With two star players in the age 25-or-under club, the Boston Celtics are in a position many NBA teams would envy. Regardless, trade rumors circle this team like vultures. It’s what tends to happen when a team is severely underperforming. At 18-19, the Celtics are just outside of the NBA’s playoff picture in 9th place in the Eastern Conference. Defensively, they’ve been solid, as their 108.97 Defensive Rating ranks ninth in the league. Unfortunately, stops only mean so much when you can’t generate baskets of your own. The C’s 110.03 Offensive Rating ranks a mere 19th across the Association.
That’s particularly puzzling for a team that rosters two young superstars in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The former is averaging 25.6 points per game, while the latter is averaging 24.3. Obviously, the Jays aren’t getting enough help, but with a roster largely devoid of expendable trade chips, it’s fair to question how General Manager Brad Stevens can get it for them. On the other hand, the Celtics would invariably receive a massive return if they made Jaylen Brown (the presumptive trade piece) available. Is it time for the Celtics to break up this star duo?
On the one hand, it feels like a rash, premature decision. Tatum is 23, and Brown is 25. Their previous success (consecutive Conference Finals appearances in 2017-18 and 2018-19) may have burdened this group with unreasonable expectations. On the other hand, questions about whether Tatum and Brown are a viable on-court pairing remain valid. Here’s a look at the case for, and the case against, breaking up the two stars.
If there’s a fair concern about this star duo, it’s the redundancy in their respective styles of play. In 2021-22, Tatum is posting an Assist Percentage of 18.4%. That’s a solid mark for a wing player, but with Brown posting a mark of 14.3% in the same category, there’s not a lot of playmaking occurring between the two.
That’s not a damning criticism of either player. Tatum is a special scorer. His True Shooting % (TS%) of 53.1% this season is a career-low, but the Celtics can safely assume he’ll regress to the mean on that front. Any basketball observer knows that Tatum is a bonafide three-level threat. Few players in the National Basketball Association can create their own shots as easily as him. Meanwhile, Brown fits the two-way wing archetype that teams covet across the league. In short, these are both quality NBA players.
That doesn’t mean their skill sets may not overlap. With their two highest usage players so hesitant to give up the rock, the Celtics rank 21st in the NBA in assists per game (22.8). That probably explains their generally subpar offensive attack. Possessions regularly devolve into late-clock isolation attempts in Bean Town. The offense has a your-turn-my-turn feel that doesn’t generally bode well for generating baskets.
These Boston Celtics need someone to stir their drink, but the trade market doesn’t inspire much hope unless Brown is on the Celtics’ block. Marcus Smart could be an intriguing trade chip, but he won’t net the Celtics a star playmaker. Robert Williams is a prospect with tremendous upside, but his rim protection and rebounding are already a perfect fit alongside Tatum and Brown. At 24, he projects as a long-term piece for this squad regardless of whether they move on from Brown.
It’s hard to envision how the Celtics can substantially improve this roster in the short term without doing just that. That might just mean that they need a longer-term focus.
The case against breaking up this Boston Celtics star duo is simple. They’re unlikely to trade Tatum, period. They’re equally unlikely to receive anyone in a Brown trade as good as Jaylen Brown himself.
The conversation may change if Bradley Beal officially finds his way to the trade block. He’s arguably as gifted a scorer as either Celtics star, and his 30.8 Assist % would diversify this Celtics attack. Otherwise, it’s hard to imagine what the Celtics would receive for Brown that would put them in a better position than they’re in.
Ben Simmons has been floated as a possibility (to nobody’s surprise). He’s by far the most gifted playmaker named in this article so far. On the other hand, he projects as a bad fit alongside Robert Williams. The Celtics could explore making further moves to maximize a group built around Simmons and Tatum. Myles Turner and Christian Wood are both stretch fives who seem available. The C’s may be able to flip either Marcus Smart or a combination of their young players and picks for either.
It’s a tantalizing possibility. It just feels a little unnecessarily complicated. The fit between Simmons and Tatum is logical on paper, but it comes with no guarantees. Flipping Brown, Smart, and draft capital for Simmons and Turner would make for a full-blown overhaul of a team that, again, just recently made consecutive Conference Finals trips.
The Boston Celtics may not need to take such drastic measures. For example, a low-cost player like Ricky Rubio would add a dynamic of playmaking and floor-spacing to this team while allowing them to keep both Tatum and Brown. Jalen Brunson is a free agent after this season. There are possibilities. The Celtics may need a playmaking guard, but it may make more sense to add one to their dynamic duo rather than swap one of them in the process of acquiring one.
For the time being, it seems to make more sense for the Celtics to exercise a little patience with Tatum and Brown. They may be falling short of expectations this season, but with a few smaller roster changes, that may not be true for long.
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