NBA Media Day 2021 simultaneously felt like no Media Day that had preceded it, while also feeling like slipping on that perfect old t-shirt. Is it a little worn and questionable to be worn outside of the home? Sure. But it’s comfortable and familiar. In other words: It just feels good to be back.
Yes, vaccination status dominated every team’s day. Some with more controversy than others. But there was the usual ebullient optimism that comes with the start of a new season.
Everyone is in great shape. Skinny guys gained 10-15 pounds of muscle to be “stronger and more versatile”. Fat guys lost weight to be “quicker and more versatile”. Hurt players got healthy. Well, most of them, at least. Non-injured players added skills and refined their games.
Oh…and everyone still loves all of their offseason moves.
For the Boston Celtics, that including gushing over Al Horford and Enes Kanter’s returns. Everyone loves those guys and is happy to have them back.
There was also plenty of love for the additions of Dennis Schroder, Josh Richardson and Juancho Hernangomez.
Brad Stevens acknowledged the odd feeling of his new role with the Celtics at this time of year. On the other hand, Ime Udoka couldn’t wait to get going as Stevens’ handpicked replacement.
The major theme, as always on Media Day, was one of fresh starts and new beginnings. But another major theme in Boston was the recognition, and appreciation, of the fact that the Celtics are now Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum’s team.
No one put that into focus more than Al Horford. The big man’s first go-around in Boston featured Brown and Tatum as kids trying to find their way in the NBA. When asked if it feels different with those two now that he’s back, Horford laughed, “Way different!”
As per usual, Horford then expanded his thoughts by saying, “It definitely feels different. They are the pillars of this group. They are both great players and have proven that. There are more expectations on them now than before (when Horford was previously a Celtic).”
Pillars was an interesting word-choice by Horford. It’s the exact word that Ime Udoka used to describe Brown and Tatum at his introductory press conference. It’s a befitting descriptor. Weeks before newly installed President of Basketball Operations Brad Stevens stated his goal was to build a roster to “support Jaylen and Jayson”.
In their own comments, Udoka and Stevens doubled-down on Boston being Brown and Tatum’s team. Multiple times, both used the word “accentuate” to talk about fitting in players and creating lineups around the Celtics All-Stars.
When asked about his role as the team’s point guard this year, Marcus Smart confidently answered that he’s always been a point guard. He talked about his natural playmaking instincts and added that it should be easy to make plays because of the presence of Tatum and Brown. “We’ve got Jayson and Jaylen,” Smart said. “They’re two of the best players in the league.”
Robert Williams, talked about Brown and Tatum’s growth, even as he talked about how his own role has grown. Williams said, “It’s the way they lead. They know we’re watching them. They don’t drop their heads now.”
That leadership of the All-Star duo was referenced by Dennis Schroder when he talked about his free agency this past summer. Schroder said both Brown and Tatum made recruiting calls to sell him on coming to Boston. Schroder added, “It was hard to leave two all-time greats in LeBron James and Anthony Davis, but I had to find somewhere that I fit in. And Jayson and Jaylen are pretty great too. I’m excited to play with them.”
When Brown and Tatum broke in, the Celtics were led by the likes of Isaiah Thomas, Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward and Horford. And that’s before you get to fiery veterans like Marcus Morris and Jae Crowder. For most of their first few years, Brown and Tatum let their games do the talking for them.
Now, both are embracing their roles as Boston chases Banner 18. Brown said, “It’s a lot of pressure for us. But we’re ready to go. We have a championship mentality.”
When pressed on his relationship with Tatum, Brown said it’s built on mutual respect, “It’s definitely grown a lot…Jayson respects my work ethic and I respect his.”
Brown was asked what it’s like to play with Tatum, and he’s well aware that many have tried to make it an “either/or” situation. For his part, Brown said that doesn’t get to him or Tatum, “We talk a lot. We won’t let it bother us. We hear the comparisons, but at the end of the day, I want the best for him and he wants the best for me.”
Brown reiterated that he enjoys playing with Tatum, and just as importantly, he trusts him.
There may be no more of a sign of Brown and Tatum’s respect for each other than their meeting in Las Vegas following the Olympics. Tatum stopped by Summer League on his way home from Tokyo and many pictures circulated around the internet of Brown wearing Tatum’s gold medal. While Brown recovered from wrist surgery, he celebrated his teammate winning gold.
For Tatum’s part, he also owns the pressure, while recognizing he has a partner by his side, “I get it. Everyone knows that me and Jaylen are the guys. But we want that. We want to win here and to do it together. Same as last year. Same as the year before.”
They wanted to win together the last two years, but it wasn’t their team yet. Two years ago, there were Kemba Walker and Gordon Hayward to take on the burden of leadership. Even with his diminished availability last season, Walker was still the team’s forward-facing leader.
Al Horford is back, but he’s a complementary guy now versus an All-Star. Marcus Smart will do his thing, but he’s not an All-Star-level guy. Their voices have meaning, but they aren’t the franchise guys on max contracts. The pressure isn’t on them in the same way.
Boston is Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum’s team now. Brad Stevens recognizes it. Ime Udoka recognizes it. Most importantly, all 18 of their teammates starting this journey with them recognize it. Everyone is aboard this train now and the Celtics will go as far as Brown and Tatum take them.