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Why breaking up Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum could make sense now

Even as a previous proponent of never trading Jaylen Brown, it’s now time to start imagining a scenario where the Celtics break up him and Jayson Tatum.

NBA: Playoffs-Boston Celtics at Miami Heat Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

Jaylen Brown stared across the press conference room, asked about his future with the Celtics — and paused. He paused for nearly 15 seconds, trying to figure out how to answer the question before largely dismissing it.

“Take it one day at a time, focus on getting better, focus on what the future holds and we’ll see where we are from there,” Brown said. “I guess. I don’t really know how to answer that.”

The Celtics have to soon answer the same question themselves. The $295-million question.

A shocking Game 7 and the most consequential poor performance of Brown’s career added to the weight of uncertainty that he shouldered all year. Brown invited it, creating reasonable doubt about his commitment to the Celtics in various interviews and expressing some frustration with his role. The rest of it stemmed from Boston’s reported pursuit of Kevin Durant last summer.

“It’s hard coming into teams and organizations and being warm. They operate on different principles, I think. This is an organization. They look at it as a business, where they’ll tell you one thing, and then behind closed doors, they’ll say another, and they’ll trade you off,” Brown told The Ringer, an interview he later disputed, but never clarified afterwards. “Tell you, ‘we love you,’ and they’ll be having like, ‘we’re going to trade him next week.’ I think that’s just how business is run.”

A career season where Brown reached All-NBA Second Team alongside another First Team appearance for Jayson Tatum should’ve cemented the pair’s status as the best duo in the game. Instead, another disappointing playoff exit created more doubt about their ability to consistently complement each other and what winning looks like around them into the future — particularly in a tighter NBA salary cap environment. The Celtics will probably become a second apron team by 2024-25, forced to give up its mid-level exception and several other team-building tools.

Boston also looked tired by the end of its playoff run with fans relieved as much as devastated that the erratic season concluded. Al Horford acknowledged a physically worn down group, having played six games against Atlanta, forced to make a comeback down 2-3 to beat the 76ers then falling behind 0-3 against the Heat. A nearly unbeatable team from early in the regular season achieved impeccable postseason health until the final games, ones they never should’ve faced if not for self-inflicted turmoil they battled throughout the spring.

“We had a lot going on this year,” Horford told CLNS Media/CelticsBlog. “Our guys should hold their heads high, because we had a lot of adversity. In that locker room, we dealt with a lot of things and our group was very professional all year, worked really hard and it’s disappointing we didn’t get our results. We failed. We failed because we wanted to win a championship. That was our goal. But despite that, I’m very proud of that group because there was never any excuse ... we have to look at it, everybody will look at it individually and I’m sure our management will assess things, and we’ll go from there.”

The central assessment the Celtics will make centers around how much weight Brown and Tatum can carry for a roster that’ll become increasingly reliant on them. Brown’s Game 7 shortcomings shined an inordinate yet necessary look at what Boston under his watch alone would look like.

When Tatum took control of the offense in 2021, Brown needed to adapt to a more complementary role he sometimes lamented yet accepted. He thrived while attacking into 2022-23, becoming an All-NBA scorer. In support of Tatum, though, his play wavered, particularly when Tatum exited games. Brown turned the ball over eight times in Game 7, the worst night offensively for the Celtics all season, after spending the series trying to figure out how to attack Miami’s defense individually.

The Celtics’ net rating declined 6.2 points per 100 possessions with Brown on the floor this season, finishing in the 21st percentile of NBA players. That reflected how Boston capsized while Tatum sat and the team tried to rely on Brown to generate offense. Tatum’s on-off net rating finished at +4.7 (78th %tile), according to Cleaning the Glass. Boston scored 7.5 more points per 100 possessions in Tatum’s time on the floor (95th %tile).

“It’s extremely important (to keep Brown),” Tatum told CLNS/CelticsBlog when asked about their partnership. “He’s one of the best players in this league, plays both ends of the ball and is still relatively young, and he’s accomplished a lot so far in his career, so I think it’s extremely important.”

It’s hard to imagine how a duo that has rivaled the Bulls’ Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen and the Lakers’ Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant with the frequency of their high-scoring nights in tandem has reached that point of unemphatic support for playing alongside one another. Those prior twosomes despised each other at times, but found a way to win championships — perhaps an argument in favor of patience.

Yet Brown sounded fixated on propping himself up in their dynamic throughout the year. Tatum responded less enthused when asked about finding Brown more often through his hot streaks. “We look for the best shot,” he often said.

“Each game is different,” Tatum told CLNS/CelticsBlog. “It’s probably a little hard to answer that question. We’re trying to create space and opportunity for everybody ... find whoever’s open. (He’s) one of our best players, we want him to be aggressive, we need him to be aggressive and that’s on him, it’s on us and it’s on everybody to make sure we’re putting each person in the best spot to be successful.”

Two years ago, the Jazz re-signed Rudy Gobert 31.44% of the cap rather than the 35% his Defensive Player of the Year status commanded. Stevens could hope for the same with the punitive nature of the new collective bargaining agreement, but Brown’s All-NBA season could be a higher hurdle than Gobert’s DPoY if the Celtics are hoping for a hometown discount.

Boston can offer him less than the supermax while still vastly exceeding the roughly $197.3 million any other team can offer him after a trade-and-extend or the $248.8 million as a free agent in that scenario. Yet for the Celtics, they gain little from a cap sense by lowballing him. It’s almost all or nothing.

“We’ll see how they feel about me over time and I feel about them over time,” Brown told The Ringer earlier this year. “Hopefully, whatever it is, it makes sense. But I will stay where I’m wanted. I will stay where I’m needed and treated correct.”

Brown’s non-committal approach befits a personality long resistant to being boxed in. We know Brown has other interests and priorities. He talked about his business and social justice goals in both the New York Times and Ringer interviews, along with Boston’s racist reputation. All could lead him away from the Celtics — and it’s important both sides address that now.

“I’ve had nothing but great conversations with Jaylen,” Brad Stevens said. “I can say, without a doubt, we want Jaylen to be here and he’s a big part of us and I’m thankful for him ... Jaylen had a great year, All-NBA year and he’s a big part of us moving forward in our eyes.”

Brown continued growing through the end of the season, displaying a sophisticated series of step-through moves, touch from two-point range and the strength and balance to knock the game’s best rim protectors off their spot and smoothly finish. Off the court, his pursuit of social progress reflects the legendary Bill Russell’s advocacy. Seeing him become the human he aspires to become proved as exciting as the player.

On the court, Brown rivaled Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James as the league’s best transition players. His aggressiveness and urgency sometimes marked better tone-setters than Tatum’s deliberate approach. But Tatum’s the superior dribbler, passer and well-rounded offensive player, positioning Brown as the No. 2 for the rest of his career here.

When the Celtics named Ime Udoka head coach in 2021, his first priority was getting Brown and Tatum to play together. They recorded 30 points each in the same game twelve times under his tenure and improved to 23-1 after doing it twice against the Hawks in Round 1. They didn’t do it again for the rest of the postseason.

With Boston eliminated and the Nuggets on the verge of their first championship, It’s hard not to compare them to Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokić as they quickly become the league’s most dominant duo, all on display in The Finals. Brown and Tatum can play together. That’s what the second most efficient offense in the regular season and the accolades that followed proves.

However, the history of playoff losses, upcoming concerns about financial flexibility, and whatever seemed off throughout this year could simply be solved by separating them — not whimsically, but by adding more complementary players on more sustainable contracts, and ultimately signaling this is undoubtedly Tatum’s team.

Moving on could admittedly hurt. We all remember the smiles and laughs that highlighted their iconic one-on-one battle at the All-Star Game in Utah. And a trade assumes risk, a massive one given Brown’s stature, but in this era, uncertainty also exists in an extension. The time could be now or never with his value at its highest.

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