Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Robert Williams, Kristaps Porzingis, Derrick White, Al Horford, and Malcolm Brogdon have all cracked The Athletic’s list of top players for the 2023-2034 season.
That ties them with the Warriors for the most in the league. Last year, Boston had eight.
The highest-ranked Celtic is, of course, Jayson Tatum, who’s in the second of five “tiers” in The Athletic’s list. Each of those tiers is subdivided into A, B, and C levels; Tatum is in 2A.
In fact, each Celtic on the list has earned an “A” in their tier, putting them at the top of their levels throughout.
Tier 1: No Celtics
Tier 2A: Jayson Tatum
I know, I know: another ranking that excludes Tatum from the tippy-top of the league.
Before you call it a snub, though, note that the top tier includes just six players: Luka Dončić, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, Kevin Durant, and Steph Curry.
One could argue that Tatum has had more playoff success than Dončić and Embiid. You can also say his performance against Kevin Durant in the 2022 playoffs should put him at least at Durant’s level. Then there’s this: Tatum averaged over 30 ppg last season over 74 games (more games than any tier 1 player). Plus, he’s led Boston to three ECF appearances and one finals appearance in the last 4 years.
But The Athletic’s player-tier tabulators say this:
“In the case of Tatum, 90 percent of the time he looks like a Tier 1 player,” they write. But then, they add, “that 10 percent where he is less than that is a problem, as he goes through bouts of turnover-proneness and poor transition defense.”
Sigh. It’s possible Boston will have to win a championship before national writers will ignore his warts the way they do for other top-tier players.
The article also notes that “building a team around a Tier 2 guy… requires an additional All-Star level supporting player.” So perhaps Brown’s presence on the team takes away from Tatum’s performance.
Nonetheless, if just six players are ranked higher than Tatum, I’m content.
Far more worthy of intrigue are the other selections in 2A: Lebron James, Kawhi Leonard, Devin Booker … and Jimmy Butler.
Jimmy Buckets, the authors say, made this lofty tier not because of regular season performance, but by being “greater in the playoffs than over the course of the season” … though he did not lead his team in scoring in the most recent NBA Finals.
It’s a choice.
Everyone else on this list is a legit MVP candidate or a former recipient of the honor. Tatum, though, led the group in points, rebounds, and blocks per game. He played more games and holds a higher VORP than the others. He’s the only one to have made first-team All-NBA last season. And he’s the youngest of the crew at 25.
Also, Tatum and Booker are the only players in 2A you could say have yet to hit their prime. As the best players in the league get older, these two are poised to slip into the upper echelon.
The article makes a note of this, and labels the comparison “the most interesting ‘who ya got?’ argument to be had in the league.” It’s a worthwhile debate, as each player has gotten better every season and still has room to grow. Both have been up and down MVP ladders and led teams to finals appearances without sealing the deal.
Tier 3A: Jaylen Brown
It’s tough to argue with this ranking, as much as I love Jaylen Brown. His 3A peers are Bam Adebayo, Donovan Mitchell, Jaren Jackson Jr., Anthony Edwards, and De’Aaron Fox. I’d put him toward the top of that group – maybe just below Mitchell – but these players are fairly well-matched.
The only players above Brown at 2C that could arguably be ranked lower than Brown are James Harden, Paul George, and Jamal Murray. The authors say they would have put Harden in a lower tier if they weren’t locked in weeks ago, which makes sense given Harden’s offseason antics. Paul George is better than Brown right now, but I would take Brown over George because of injury and age concerns. As for Murray, he deserves a bump after being the second-best player on the championship-winning Nuggets.
Watching Brown grapple for position with these other pretty young players over the next few seasons will be entertaining. I believe he has another step to take, and one can assume – given the contract he just earned – that the Celtics front office believes the same.
Tier 4A: Robert Williams III, Kristaps Porzingis, Derrick White
This one threw me for a loop, because I was not expecting the Celtics’ ranks in this range to be spot-on. The only thing I might do is move Porzingis up to 3C because of his career-high (23.2) ppg last season. But given his injury concerns, I get it.
White really found a rhythm this year, contributing meaningfully in the regular season and postseason and meshing well with players who demand the ball more than he does. He’s 29 years old, so don’t expect him to add a whole lot to his game. But don’t be surprised if he’s even better next year after getting the nod to start at point guard.
Williams was in the 4A tier last offseason as well. I thought his lengthy absence early last season would mean a rankings drop for the big man, but The Athletic stuck with him.
This could be a big year for the center, though. He’s played five seasons in the league, but more than 35 games in just two. Lacking consistent paying time, he has also failed to fully integrate himself into the offense. That could change, as Williams has been working this offseason on being more of a scoring threat (and adding a jumper?)
Here’s hoping he can stay healthy, because there are few players in the league with his combination of size, athleticism, defensive versatility, and decision-making. A full season of Robert Williams will make the Celtics hard to beat. If he doesn’t fit in or can’t stay on the court, though, how long will Boston hang on to his $13 million yearly deal in a contention window?
Also: Domantas Sabonis is in this tier, which is perhaps the most shocking ranking on this list.
Tier 5A: Al Horford, Malcolm Brogdon
First things first: I don’t know who needs to hear this, but Malcolm Brogdon is better than Dillon Brooks – and yet they’re both here. Brogdon is a dynamic playmaker who plays good defense and can score from anywhere on the court. Brooks is a three-and-D wing who shot less than 33% from three (11% lower than Brogdon) and – while he is an elite one-on-one defender – a player who causes enough trouble to render his on-court contributions less valuable.
I like Horford’s placement here, though. He’s a helpful player who is clearly showing his age, but is adapting very well to the changes to his body and role. He’s become an elite three-point shooter and can still guard most centers in the league. Even after losing a step, he deserves this spot.
People are low on Malcolm Brogdon right now. It’s understandable given his most playoff performance (though he was injured). With Marcus Smart out of Boston, though, Brogdon could look even better this year – and that’s after winning Sixth Man of the Year last year.
Nit-picking aside, this bottom line: The Celtics have a top-10 player, two top-25 players, five top-55 players, and seven top-125 players on their roster. Never mind the Butlers and the Brooks amid the green: Boston’s the team to beat, according to the rankings.