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Three leaf clover: JB’s emerging pick-and-roll game and Mazzulla’s burden

Sometimes improvement isn’t all that obvious, even if it should be.

Boston Celtics v New York Knicks Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

We’ve started to hit the doldrums of the NBA season, a time I’ll think back to over the summer and remember it for two things: the shocking amount of snow we’ve gotten in West Virginia this year and basketball being on TV. I will miss exactly one of those things.

This week, I’m dedicating two parts to Jaylen Brown’s ever maturing pick-and-roll game before concluding with a few thoughts on Joe Mazzulla.

Stat of the Week: 15th in the NBA

If you say one thing about Jaylen Brown, say that his dunks are really cool. If you say two things about Jaylen Brown, say that he is entirely committed to improvement. Jaylen Brown is an RPG character. He is Geralt of Rivia, the Nerevarine, Cloud Strife. Just when you think he’s reached his ultimate form, he levels up again.

That’s not to say things are perfect. Just like in any role playing game, you’ve got to put in the work to keep improving. Jaylen has gone from an off-ball spacer and cutter in his early years to an on-ball dynamo, but that hasn’t been without some growing pains.

Let’s take a look at his number of possessions and points per possession in pick-and-rolls for the last four years per Synergy (passes included):

2020-21: 5.6 - 1.01

2021-22: 6.6 - 0.96

2022-23: 6.7 - 1.03

2023-24: 6.9 - 1.11

We had a little hiccup when the volume increased under Udoka, but otherwise a gradual climb to dominance. That 1.11 number this season puts him as the 15th most efficient high-volume PnR ball handler in the entire NBA (minimum 100 possessions).

Unfortunately, the closer you get to the final boss, the more difficult the enemies become. Enter the NBA Playoffs. You’re not going to believe this, but Jaylen really struggled with turnovers when running the pick-and-roll in the playoffs last year. His turnover percentage in the regular season was 13.3% and rose to 16.3% in the playoffs (for comparison, Tatum’s pick and roll TO% was 7.8% in the playoffs).

Now, in a vacuum, turnovers increasing in frequency in the playoffs isn’t the end of the world. It’s fairly common. The problem is the starting point. A 3% increase in TO% is fine if you start at 7%, not so much when you start at 13.3%. Well, as he so often has in his NBA career, JB dumped some experience points into his pick-and-roll game and leveled up. He is now down to 10.0% for the season per Synergy (it was under 10% before the Nuggets game and his triple-double in Houston).

Jaylen has long been an effective pick-and-roll player, but now he’s careful, too. Combine his dynamic scoring with his improving passing, and you cut the turnovers? Well, that’s a character build that might just make it all the way to the end of the game.

Xs and OOOOooohhhhhhs: Jaylen Brown’s pick-and-roll decision making

Like Dr. Evil’s nose into a fresh latte from Starbucks, JB’s pick-and-roll turnover rate has dipped nicely. He just seems a lot more comfortable at the controls and is reading defenses better than ever. Maybe most importantly, Jaylen just doesn’t seem to press nearly as much; he’s letting the game come to him and making the right play far more often than not. For example, this play:

This assist isn’t Steve Nash dribbling around for 10 seconds and diming up Amare Stoudamire with a perfect lob. Instead, it’s an elite scorer using his immense gravity to carve out an open shot for a teammate out of thin air. Lonnie Walker has to cheat over to stop Jaylen from getting downhill against Day’Ron Sharpe, who stands zero chance at containing him. JB recognizes it and hits the easy swing to Pritchard for a wide open three. The maturation of Brown’s pick and roll game on display.

Or, on this play where he takes a nice little escape dribble to avoid getting trapped, and then it’s just an easy pitch to his buddy cop co-star for an open three.

When you add patience and control to the pick-and-roll attack of a dude who can blow by defenders and get all the way to the rim:

Or get to his spot and bury and mid-range jumper:

Or pull-up from three against drop defense:

There’s just very little a defense can do other than hope he misses. Jaylen Brown has become one of the best pick-and-roll players in the NBA, and it’s time we started realizing it.

Non-basketball Stuff of the Week,: Joe Mazzulla and the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad narrative

I have never seen anything like what’s happening to Joe Mazzulla after losses this season. Joe has reached the unfortunate and rarefied air where a sizeable contingent of the fanbase credits the team’s successes to the strength of the roster and all of its failings directly to him.

After racking up their 10th loss through half a season (62 or so win pace, Joe clearly has no idea what he’s doing), Kendrick Perkins said that a bird with Joe’s brain would fly backwards. Like many things out of Perk’s mouth, it’s nonsense for a couple of reasons. First, given the physics of how birds work, that would actually be an incredible feat (other than hummingbirds which are the only species of bird that can fly backwards according to my research).

Second, Joe Mazzulla isn’t the reason the Celtics lost the Nuggets game. The Jays missed about a dozen open looks. The defense held one of the best offenses, and best offensive players ever, to 102 points. The gameplan worked; the shots just didn’t fall.

Even if that loss was Joe’s fault, I’d hope by now the body of work he’s shown this season would speak for itself. He’s largely fixed the team’s issues. Crunch time offense? They are 5th in crunch time offensive rating. Too reliant on drop? Joe institutes full-court pressure, zone looks, and hybrid zone/man schemes. Shoot too many threes? Well, they still shoot a lot, but they’ve incorporated a lot more post-ups to give defenses different looks and employ two of the best post players in the league.

Joe Mazzulla is a very good coach. He’s also not perfect. He’s made mistakes and made the wrong call more than once. That also goes for every single coach in the NBA. Yet Mazzulla, for some reason, seems to be the only coach whose job gets consistently called for after every single loss despite leading his team to a top-3 offense and defense. I’m sure it’s difficult to shoulder the blame to the extent Joe has, but if it leads to Banner 18, I’m sure he’s happy to carry it.

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