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The Jaylen Brown dilemma

Despite turning in counting stats worthy of a second All-Star nod, Brown has hurt Boston on defense just as much as he’s helped them offensively.

Boston Celtics v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

As a whole, the NBA-watching population is guilty of a relatively innocent crime, but a crime nonetheless. When a team has a two-headed monster on its hands, but one of those heads is superior, we often focus too solely on the good things the lesser of the two players is doing. Of course, there are some exceptions — the less said about the goings on in Brooklyn, the better — but typically, we’re willing to subconsciously overlook Anfernee Simons’ inefficient shooting numbers, or the spacing issues caused by Rudy Gobert, or that Darius Garland (and Donovan Mitchell, for what it’s worth) can’t seem to take care of the ball. They all bring so much to the game; never mind the areas in which they falter.

I’m fearful that this is becoming the case in Boston: because Jayson Tatum is putting together a remarkable all-around year that checks every box required to make a legitimate MVP case, the holes in Jaylen Brown’s game are barely acknowledged. We see 25-point outings on a nightly basis and highlight dunks galore, and the things that frustrate us the most are missed open threes or an errant pass here and there.

What we should be seeing is that Brown is not-so-quietly having the worst defensive season of his career, all while putting together an All-Star caliber campaign on the offensive side of the ball. (Fortunately for the Celtics, his offense is far more important to their success than his defense.) But the idea that Boston has multiple complete players might be an embellished sentiment based entirely on what we’ve seen them do on offense. Sure, they have two stars. One of them, though, might not be a star who can do it all, on both ends, at a consistently high level.

This season, Brown has been at the root of some of Boston’s more egregious defensive debacles, trips that make you want to grab the clipboard out of Joe Mazzulla’s hands and snap it in half yourself. If you look closely, you can see that Mazzulla’s gum-chewing becomes even more aggressive after these gaffes unfold. Brown doesn’t just tend to fall asleep on defense — he enters an indefinite coma.

To be fair, some of these blunders fall on the entire defense. Late in the first half of an early-November game against the Knicks, for example, watch how every man in green — Brown included — gets caught ball-watching. Jalen Brunson is a threat in driving lanes, to be sure, but he’s not quite an all-eyes-on-me level threat. He has five passing options thanks to the Celtics’ possession-long daze, so he chooses the wide-open cutting RJ Barrett, who slips behind Brown and Marcus Smart for a pedestrian dunk.

Plays like these are concerning for a defense to let up, but the Celtics rarely falter to this extreme. Brown, however, has made a habit of these sorts of slip-ups. Whether it's indifference or inability, he’s shown a tendency to let lesser guards, both in overall skill and athleticism, torch him in the halfcourt.

In no universe should Jaden Ivey be the bull to Jaylen Brown’s matador.

Brown has also shown obliviousness to cutters. Time and again this season, he finds himself over-helping and neglecting his own assignment — or the player onto which he’s meant to switch — and rewarding the offense with an easy bucket. When this happens, you might see him throw up his hands in one direction or another, pointing any finger but the one that should point directly back at him.

A big as gifted as Evan Mobley doesn’t need his life in the restricted area made any easier, yet Brown doesn’t seem to mind helping him out.

The Celtics have the NBA’s 17th-ranked defense this season, a significant step down from last year’s top-ranked squad. Their overall defensive rating sits at 112.2, neighboring teams like the Charlotte Hornets and Brooklyn Nets — the former of which is better defensively than Boston. Somehow, things manage to get even worse when Brown is on the court: Boston allows 114.5 points per 100 possessions during his minutes, which puts them in the league’s 34th percentile according to Cleaning the Glass (henceforth: CtG).

Though different sites have different ways of measuring team ratings on either side of the ball, the overall consensus shows that the Celtics are anywhere from six-to-eight points better on defense when Brown sits. When he’s on the court, CtG has Boston’s expected win total at 53. When he’s off, the Celtics are the equivalent of the second-winningest team in NBA history.

And it’s a significant concern considering how good Brown was defensively last season, at least by the numbers. Opponents scored 105 points per 100 possessions last season with Brown on the court (95th percentile) and 109.6 (84th) with him off, per CtG.

But last season, it really didn’t matter who was on the court for the Celtics: the defense was always going to be one of the most threatening units in the league. They provided an onslaught of disruptors, pass lane menaces, and high-flying ball hawks. That remains the intent this season, but the results are far less consistent — and Brown’s individual dip is rather alarming.

Of course, concerns like these can feel slightly facetious when you think about it, especially considering how much Boston’s offense improves when Brown is a key cog in it. The Celtics score 119.6 points per 100 possessions with Brown on, and 113.8 with him off, per CtG. He’s 13th in the NBA in scoring, a career-high 26.1 points per game — hardly something to turn your nose up at when his superstar teammate, Jayson Tatum, is fifth at 30.5.

This season, Brown is shooting more than he ever has (19.4 attempts per game) and making more of them, too (51 percent from the field). His shot from deep has slipped a touch — a 34 percent clip, down three percent from his career 37-percent average — but he’s still one of the C’s primary shepherds on offense. Boston is never lifeless offensively, but there’s a dip when Brown isn’t part of it. Significantly or insurmountable? Almost never. But evident? Often.

Beyond the quantitative benefits of the offensive boost Brown provides, it’s just good to see his confidence booming in a way it hasn’t before. He has his occasional lapses in judgment — like when he careens into nothingness on a fast break or launches a waste of a triple early in the shot clock — but he seems more intentional this season. He has become better at reading the defense’s position as it pertains to getting his shot off, particularly on pull-up jumpers.

CJ McCollum defends well in that last clip — he doesn’t bite hard when Brown hints at a potential drive before stepping back into his pull-up, and McCollum’s hand is right in Brown’s grill as he rises up for the shot. But Brown’s high release point and ability to lean at what sometimes looks like a 45-degree angle create just enough much space between him and the defender that even some of his more difficult jumpers look effortless. What might look like a forced shot when taken by other players is just another killer item in Brown’s ever-growing bag.

The same goes for Brown’s confidence on drives. Occasionally, it’s a curse — as aforementioned, he can discover that his parachute is a knapsack mid-drive — but more often than not, he finds success ramming his way into the paint. Of the 50 players who play at least 25 minutes and drive at least 10 times per game (Brown drives 10.8), Brown ranks sixth in field goal percentage, finishing roughly 59 percent of his 5.9 attempts on those drives per game.

He has struck a nice balance between aggression and patience; he can throw one down on the defense’s collective heads, or he can pause, read the defense, and strike when the time is right. Though I’m a sucker for head-full-of-steam dunks such as the one he yammed over Donovan Mitchell just like the rest of us, I’m especially fond of the more measured attacks he has added to his game. The younger Brown was impulsive — something he still battles, as though there’s a devil with a flat top on his shoulder, whispering “they can’t guard you."

Midway through the second quarter against Atlanta, he puts the ball down immediately, but pulls back before bursting forward. That draws Aaron Holiday out of position, allowing Brown to blow by him. Though three other Hawks converge on Brown’s drive, it’s too late. He’s made his way into the paint and taken off toward the rim; you’re not stopping that.

He does something similar in the second quarter against Oklahoma City, but utilizes even more patience as he gets in front of Aleksej Pokuševski, crosses over into the paint, and finishes over Jaylin Williams. Noah Vonleh’s series of semi-screens helps, but it’s Brown’s reading of the defense’s positioning that allows him an easy, composed path to the basket. It’s the sort of move you might see Luka Doncic pull off, and while Brown certainly hasn’t made his way into that category of driver, the flashes he’s shown hint that consistency in that department is not far off.

Save for a slump here and there, Brown is likely to maintain (if not improve upon) this offensive production through the remainder of this season. In each of the last four seasons, he’s scored more than 20 points per contest and made more than 47 percent of his shots. He continues to grow as a scorer and creator, likely in part because he doesn’t have to take on the responsibility of primary playmaker — that’s Tatum’s job. CelticsBlog’s Adam Taylor likes to call Brown the ideal “play finisher,” and recently wrote that it is “becoming increasingly apparent that Brown’s best games are coming when he’s utilized in a finisher role, and the burden of creation is taken off his shoulders.”

Sunday’s 130-121 win over the Washington Wizards serves as, to this point in the season, Brown’s offensive magnum opus. He scored in bunches, recording season-highs in points (36) and plus/minus (+26). The Celtics were without Tatum, so much of the creation duties fell to Brown. Ten of his 13 buckets came within five feet of the rim. He drove with composure, attacked with precision, and finished with poise, again and again. Granted, much of the damage was done against Corey Kispert and Deni Avdija, but damage is damage. Brown made everything look easy.

Just as it stands to reason that Brown will continue to evolve on offense, it would be uncharacteristic for Brown to continue to struggle so mightily on the defensive side of the ball. It almost seems to be a matter of effort on some trips — like Brown is willing to lock in when it’s most important, just not seven minutes into the first quarter. But on a team that was so relentless defensively last season, his outputs on that side of the ball shouldn’t be considered minor. The offense will continue to be vital in Boston’s buzzsaw approach to seemingly every game, given that there is talent to spare. But come postseason time, the best teams will exploit trips on which Brown takes off. I can already see Giannis Antetokounmpo licking his lips.

The “Jaylen Brown dilemma” isn’t much of a dilemma at all: he remains indispensable, the perfect number two who can be a 1B if 1A is having an off night. But it’s not unreasonable to say that, at times, he is a liability on the defensive end. He doesn’t have to be Herbert Jones or Jrue Holiday every second, but he also can’t border on unplayable if it wasn’t for his ability to consistently score as though no one stands in his way. If he was as defensively porous as he has been and had the offensive skillset of, say, Justin Jackson, he might not have a job.

The good news? He doesn’t have Justin Jackson’s skillset. He has Jaylen Brown’s, one of the deadliest bags this wildly talented league has to offer. It’s a matter of how he elects to use it that could dictate how great the Celtics can be.

We may let these shortcomings go early in the season. We might even forget about them, choosing to revel in the highs while sweeping the lows under the rug. But no one forgets what you do in crunch time, in the biggest games, in the early rounds of the postseason, or in the Finals. (Just ask Jayson Tatum.)

Some might view that as a curse more often than they do a blessing. But it can just as easily be one as it can the other.

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