. "We have played together well for the majority of our career and things like that. The last year or so hasn't gone as expected but I think a lot of the adversity that we're kind of going through now is going to help us grow and get better in the future.
"If we get over this slump and continue to learn, I think there's a lot of good basketball on the other side of this. I only can control what I can control. I understand everybody has to do their jobs, but me and JT talk. We talked after the [Saturday night Knicks] game, communicated with each other and things like that. So we're on the same page.
"I get where all the other frustration comes from but, as long as I'm on the same page with him and he's on the same page with me, that's where we're most focused on."
The numbers for the Jays this season aren’t nearly as glossy as a couple seasons ago when Boston had more top-end talent around them. But, considering Boston’s inconsistent ways, the team’s production with the Tatum/Brown combo has been better than you might expect hearing all the cries to make a move.
A closer look at how the Celtics have performed with the Jays sharing the floor the past five seasons:
Boston’s offensive rating has plummeted this year, and that’s the number that leaps off the page. Even though Kemba Walker was a shell of himself last year, his presence still mattered. The Celtics had an offensive rating of 117.3 in the 1,196 non-trash time possessions that Tatum, Brown, and Walker shared the floor last year, per Cleaning the Glass data.
Even Boston’s preferred starting five this year -- with Al Horford, Robert Williams, and Marcus Smart alongside the Jays -- has a net rating of plus-15.2, but the offensive rating of 112.1 still lags behind the output of recent first units.
Which sort of underscores the issue here. While Tatum and Brown absolutely have strides to make in their own development, particularly with their play in late-game situations or whenever things go sideways for this team, the bigger issue here is finding the right pieces to slot beside them.
Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens crafted a roster thin on shooting this season and Boston’s overall struggles have made it tough for first-year coach Ime Udoka to embrace the young shooters who may better accentuate the Jays talents. Udoka’s lineups, with his penchant for starting double bigs and sometimes not having enough shooting on the court, have further complicated matters.
The Celtics seem to have their center of the future in Robert Williams. The 3-man combo of Tatum/Brown/Williams has a plus-12.4 net rating in 342 minutes this season, including solid ratings on both ends of the floor (111.5 offensive rating, 99.2 defensive rating). While the net rating with the Jays and Smart isn’t as glossy (plus-2.0 in 433 minutes together), there have been encouraging signs about how that group can play when the right amount of shooting is on the floor with that group.
That’s why we remain bullish on the Core Four and wonder their potential with another shooter in that mix. Smart deserves a longer look as the primary point guard and having another shooter on the floor further defines his responsibilities.
Regardless of how the Celtics decide to proceed this season -- and we’re on record saying the team might need to embrace a bit more of a future focus that might ultimately land this team in the lottery -- we’d like to see the Celtics surround Brown and Tatum with more shooting more often, even if just to gauge the results.
For instance, Boston’s offensive rating pops to 115.9 in the 84 minutes that Tatum, Brown, and Grant Williams share the floor, and Grant Williams’ 3-point development has helped that unit maintain a 65.8 percent true shooting percentage, which is the best mark (by more than 7 percent) among all 3-man groups featuring the Jays.
We understand the frustration with this team. Brown and Tatum still have a long way to go to be the sort of superstars that can carry this thing to a championship level. But, assessing Boston’s path forward, we’d much rather see the team find creative ways to infuse the right pieces around the Jays than slam the reboot button.
Maybe it won’t work. And maybe in six months or a year we’re having an even tougher conversation about the path forward and whether it includes Brown.
But Brown and Tatum are convinced they can make it work together here. It’s on Stevens and Udoka to find, and play, the pieces that give this team the best chance of making it work.