After sitting out 13 of Boston’s last 18 games due to a hamstring injury, Jaylen Brown is expected back on the floor for Monday’s showdown with the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks.
His assignment: rescue the 2021-22 Celtics from the mud that their tires have been spinning in most of the season.
Fair or not, it feels like a healthy Brown -- and whatever jolt he can provide -- is Boston’s last hope to show they can be something more than a play-in candidate. NBA trade season opens on Wednesday and, if the Celtics can’t get on track, Brad Stevens has tough decisions ahead while plotting the best path forward for a team that might need more than a tow truck to get back on pavement.
Even if Boston's record with Brown doesn’t leap off the page this season, the Celtics have been solid in his 426 minutes of floor time. His plus-5.9 on-court net rating is the best on the team among regulars. (Enes Freedom is at plus-14.7 but in less than half the minutes since joining the rotation.) Boston has been an elite defense while allowing 98.8 points per 100 possessions with Brown on the court and his return should help a team that yearns to make defense its calling card.
It’s the offensive end, though, where Brown was missed most. The Celtics, with an obvious dearth of shooting, have struggled to consistently put points on the board -- the start of their west coast trip notwithstanding -- and getting back a 25-point-per-game talent can help that cause. That said, Boston is averaging a mere 104.7 points per 100 possessions in Brown’s court time this year, a mark that would rank 26th in the NBA if maintained. The Celtics are lingering at 20th overall (107.4) for the season.
It’s fair to wonder if Brown, now further removed from his preseason bout with COVID and with a more rested hamstring, can energize Boston. In 75 minutes together over seven games, the Celtics’ preferred starting unit of Brown, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart, Robert Williams, and Al Horford have a plus-21.5 net rating, which ranks fourth in the NBA among all units with at least that much court time.
The overarching question is the same one that we were all asking coming into the season: Can Brown make everyone else better with his presence? Can he take some of the stress off Tatum and diminish the offensive burden his All-Star partner has been carrying? Can Brown and Smart find the chemistry that made them one of the league’s highest assist combos in the league last season? And can Brown simply help the Celtics avoid the maddening swings in intensity that have left this team with a sub-.500 record and pondering a murky future?
Midway through the third quarter of Brown’s last game against the Philadelphia 76ers, we saw Halley’s Comet when the Celtics ran a pick-and-roll involving Tatum and Brown.
Brown screened Tatum’s defender, Danny Green, forcing an initial switch. When Tatum drove on Seth Curry, Green rushed over to help deny, which allowed Brown to sneak behind the 3-point line. Green raced out to contest and Brown drove before feeding Tatum alone in the paint. As Philadelphia scrambled to help, Tatum muscled the ball to a baseline-cutting Robert Williams, who went over the top of Joel Embiid for a bucket.
It wasn’t a perfect sequence but it was still quite fetching. These sorts of moments shouldn’t seem so monumental, and yet it’s sometimes jarring to see Brown and Tatum work in concert.
Back on October 29, after the Celtics wrapped up their morning practice, Tatum and Brown spent time with assistant coaches working on pick-and-rolls together. Tatum and Brown took turns operating as ball-handler and screener and working on various options based on how the defense reacted. We raced to document the moment -- two superstars working together outside of practice! -- but it feels like it should be second nature. In fairness, we only see brief glimpses of post-practice work and we’ve often heard how the two routinely push each other behind the scenes.
Now the Celtics need to see it blossom more on the court.
During an appearance on "The Knuckleheads" podcast during Boston’s recent west coast trip, Tatum openly acknowledged how he and Brown have to get better at playing off each other. Given the attention that each player draws, they need to make life easier for one another.
"I think the next step is us feeding off each other more in a game," noted Tatum while piling praise on his All-Star teammate.
Here’s the jarring number that we haven’t been able to get out of our heads since we saw it. The Jays have shared the floor for 304 minutes this season but Brown has assisted on a mere three field goals by Tatum. Now, Tatum’s early season shooting funk didn’t help that number. But it sort of underscores the opportunity for growth as a combo. For the sake of comparison, Payton Pritchard has assisted on five Tatum field goals in just 91 minutes together. Sure, point guards will naturally have a higher total (Marcus Smart has a team-high 36 assists to Tatum in 760 minutes together) but with both Jays taking on increased playmaking responsibilities, that number has to spike moving forward.
That’s not just on the players. Boston’s coaching staff needs to find ways for the Jays to more often play off each other. Brown has only been credited with 61 passes to Tatum this season (15.6 percent of his total passes) or about 4.7 passes per game. The NBA’s tracking data has Tatum shooting 33.3 percent off all passes from Brown, which again helps explain a curiously low assist total. A year ago, Tatum shot 42.3 percent off all Brown feeds (he finished with 27 total assists off 252 passes during the 2020-21 season).
Tatum has been credited with 66 passes to Brown this year leading to eight assists. Only Smart (12), Schroder (11), and Horford (10) have assisted on more of Brown’s field goals this year. Brown is shooting 42.9 percent on all Tatum passes.
The Celtics don’t have a lot of shooting that would make both players' lives easier. But the Jays can’t wait for a less flawed roster. They’ve got to figure out how to use all the attention they command to put increased stress on defenses.
Help is probably on the way but the rate at which it will arrive might hinge on what happens the next few weeks. If Brown’s return isn’t enough to save the Celtics, it might be best for the team to take a step back, make player development a priority, and reboot for next season when another impact talent could be paired alongside the Jays.
If Boston shows progress with Brown back, then maybe the Celtics seek more minor shooting upgrades and hope that the parity in the middle of the East opens opportunities for a late-season surge. The play of the team to this point suggests they should more strongly consider the step-back approach but we’ll see what the next few weeks bring against some of the NBA’s elite.
Former Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge suggested the onus is on Boston’s supporting cast.
"I thought Jaylen started out great, started the season amazing, the best player on the team early in the year. And then the injury happened and he hasn't been the same since," said Ainge. "Jayson has had his ups and downs but we know what a great player he is. And I'm not worried. People say, 'Oh, Jayson’s struggling,' but that's the least of every worry, at least in my mind, about the Boston Celtics. He is going to figure it out. And the question is can the rest of the guys step up and play their roles and take some of the burden off of him?"
Ainge’s former teammate Kevin McHale sees it differently. He puts the focus on players like Tatum and Brown to get the most out of each other and those around them. McHale recalled Red Auerbach telling him he was a great player but questioned how McHale would make his teammates better.
That is the challenge for Tatum and Brown, regardless of how this season plays out. There’s another level for them to go to and now they’ve got to find how to get there.