Everything was great for the Boston Celtics this year until it wasn’t. The best offense in league history quickly turned into the worst offense in the league during the month of December. The red-hot three-point shooting turned into an awful shooting slump. And now, they’ve lost four of their last five games.
Boston is still sitting pretty in the standings, but there are a lot more questions surrounding the team than there were a little over a week ago. The shooting woes are one thing. It was extremely unlikely that the Celtics would continue to shoot as well as they were from distance. But the way they’re responding to their shooting struggles has been the bigger problem.
After their second loss in a row to the Orlando Magic at home, Marcus Smart pointed out that they’re letting their poor shooting affect their play in other areas of the game. And while the whole team is at fault, Jaylen Brown has been the poster child for those issues.
To be perfectly clear, this is not to say that Brown has been bad this year. In fact, it’s been the opposite. He’s been the second-best player on the best team in the league and is putting up career numbers. He’s a shoo-in to make his second All-Star team. When he’s hot, he’s hot. But when he’s not, he hurts the way the team plays on both sides of the court.
Brown has never been the best playmaker. His assist-per-game numbers have leveled out at roughly 3.5 per contest over the last three years. Now, that’s not bad, but in recent games, it looks as though he’s lost faith in his teammates. Instead of playing within the flow of the offense, Brown has decided to “do it himself” over and over again.
Watch this play from December 16 against the Magic. Brown gets the ball on a fastbreak and sprints down the court. Sam Hauser moves to the corner and gets wide open. But instead of dishing it to him, Brown takes a contested layup with multiple Orlando defenders around him.
He gets bailed out with a foul call and sinks both free throws, but the point is he chose to do it all by himself instead of trusting his teammates. Some people will argue that getting inside is more valuable than a three-point shot, but when Hauser is open in the corner, and two defenders are ready to meet him at the basket, the odds aren’t in Brown’s favor.
Hauser has been in a severe shooting slump this month. He’s shooting just 25.7% from three-point range in December, but ignoring him while he’s wide open behind the arc in favor of a contested layup is bad basketball. Hauser is still shooting 42.0% from deep on the season even when accounting for his recent woes.
That’s not the only time Brown abandoned the offensive game plan either. This is a split-second decision, but when faced with it, Brown makes the wrong one. Malcolm Brogdon makes a nice pass to Brown in the corner, but instead of keeping the ball moving, he pulls up. Derrick White was sitting on the wing, waiting for the ball.
Similar to Hauser, White has had issues shooting the ball in December. Over the course of the month, he’s shooting 23.5% from distance. But again, like Hauser, he still boasts an impressive shooting percentage from deep on the year at 39.4%. White would have had a free shot if Brown had kept things moving.
The list keeps going, though. Here’s a play that doesn’t have as direct of an effect as the prior two, but it leads into another topic of discussion. Brown starts with the ball at the top of the key and dribbles in between defenders. He ends up at the elbow with Brogdon open behind the three-point line. However, instead of moving the ball to Brogdon, who could have kept the offense flowing, Brown pulls up for a tightly-contested mid-range jumper.
This is actually one of the things Brown has done extremely well this season. Out of the 115 players who have attempted at least 30 mid-range shots this season, Brown is fourth in the league in efficiency at 56.0%. He’s been money from that spot, and it’s been helping him put up the best scoring numbers of his career.
But just as the Celtics’ shooting high eventually came down, Brown’s could, too. Throughout the course of his career, Brown has never been this good from mid-range. His best season prior to this was 2020-21 when he shot 50.0% from that spot. The big difference? Shot attempts. He only attempted 158 mid-range shots that year, but so far this season, he’s already taken 91. His next-best season was last year at 45.9%, and outside of that, he’s shot below 40% from mid-range in three out of his other four seasons.
There has been an obvious improvement from him in that area of his game, and there’s always a chance that he keeps up his dominance from mid-range, but it’s far more likely that his shooting regresses to the mean. And if and when it does, he can’t keep passing up easy passes in favor of contested mid-range jump shots.
Outside of his shot selection and apparent reluctance to make the extra pass, Brown has also been struggling with turnovers again. It was an issue that reared its ugly head in the postseason last year, and it’s back again. He’s had 20 turnovers in the last five games, including 12 in Boston’s two games against Orlando.
Four of those 12 were travels. Brown claimed that the referees were targeting him in that regard. But more notably, an abundance of them were due to Brown’s poor decision-making and loose handle on drives.
Take a look at this play. Brown takes the ball into a crowd of defenders before losing control and coughing it up.
Here’s another one. Brown just loses the ball as he’s dribbling it through his legs.
Another rushed handle here on the break as Markelle Fultz swoops in for the steal.
And then there are the poor passes. Brown tries to create a highlight reel play here and instead hands the ball to Orlando.
These aren’t new issues, either. As noted, Brown’s turnover woes date back to the Celtics’ run to the Finals last year. Do these turnovers look familiar?
Brown has been committing the exact same turnovers for a long time, and seemingly all of his mistakes come when he’s getting downhill. He’s prone to poor decision-making, and his handle is sloppy. The turnovers come pouring in as a result of those two problems. His recent giveaways are carbon copies of his turnovers in the playoffs last year.
And while his game management has been questionable on the offensive end as of late, his defense has been rough at times, too. For someone who has been widely regarded as a top-notch defender over the course of his career, Brown has been porous on that end so far this season.
One of the main issues has been his off-ball defense. Time and time again, Brown has been caught ball-watching when guarding the corner. Watch Fultz get the easiest basket of his life on this play.
Brown was so focused on the ball-handler that Fultz waltzed right around him for an easy basket. That was one of three shots the Magic point guard made in the game.
If this were to occur once, it would still be a problem, but it’s happened to Brown on numerous occasions this year. Here’s another instance from Boston’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder in November.
And it happens again here against the Sacramento Kings.
Brown is consistently getting beat by simple cuts, and it’s leading to easy points for Boston’s opponents. Every player makes mental mistakes, but Brown is making the exact same mental mistake over and over again.
Off-ball defense has never been Brown’s strong suit, but it’s been particularly bad this season. In previous years, Brown has made up for this with stellar on-ball defense, but even that has taken a hit this year. He’s getting blown by on drives way too often, and it’s not always star-caliber players doing it.
Don’t get it twisted - guys like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander are still giving him the work. Look at how easily Gilgeous-Alexander gets around Brown on this play.
That was a common occurrence in Boston’s sole matchup with the Thunder this year. Gilgeous-Alexander shot 5-of-8 when guarded by Brown - on all two-point looks.
Again, though, it’s not just stars getting the better of Brown this season. This play’s a bit tougher, but Brown barely fights around the screen, and when Tobias Harris gets into the paint, it seems as though he just concedes the shot attempt.
Harris shot 4-for-4 when guarded by Brown in the season opener, although three of his makes were three-point attempts.
Brown is a phenomenal player. He’s a clear-cut All-Star this year, one of the league’s best scorers, and a top-20 player in the NBA. Alongside Jayson Tatum, he has helped lead the Celtics to a top-two record in the NBA. And by the end of the year, he’ll earn serious consideration for an All-NBA team.
Pointing out Brown’s flaws isn’t an attempt to bury him or prove that he’s not great. He is great. But his shortcomings have cost the Celtics this year, and they perfectly parallel the team’s primary issue at the moment - letting their shot-making dictate their play on both ends of the floor.
Brown has scored 20 or more points in all but two games this season and is shooting a career-high 49.6% from the field, and a career-high 58.4% on two-point field goals. His scoring dominance cannot be denied this season. But for all of the amazing buckets he’s scored, it’s equally as important to acknowledge the problems.
Turnovers, poor decision-making, and subpar defense have plagued Brown this season. This isn’t meant to tear down a star player in the middle of what is arguably the best season of his career. Instead, it’s to point out all of the areas where he could (and needs to) get even better.
The ceiling is extremely high for Brown, but he needs to sweep up the floor first.