Michael Holley

A new title: How Tatum and Brown rewrote their legacies in Boston

The Celtics' young superstars are co-authoring a new basketball story.

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We met them 11 years ago this month, even though we didn’t know their names. All we knew then, in June 2013, was that Danny Ainge and the Celtics traded away a couple of champions, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, for a hope chest of draft picks that might develop into stars one day.

On the night of that Celtics-Nets trade, Jaylen Brown was a 16-year-old kid in Atlanta. Jayson Tatum, 15, was a rising high school sophomore in St. Louis. In retrospect, it seems like a ridiculous plan for a championship rebuild: Trade two aging but proven Hall of Famers, sink to the bottom, and essentially wait for the kids to pull you back to the top.

This would be a wait through driving lessons. Prom. Basketball camps and travel teams. Recruiting. One-and-dones. Meddling agents. This meant waiting out random lottery balls. Salary cap-clearing deals. A relentless passion, from executives and fans alike, that tempts you to stop waiting for these nameless, faceless picks and nudges you to cash out now for known players like Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, and Jimmy Butler.

Now, incredibly, we're only waiting for the parade.

The picks became a pair of third overall choices in back-to-back years, 2016 and 2017. They became All-NBA and All-Star players. They are now championship players.

A look back at the pivotal moments of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum being drafted 3rd overall in back-to-back years that became the foundation for a NBA title

Brown and Tatum – the Jays, ages 27 and 26 -- were always linked. Always. Often unfairly. The success of one often led to a conversation about the shortcomings of the other.

Who was the better player?

Who had the higher ceiling?

Who could be moved in a deal for Anthony Davis or Damian Lillard?

They look different, sound different, play ball with different styles and riffs, have distinct personal and professional outlooks. Yet, you never had to venture too far to hear a hot take about their on-court redundancy and inability to make one another better.

All that goes away now with the Celtics’ emphatic five-game takedown of the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals. Brown was the Finals MVP with his nearly 21 points-per-game average and ferocious defensive hounding of Luka Doncic. Tatum delivered 12 assists in Game 2 when his shot wasn’t falling and had 20 first-half points in Game 3 to calm an early Dallas run and a near-triple-double in the Game 5 clincher. In Game 3, Brown scored half of his 30 points in the third quarter to officially give the Celtics control of the game and, ultimately, the series.

In other words, the Jays were everywhere.

The unofficial and significant moment of control came in a press conference before Game 2. As a player, Jason Kidd saw things developing on the court long before everyone else did. So did Kidd, the coach. He undoubtedly saw the Jays’ offensive and defensive potential, and how devastating it could be when aligned. The only thing that could stop it? Ego and insecurity.

Brown and Tatum pointed out Kidd’s obvious attempt to divide them and wisely redirected the conversation.

That redirection, or even renewal, is what local and national NBA fans will now have to adapt to with the Jays. In a sense, there’s an NBA renewal that happens every June during and immediately after the Finals. League personnel and fans alike have spent years developing rough sketches of who they think NBA players and coaches are. From He can’t win in the playoffs, to He ain’t got that dawg in him to It's time to break up the Jays.

There’s a scouting report, constantly churning, for everyone in the league. Every playoff failure reinforces the report, without regard to circumstances or nuance. In this world, comments cannot be turned off.

Two years ago, Tatum’s profile said he couldn’t step up when it mattered most because of his poor shooting against the Warriors. Last year, Brown’s Left Hand cornered the market on memes and YouTube shorts after he had eight turnovers in a Game 7 loss to the Heat. Then there were raised eyebrows over his record-breaking supermax extension. For everyone in the league, it’s a race to outrun your negative rating, and generally the only thing capable of pausing and rewriting it is the thing that Tatum and Brown now have.

A title.

Today, as we look at a championship team that won 80 percent of its games, with its best players under contract and still shy of their primes, the divorce talk of the past seems illogical. Or at least ahistorical. When the Jays argued with Marcus Smart in the NBA Bubble, following a playoff loss to Miami, they were just 23 and 22 years old. When, once again, they were famously called out by Smart for taking too many shots, they were 25 and 24. They weren’t exactly kids, but they also weren’t done growing, learning, ascending.

Based on NBA history, they still might not be done.

LeBron James was Brown’s age, 27, when he won the first of his four titles. Michael Jordan and Kevin Durant were 28 for their first. Pierce was 30. Hakeem Olajuwon and KG were 31. We’ve seen the struggles in Boston with the Jays and in other NBA cities. What we just watched the Celtics do requires some deft balancing. You’ve got to have talent, complementary teammates, a franchise that can mix smarts and patience, and, of course, luck. Some great players, like Charles Barkley, got all of the above more than once and still couldn’t win it.

Everyone knows it’s hard to win. A more obscure secret is the superpower you get when you manage to do it. This century, nearly two-thirds of the league has never tasted championship champagne. For some current and former players, it’s simple: If I don’t have one, I don’t want you to have one, either.

Brown and Tatum have combined to play nearly 1,300 games, but today feels new. If they drew inspiration from the doubts about their ability to win a championship, they’ll need new inspiration. If they were driven by a thirst to win an 18th title for the Celtics, they’ll have to develop a hunger for 19. If they secretly wondered if the highest achievement in the sport would elude them here, or together, or ever, that goes away now, too.

🔊 Celtics Talk: A 'Banner' day in Boston as Celtics celebrate title with epic parade | Listen & Subscribe | Watch on YouTube

For the first time in their professional lives, they’ll watch contenders – especially in the East – make moves to chase after and match up with them. Teams will maneuver in the draft and free agency with the thought of competing with the best team, and best duo, in basketball.

This is part of the deal in June. When you win it, the trolls get quiet – briefly – and the league becomes yours. Closer to home, the city and region belong to Brown, Tatum, and all Celtics associates. They’ve now gained entry to the greatest basketball gallery in the world, but they still have an opportunity to do something that Larry Bird, Pierce, and KG never did.

They have a chance to go back-to-back, which no Celtics team has done since the 1960s. Back-to-back for a team featuring the Jays. How poetic is that for these two?

In June 2024, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum revised, rewrote, and uploaded their new basketball story. The title? Brown and Tatum. Tatum and Brown. The Jays. Hell, maybe The Title is the title.

And now it’s our turn to respond to that.

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