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A tale of two forwards: Jaylen Brown, Marcus Morris, and how timing is everything

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Marcus Morris and Jaylen Brown are having opposite seasons, but the two small forwards and their varying successes are linked.

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Boston Celtics Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a lot of attention on Jaylen Brown right now and it’s not the good kind. Coming off of back-to-back--let’s say “less than stellar”--games against the Hawks and Pistons, Brown has found himself the target of many a Celtics fan’s ire. It’s not been an ideal start to the season for him, something that was recently detailed by GOAT writer Jackie MacMullan, and later broken down by her and Zach Lowe on his Lowe Post podcast.

The two covered the topic in great detail and gave their own two cents about what they could make of the delicate situation. The response was swift and the consensus seems to be ringing out from all corners of the internet: “What’s wrong with Jaylen Brown?”

I might have some ideas.

Chicago Bulls v Boston Celtics Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images

In terms of starting positions, the “off guard” spot probably has the most variability in what that position “means” (besides possibly power forward). In today’s NBA, an off-guard (‘shooting’ or ‘2’ guard) typically has a bit of a place holder function. They aren’t typically involved in initiating the offense and usually have a role that involves being ready to shoot coming off of screens or cutting from the weak side. It’s typically somewhere you put a strong defender if your primary scorer isn’t an especially solid one. Offensive sets will sometimes be run to get them going downhill in an already advantageous position.

The modern two-guard is a largely thankless position. The first “shooting guard” to show up in ESPN’s Real Plus Minus database is Jimmy Butler at the 17th spot. After him, the resurgent Danny Green checks in at the 22nd spot while Victor Oladipo (really more of a point guard for the Pacers) can be found at 30th. After him, the next SG is Josh Richardson, 4th in the SG rankings but 53rd in overall. As always, one of the takeaways from this little exercise is that positions are effectively meaningless and we could also get into a debate about how good of a metric Real Plus Minus is, but I digress.

However, the more pressing point I wanted to convey is how differently the “two-guard” is in today’s NBA. Many the off-guards that are effective in the NBA today play defense well, can playmake when they need to, and have a willingness to shoot threes. People can get a bit caught up in heights, but previous iterations of the Rockets had James Harden on the ball and Patrick Beverly off of the ball. Despite what has been a tough regular season by his standards, Klay Thompson is something of the prototypical superstar when it comes to effective off-guards and he has only finished the year with a usage higher than 25% once in his career. For comparison, there are currently over 40 players in the NBA that play more than 20 MPG and have a usage rate higher than that.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The modern NBA two guard is really a position that is custom made for Marcus Smart and his winning plays, and Smart’s insertion into the starting lineup and Brown’s subsequent demotion reflect that. Playmaking continues to be a weakness for Brown, so when he shares a back court with Irving, the offense is truly limited to single actions at a time, since Irving must operate much of the offense. In contrast, Smart’s passing and overall feel allow for a smoother running offensive machine, even if he is still a below average shooter from behind the arc.

It’s been working so far, and the Celtics are 8-1 since Stevens made the change, though it remains to be seen how much of this winning streak has been a soft schedule. The insertion of the Marcuses has definitely risen the Celtics floor and given them a much more consistent feel to start the year. That said, it’s also put a bit of a firmer ceiling on the Celtics as well, one they might need if they want to beat a team like the Warriors.

Celtics fans might not realize that Jaylen Brown finished second on the team last year in total +/- (+343) and trailed only Al Horford (+345). Celtics fans remember the impressive rookie season from Jayson Tatum and Terry Rozier’s playoff push, but Brown stellar sophomore year is something of a forgotten development. Brown is still a career 36.1% 3-point shooter, an above average mark, even after his ghastly struggles to start the year.

In fact, in the 2017-18 regular season, Brown was involved in a staggering number of the Celtics top three man units that were seen in over half of the regular season games. In fact, when sorting by +/- per 100 possessions, Brown is featured in seven of the twelve top line-ups.

Stats per NBA.com

The main problem with this is that Jaylen’s primary backcourt rival, Marcus Smart, is also featured in seven of the twelve best three man lineups.

Further complicating things, was that the Celtics other “non-All Star back court rotation piece,” Terry Rozier, was not far behind in half of the lineups.

The reason for parsing through all those numbers is to point out that the Celtics got a lot of positive contribution from their back court during the regular season last year and it’s probably more than most people realized. With Kyrie back in the fold, minutes as a two-guard have dwindled and with other talented forwards on the roster like Gordon Hayward and Jayson Tatum and occasional matchups that demand the Celtics play two bigs, there’s a playing time crunch in the front court, too. Bringing Hayward into the mix has shrunk Jaylen role even smaller, which is notable because he was already playing at a position that might not be the optimal use for his talents.

Further complicating matters is Marcus Morris, who continues to be not only the Celtics most consistent player, but also their hottest shooter. With a little more than a third of the season in the books, Morris has been on a torrid pace, shooting lights out from downtown and providing needed rebounding for a Celtics team that can’t.

There seems to be no end in sight to Morris’s hot streak, but a cool night in Detroit for the Celtics forward (0-6 from three) in a subsequent loss might have been a bit of a “check engine” light for Gang Green’s season. It’s truly been phenomenal to see a seven-year veteran like Morris take his game to the next level, but it’s also probably not the best sign for a healthy team to be so reliant on Morris shooting 42% from three.

Boston Celtics v Washington Wizards Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

The numbers for Morris’s units have looked great over the Celtics eight game win streak, where the Celtics have pumped their point differential by annihilating some of the worst teams in the league. However, taking a glance at the on/off numbers from before Thanksgiving will show that Morris was the only rotation player to actually have a negative differential. The other two were Horford and Brown, who were a part of that dismal starting lineup travesty at the beginning of the year.

Earlier in the piece, I made note that Horford and Brown where the Celtics two leaders in plus-minus in 2017-2018. During that same year, Morris finished 8th on the team with a total +/- of +21. The 7th place spot was Terry Rozier with +119. Not much stock can be put in small sample +/- numbers, but Morris now has a multi-season trend of his differential being significantly lower than you might think watching the games.

As of now, Morris is the starter, but both players are averaging 27 minutes per game. Mook is shooting 10% points higher than Brown (14% more from 3), but oddly enough, they’re both averaging about 11 FGA’s per game with Morris hitting one more a game. That’s it. One more made shot changes this entire narrative. The way I see it, the two options are:

  1. Ride it out and hope that a 27-year-old keeps shooting six percent better than his career average from deep for the rest of the season and playoffs and hope that you can re-sign him in his ensuing unrestricted free agency.
  2. Push through the growing pains and take more losses with your barely 22-year-old who may be playing out of of position and finished the last year as almost your best player in terms of how the team did when he was on the floor.

It may seem glib, but this is a real quandary for a team with title aspirations now. If this were the Celtics two years ago, chasing a five-seed, Morris would already be in Houston and the Celtics would have their first round pick for him. Things are different when you have championship expectations. Every game will be important for a Celtics team that could really use home court advantage in a tougher East. It might not be feasible to let Jaylen work through his slump and get some losses here and there.

That said, the bigger picture of the Celtics beyond this season needs to be taken into consideration as well. It’s exceptionally unlikely that both of Morris and Rozier are back next year (both of them deserve to secure the bag), and it’s possible that neither are. A chance for Jaylen to play more small forward and always have a true point guard on the floor with him could really help bring his numbers back to where they were a year ago before Hayward’s return.

The best version of the 2017-2018 Celtics was one with Jaylen Brown. So far that hasn’t been the case in 2018-2019, but the Celtics are going to need every scrap of their ceiling to have a chance at an NBA title this year. Brown is the clearest way to raise that roof, but it might cost the Celtics time to find that out.

Time that they are quickly running out of.