Recently, ESPN’s Zach Lowe wrote about how NBA teams are transitioning from three stars to building around star duos. Lowe writes that there are four superstar duos currently in the NBA with them being:
· Los Angeles Lakers – LeBron James and Anthony Davis
· Houston Rockets – James Harden and Russell Westbrook
· LA Clippers – Kawhi Leonard and Paul George
· Brooklyn Nets – Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant
Lowe muses that you could potentially consider the Golden State Warriors, Utah Jazz and Philadelphia 76ers in the mix. Not mentioned? The Boston Celtics, and for good reasons.
For about a decade, the NBA was all about trios. The prevailing thought was you needed three stars to win a title. After years of watching Isaiah Thomas become an All-NBA talent and Al Horford flirt with that level, Boston replaced Thomas with Irving and signed Gordon Hayward to complete their trio along with holdover Horford. Unfortunately, Irving, Hayward and Horford combined to play only 613 minutes over 60 games across two seasons.
Without Hayward, just like the duo of Thomas and Horford, Irving and Horford never quite got there. Both guards turned in All-NBA seasons, while Horford remained just on the outside of superstardom. Now, after so much excitement about the trio, only Hayward remains wearing Celtics green.
Does that mean Boston’s chance at finding their own trio, or even duo, has passed them by?
Continuing to build around a high-scoring guard, the Celtics signed Kemba Walker this summer. As we enter the 2019-20 season, Walker stands as Boston’s best player. He’s coming off an All-NBA season and has made the All-Star game the last three years. It’s safe to say the team has their first star, even if Walker is due some regression by the end of his four-year pact.
What about a second star? That’s where it gets tricky for the Celtics. If one were to glance at Boston’s salary sheet, you’d have to assume that role would be played by Hayward. Walker and Hayward combine to make over $65 million, or over half of Boston’s $118 million payroll. That’s not really a fair way to look at it, but heavy is the burden of a max contract.
Hayward was signed to be a second star, initially alongside Thomas, then Irving, and now Walker. Can he get there? There are some pretty encouraging signs that Hayward was finding his game after coming back from the horrific leg injury he suffered on Opening Night of the 2017-18 season. After a rough beginning to 2018-19, one that saw Brad Stevens bench him, Hayward picked up his play as the season went along. Post-All-Star break, Hayward averaged 12.2 points per game on over 55% shooting from the floor. Overall, from January onward, Hayward scored 12.4 points per game on 52.3% from the field in just over 25 minutes per game, all but two as a reserve.
It’s not just the numbers either. Anyone who watched Boston all year saw a clearly different Hayward from October through December than the one we saw from January through April. He was aggressive and made plays. This season, Hayward is expected to return to the starting lineup. That move, along with less mouths to feed, should come with the requisite bump in minutes, likely back to the 32-34 MPG range that Hayward had historically played. With that, it’s easy to envision Hayward’s overall stat-line also climbing. And that’s before you factor in this being his second full season back from the injury. Paul George said it was a full year later he felt like himself on the court.
But what if Hayward is just good, but not an All-Star? Where do the Celtics get that second star? Boston still has a couple of guys ready to step forward in Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum.
Jaylen Brown is coming off a summer well-spent with Team USA. Despite the disappointing seventh place finish, Brown was one of the better players for the US throughout the summer. He was solid offensively, but where Brown really stood out was a defender. He was regularly tasked with defending opposing power forwards and centers and more than held his own. He also flashed improvements as a passer, while shooting the ball well.
When you cast a less critical, traditional stats-based eye at Brown’s third season, you see a player who improved there as well. Like Hayward, Brown had struggles early in the season. His role changed from sophomore starter on a playoff team to clearly the fifth option in a starting group that never clicked. It took Brown a couple of months, and moving to the bench, to adjust, but once he did, he took off. Like Hayward, Brown was also excellent from January onward, as he averaged 13.7 points per game on nearly 49% shooting.
Overall, Brown’s per-36 minute numbers were better than his second year. It’s easy to attribute any drop-off in production to a lessened role, along with playing almost five minutes fewer per game.
In 2019-2020, everything is pointing towards Brown having a true breakout season. He should be a starter again and back over 30 MPG. And he’s playing for his first post-rookie scale contract. The Celtics would happily sign Brown to a team-friendly extension, but he’s not going to do that. That means he’s got plenty of motivation to have a big season.
Hayward and Brown re-emerging and emerging respectively as All-Stars would be a more than welcomed development for Boston, but the true hope for the team’s next superstar lies with Jayson Tatum. Like Brown, Tatum is coming off a summer with Team USA. Unlike Brown, Tatum was forced to bow out after just two games at the World Cup due to a sprained ankle. But in those two games, and several exhibitions in the lead up to the World Cup, Tatum showed why everyone has been so high on him.
He did his thing as a scorer, despite shooting poorly in China, but what should excite fans most were his improvements as a playmaker for others and as a defender. Team USA regularly gave Tatum the ball and the freedom to make plays. He made several passes this summer that he was incapable of making in his first two NBA seasons. He did it coming off screens, in the open floor and out of isolation plays. Like Brown, Tatum being an improved passer will help make up for a lot of what Boston lost with Horford leaving for Philadelphia.
On defense, like Brown, Tatum was asked to defend bigger players. He played some as a five in addition to primarily playing the four. Tatum has been a good defender since Day One with the Celtics, which is part of how he gained a role right away as a rookie but an increased ability to hold his own in the paint, while also defending on the perimeter, will also go a long way towards replacing Horford.
Tatum projects towards stardom more than Brown, because his game fits that of the prototypical superstar. His shooting percentages were down in his second year, but there are a few reasons for that. First, Tatum set a ridiculously high bar as a rookie with a 48/43/83 season. That’s almost unheard of for a 19-year-old.
Second, his role changed more than anyone’s with the return of Irving and Hayward. Tatum went from being the team’s primary scorer to the third or fourth option on a lot of nights. It wasn’t uncommon for him to go five or six trips in a row without a quality offensive touch. That led to some of the bad, contested mid-range shots, because Tatum has a scorer’s mentality of “I need to get a shot up”. That’s hard to ask a 20-year-old to break out of.
Lastly, maybe it was just the old sophomore slump that got Tatum as a shooter. If so, expect him to bounce back. He may not push 50/40/90, but somewhere in between last year’s still-good 45/37/86 and his rookie year line, combined with his improved rebounding, passing and defense, and you’ve got an All-Star.
This could all come together in any number of ways. Maybe Hayward does get back to his Utah form, or at least close, and pairs with Walker to form an All-Star duo for Boston. Maybe Tatum or Brown steps forward and becomes that guy. Maybe with more talent around him, Walker steps back a bit, and two out of Tatum, Brown and Hayward become the stars. Maybe, just maybe, it’s all four playing at or near an All-Star level.
It’s impossible to know exactly how all of it will come together. The good news is that the Celtics don’t have to pin their hopes on any singular outcome. They’ve got a lot of paths to get there. It’s more likely than not that none of the potential pairings come out quite as good as the ones originally cited at the beginning of the article. Those players didn’t get to those levels overnight and all four of those pairings were just created this summer which is yet another avenue for the Celtics. Maybe one of Brown or Hayward or, less likely, Tatum becomes a trade candidate to headline a package for a second star.
What is likely is that Boston ends up with four players who range anywhere from very good to All-NBA. That, combined with some solid role players, is more than enough to build a contender over the next few seasons. It’s never been about collecting stars for the Celtics, only banners. If someone makes the leap, there is enough to hang #18 in Boston, despite losing two All-Star talents this past summer.