NBA stars are the most powerful members of any organization. Whether it’s making certain roster moves or filling a head coaching vacancy, those who influence the team’s on-court outcome the most tend to have the most say in the pieces they want around them.
That hasn’t always been the case for the Boston Celtics, but as Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have separated themselves from the rest of the team as the current and future pillars of the organization, that is changing.
Tatum and Brown weren’t handed the keys to the franchise upon being drafted with the No. 3 pick in consecutive years. Both arrived to a team already trying to compete for championships. They were the complementary pieces to decorated veterans like Kyrie Irving, Al Horford, and even Gordon Hayward.
Neither could assert their needs and desires just yet. Surrounded by stars and plenty of other veterans, they had to fit in.
The outcome wasn’t all that bad. Boston’s yearly success afforded the duo the chance to hone their skills under the playoff lights. Fast forward several years, and the Jays are coming off the best seasons of their respective careers in which they became just the second pair of Celtics under the age of 25 to both make the All-Star Game.
Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are just the second pair of Celtics teammates to both receive All-Star honors under the age of 25 (Cousy/Macauley, 1953)— Celtics Stats (@celtics_stats) February 24, 2021
But an unintentional consequence of the unconventional timeline reared its head this past season, where the Celtics finished seventh in the East and were eliminated in the first round in five games.
The team wasn’t built for Tatum and Brown upon arrival, which meant that the right pieces weren’t in place by the time they ascended to their current standing.
A score-first floor general with severe defensive limitations isn’t the point guard archetype you’d first choose to play alongside the current iterations of Boston’s leading men. But the Celtics brought Kemba Walker in at a time when neither had reached All-Star status.
Kemba’s scoring punch was expected to replace the production left by Kyrie Irving. Who knew Tatum was about to assume those responsibilities?
Injury issues were the ultimate undoing in the relationship between Walker and the Celtics. Still, breakout seasons by Tatum followed by Brown significantly negated the need for the once-dynamic scorer even at full health, creating a peculiar dynamic between three players who all need the ball in their hands yet can’t consistently create for others.
Brad Stevens is an exceptional coach, but the best work of his eight years running the Celtics typically came when trying to do more with less. It was when he had a collection of players, no single one running the show, where his intricate draw-ups and play calls would work best.
A somewhat equal-opportunity offense made sense during, say, the 2018 Playoffs when there wasn’t a Celtic to lead the way. Less so when Stevens has two offensive engines ready to dictate everything.
Stevens wound up simplifying his offense to fit the needs of his stars. Isolation and pick-and-roll sets increased in recent years while assist and passing numbers went down. It was what Tatum and Brown wanted and needed, but was it ideal for everyone involved in both the short and long term to have a head coach abandon the principles that made him so revered in the first place? Is that an underlying issue the coach, or more importantly, the star players want to deal with?
Stevens also lacked the communication skills many Celtics wanted and struggled in the absence of in the last few years, according to The Athletic’s Jared Weiss. That likely includes Tatum and Brown.
So by the end of his tenure as head coach, Stevens wasn’t running things the way he wanted to and wasn’t defining roles or fostering connections and chemistry in the way the players wanted. At a certain point, his previous success and the glitz it attributed to his name felt like the only reason he was still roaming the sidelines. It was your classic square peg trying to fit into a round hole.
Boston’s higher-ups may have felt like the sheer talent of Tatum and Brown could drag the organization where it wanted to go. That theory was disproved this past season when the Celtics finished with a .500 record.
One season of such disappointment deserves a pass, but continuing to ask Tatum and Brown to fit into their surroundings when they’ve earned the right to have their surroundings molded in their image could be the turning point in a potential breakup down the line.
Seeing that alternate timeline, the Celtics have taken action early in their offseason.
Walker was swapped for Al Horford, which had more to do with injury and salaries yet still comes with on-court benefits.
The Celtics needed someone who can feed others. They finally have that in Horford, whose ability to serve as a playmaking hub and a conduit between both sides of the floor takes a significant amount of playmaking pressure off Boston’s two leading scorers.
Al Horford said Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Robert Williams reached out to him after the trade. Horford said he wants the Celtics to take advantage of the summer, get better individually, and then “start to build it back up” once the team gets back together.— Jay King (@ByJayKing) June 24, 2021
And at 36.8 percent from three on a career-high 5.4 attempts per game this past season, Horford’s shooting from the center position gives Tatum and Brown more room to do what they do best.
Ime Udoka was part of the staff that coached Tatum and Brown at the 2019 FIBA World Cup and left a positive impression that subsequently helped his candidacy. But one of the main reasons the former seven-year veteran earned Boston’s head coaching position stems from the communication skills the Celtics were looking for.
“It’s all relationship-based. You’ve got to build that foundation off the court somewhat,” Udoka said at his introductory press conference. “You can’t coach everybody the same way. What motivates others might embarrass others, and so you find that balance there.”
Tatum and Brown are arguably the best young duo in the league and have passed just about every test that’s been thrown their way. But overcoming that last hurdle to push Boston into The Finals requires some assistance that fell on the franchise to fulfill.
They’ve done that, and it’s sure to pay dividends for everyone involved.