We should probably know by now to be careful with knee-jerk reactions to all things involving Jaylen Brown.
The boos on draft night in 2016. The ceiling-setting after his rough 2018-19 campaign. The groans after his contract extension last October. Brown seems to turn any semblance of doubt into motivation.
We know now the Celtics probably made the right choice drafting Brown over mortgaging picks to bring in a Jimmy Butler or Paul George. We know now that Brown’s growth was stunted by Boston’s talent glut during Kyrie Irving’s final season.
And, as members of the classes of 2016 and 2017 draft classes sign eye-popping maximum-salary rookie extensions here at the start of free agency, Brown’s rookie extension suddenly looks like a bargain.
Brown signed a four-year, $107 million extension before the start of last season. It kicks in this year and will see Brown earn $23.9 million for the 2020-21 season. By the time the dust settles on this fall's free agency, Brown will barely be in the top 50 for the most lucrative contracts in the NBA.
Brown, the third overall pick in 2016, will earn far less than others around him in that draft class. Ben Simmons, Jamal Murray, and now Brandon Ingram have all inked maximum-salary extensions. Buddy Hield signed for nearly the same terms as Brown but will earn more this year because his deal is frontloaded.
Meanwhile, Jayson Tatum, Bam Adebayo, and De’Aaron Fox all landed max-salary extensions in recent days from the class of 2017.
When Brown signed his deal last year, many scoffed at the salary figure. There were talks that he had leveled off after an underwhelming 2018-19 season. Almost immediately, Brown displayed a restocked toolbox and muscled his way into All-Star consideration. There’s a case to be made that he was Boston’s most consistent performer inside the bubble, prolonging a pattern in which Brown elevates his play on the bigger stages.
All of which makes you wonder what might have happened this week if the Celtics had not locked up Brown last year. Imagine Brown, coming off the season he had, hitting a free-agent market thin on impact wings?
The Charlotte Hornets surely would have thrown $30+ million per season at Brown, right? Would the Atlanta Hawks have delivered a max salary offer to the Georgia native?
The Celtics still would have been in position to offer Brown more money than other suitors but the price tag would have almost certainly been the same five-year, $158 million deal that Ingram inked. The Celtics saved roughly $5 million per season based on average annual value.
Brown’s ability to perform above his pay grade is vital to Boston’s success moving forward. With Gordon Hayward’s departure, the Celtics need both Brown and Tatum to shoulder even more of the load, especially if Kemba Walker is limited by the balky knee that hindered him in the bubble.
Hayward’s departure and Brown’s non-max salary affords Boston some flexibility to build the team around the Jays.
The Celtics are staying out of the tax this season, which not only allowed them to ink Tristan Thompson to the bigger midlevel, but will provide some additional flexibility to spend big in future seasons . Whenever Walker comes off the books — he holds a player option for the 2022-23 season — Boston could be major players for free agents and restock around Brown and Tatum.
While so much of Boston’s championship aspirations hinges on Tatum’s development and whether he can be a top 5 player in the league, Brown’s ability to continue growing will be vital, too. If he can be a top 25 player in the NBA, it gives Boston one of the best young 1-2 punches in the NBA.
One thing is certain: For the next four years, the Celtics have that Brown-Tatum core. The championship window is open but hinges on what they become.
It’s absolutely fair to lament how the Celtics let Irving, Al Horford, and potentially now Hayward walk away for no return (Boston could still recoup assets with a sign-and-trade with Charlotte).
But the Celtics did well to lock up their young core. Locking up Brown last season ensured they remain contenders for at least the next four years.