John Tomase

Recalling Jaylen Brown trades the Celtics thankfully never made

Jaylen Brown has made the Celtics look very smart for keeping him in Boston.

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The NBA playoffs aren't just a showcase for some of the world's most creative athletes. In the case of the Celtics, they're also a testament to the power of patience.

Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens probably had a dozen opportunities over the last five years to split up Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Some of the rumors were so stupid – "Boogie Cousins would give them a true cent-AHH!" – to barely merit mention. But others would've brought legitimate superstars to Boston, and probably even merited debate within the walls on Causeway Street.

A quick spin through 48 hours of first-round playoff action crystallizes how wise the Celtics were to stay the course.

Let's start in Boston, where the Celtics host the Heat in Game 2 on Wednesday night. In a different world, perhaps they would've traded Brown for Jimmy Butler. "Playoff Jimmy" has played for four teams since Brown entered the league. Those advocating for more experience and toughness could've made a plausible case for Butler before he went from the Sixers to the Heat in 2019. Maybe the Celtics win a title with Butler, but there's no question which player makes them better today.

Butler is 34 and all those years of shouldering impossible postseason loads have finally caught up with him. He hurt his knee in the play-in tournament vs. the Sixers and is expected to be sidelined for weeks. Without him, the Heat may be reduced to playing a gentler version of goon ball. They are simply outclassed, and Brown is a big reason why.

Then there's Anthony Davis. Ainge desperately maneuvered the Celtics into position to land the dominating big man alongside Kyrie Irving, but those dreams evaporated when the player's dad criticized the team's handling of Isaiah Thomas.

Just as well. When last we saw the perpetually mopey Davis with the perpetually underachieving Lakers, he was watching Denver's Jamal Murray drill a game-winning fall-away in his face at the buzzer of Game 2. While the Lakers have a Bubble championship to show for Davis's pairing with LeBron James, they've been on a downward trajectory ever since.

Speaking of downward trajectories, James Harden is back in the playoffs, this time with the Clippers, who split the first two at home against Dallas. Ainge admitted the Rockets called about Brown while dangling Harden in 2020. Even though Ainge has long admired Harden as a "transcendent player," he wasn't about to ditch a gifted wing who hadn't even hit his prime.

For all of Harden's supposed transcendence, he's a losing player come spring. Despite playing on some stacked teams in Brooklyn and Philly, he hasn't reached a conference finals since leaving Houston. And he's often the player to blame, like when he delivered a listless disappearing act in Game 7 vs. the Celtics last year, scoring nine points and pulling a minus-30. No thank you.

At least they're in better shape than the Suns, who got trounced in Games 1 and 2 in Minnesota. Phoenix features two players who might've come to Boston at different points in Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal. The former is a future Hall of Famer who danced with the C's as far back as the 2007 draft, when the Celtics hoped to win the lottery but ended up picking fifth, which led to the Kevin Garnett/Ray Allen pivot that produced Banner 17.

Ainge wined and dined Durant in free agency before he chose the Warriors, and he was constantly linked to him thereafter. Only two years ago, the rumors of a Durant-for-Brown swap took on new life shortly after the Celtics lost the Finals. Brown had every reason to be miffed, but ultimately didn't go anywhere, and now he's thriving.

Watch some of Jaylen Brown's most explosive dunks of the 2023-24 regular season.

Durant remains great, but he's 35 and has been in the league for 17 years. Acquiring him probably would've cost the Celtics Derrick White, too, and their championship window would already be closing. Instead, that's now Phoenix's problem, especially since Beal, Tatum's childhood mentor, is a defensive liability on the wrong side of 30 who's hardly worth $50 million annually.

That brings us to our last star, and perhaps the one most relevant to these playoffs. Had the Celtics wanted to, they could've beaten the package that sent Damian Lillard from Portland to Milwaukee. They had Brown to dangle before he signed his supermax extension, but they never seriously considered moving him. It probably helped that Lillard dismissed the idea of playing in Boston with a sip of orange juice and an LOL.

Bucks fans are getting a window into why Lillard's teams never won anything in Portland. With Giannis Antetokounmpo sidelined, now is Lillard's time to shine in their first-round series vs. the Pacers. They instead split the first two in Milwaukee, getting blown out in Game 2. Without Antetokounmpo, it's easy to envision Lillard flaming out in the first round for the sixth time.

Meanwhile, Lillard joining Milwaukee opened the door for Jrue Holiday in Boston, and there's little question who won that swap. The Celtics are title favorites after winning 64 games, their roster a tribute to what can happen when you don't surrender to the moment.

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