The Celtics have rediscovered their biggest strength. Coming off a disappointing season marred by chemistry issues, they have surpassed even the most optimistic projections in the first month of the season. Boston is tied for the NBA’s best record (11-2) and owns the third-best net rating (plus-8.3). Even losing Gordon Hayward, who is out for the next month with a broken hand, hasn’t slowed the Celtics down much. The key has been empowering Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum.
The two top-three picks broke out in the 2018 playoffs, when Tatum was 20 and Brown was 21. Each averaged 18 points per game while leading the Celtics to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. But instead of getting a chance to build on that success last season, the return of Hayward and Kyrie Irving from injury pushed them into the background. There were too many cooks in the kitchen in Boston. Tatum was sixth on the team in touches (45.3 per game) while Brown moved to the bench and finished ninth (31.8). The duo played only 884 minutes together last season, tied for 16th most among two-man lineups on the Celtics.
This season has been a different story. Brown is back in the starting lineup and has played 224 minutes with Tatum in just 10 games. Tatum is second in touches (67.5), and Brown is fifth (47.2). The team’s top four players in touches last season (Kyrie, Al Horford, Terry Rozier, and Marcus Morris) are gone. Their replacements have accepted smaller roles in the offense, giving Brown and Tatum the opportunity to both average career highs in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and free throw attempts.
The two wings are tied for fifth in net rating (plus-16.0) among all two-man units in the NBA that have played more than 200 minutes this season. Look at how they compare with the most high-profile Big Twos around the league:
Big Two Comparison
|Jaylen Brown + Jayson Tatum
|LeBron James + Anthony Davis
|Giannis Antetokounmpo + Khris Middleton
|Joel Embiid + Ben Simmons
|James Harden + Russell Westbrook
But being that dominant is about more than just getting more opportunities. Boston’s two young wings are doing more with them, too.
Brown has always been an elite athlete. Now his skill level and feel for the game are catching up with his physical tools. The biggest difference this season is his ballhandling. He doesn’t have to settle for as many jumpers, and can attack off the dribble and use his size (6-foot-7 and 223 pounds) to finish among the trees. Brown has gone from ranking in the 55th percentile of scorers when handling the ball in the pick-and-roll last season to the 81st percentile this season. The defense is sending more help his way, which makes it easier for him to set up his teammates. His assist rate has gone up while his turnover rate has gone down. Boston coach Brad Stevens can now run offense through Brown, and trust him to make good decisions.
Tatum, unlike Brown, came into the NBA with a polished offensive game. His growth has come from learning how to better use those skills. He became known for killing the flow of the offense by holding the ball and settling for long 2s, but playing like Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony never made sense for him. It’s more than just the difference in eras. Tatum doesn’t possess the all-world athleticism of Kobe or the sheer mass of Carmelo. He’s a wiry player at his best when using his size (6-foot-8 and 205 pounds) and shooting touch to shoot off movement and attack closeouts. Tatum is getting fewer post-ups this season and more shots off of dribble handoffs and off-ball screens, and he’s taking 2.4 more 3s per game than last season (up to 6.3) while cutting his percentage of shots taken between 16 feet and the 3-point line in half.
The NBA is a wing-dominated league, and few wing tandems can do as many things on both ends of the floor as the new and improved versions of Brown and Tatum. They can shoot 3s, attack the rim, defend multiple positions, and grab rebounds in traffic, a skill more important than ever for perimeter players. And they are two of only eight players under 6-foot-9 averaging at least 19 points and seven rebounds per game this season. The other six? LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Luka Doncic, Pascal Siakam, Brandon Ingram, and Russell Westbrook.
Many NBA teams don’t have one wing with the size and athleticism of Tatum and Brown, much less two. Because of that, at least one has a mismatch in almost every game. According to NBA Advanced Stats, big men like Julius Randle, Dario Saric, and Nemanja Bjelica are among the most frequent defenders on Brown this season, while Tatum has spent a lot of time being guarded by undersized perimeter defenders like Bradley Beal and Kyle Lowry.
The beauty of building a team around long and athletic forwards like Tatum and Brown is that the mismatches rarely go both ways. There are a lot of players whom they can guard who can’t guard them. They have the speed to stay in front of smaller players on the perimeter and the size to hold their own against bigger players inside. The Celtics are interchangeable on defense, especially when Marcus Smart is playing with their two young wings. They can switch every screen across three positions and take turns on the best perimeter scorers on the opposing team.
Their perimeter length covers up for their lack of size upfront. For all the noise surrounding Kyrie’s departure, the biggest concern for Boston coming into the season wasn’t at point guard but at center, where it had to replace Al Horford and Aron Baynes. Enes Kanter started on opening night, but a knee injury opened a spot for Daniel Theis, a third-year big man from Germany. While he’s averaging only 6.4 points per game on 45.6 percent shooting, he’s a smart player who cleans the glass (7.2 rebounds per game), protects the rim (1.7 blocks), and is almost always in the right position on both ends of the floor. Theis is thriving despite being the smallest starting 5 (6-foot-8, 215 pounds) in the league.
The Celtics are this year’s closest thing to the spiritual heirs of the Warriors. They don’t have the same star power, but their key players all fit into similar roles. Kemba Walker, like Steph Curry, is a smaller guard who can bomb 3s and play on and off the ball, and they surround him with big wings who can defend multiple positions, space the floor, and create their own shot. Their best lineup, when everyone is healthy, doesn’t feature anyone above 6-foot-8: Kemba, Smart, Tatum, Brown, and Hayward.
Boston still has a lot of room to get better. Tatum, for as effective as he has been from 3 (37.8 percent) this season, has been in an epic shooting slump from 2-point range. He is second-to-last in 2-point field goal percentage (41.6) among the 54 players in the NBA averaging at least 10 attempts per game. He’s shooting only 47.8 percent within 3 feet of the rim, a massive decline from his first two seasons, when he shot 64.7 percent. While going to the rim more often has exposed some of his physical limitations in comparison with the league’s best players, the odds are that those percentages will normalize over time.
And even though Brown will probably never be a point forward, he can still improve as a passer. His assist-to-turnover ratio has gone from 1.07-to-1 to 1.44-to-1, and it could go even higher as he gets more comfortable as a playmaker. The growth he has shown in his first four seasons is encouraging. Brown came into the league with the same questions about his jumper and offensive polish that surrounded other überathletic wings like Justise Winslow and Stanley Johnson, and has answered them in ways his peers have yet to address.
Brown and Tatum are leading a legitimate youth movement in Boston. The Celtics have the least experienced roster in the NBA, with no one over 30. The team is getting contributions from rookies Grant Williams and Carsen Edwards, as well as second-year big man Robert Williams III. Stevens is still figuring out his rotation, going with as many as 11 players on any given night.
What Boston has done over the first month is not a fluke. This is a young team with a ton of depth and waves of athletes at every position. Instead of taking a step back after losing Kyrie and Horford, they are taking a step forward. The biggest question is not how they’ll get through the regular season but how they’ll match up in the playoffs with other elite teams in the East.
There are two 7-foot Leviathans standing in their way—Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid. The Celtics were steamrollered by Giannis in their second-round series last season, as he averaged 30.0 points on 58.5 percent shooting, 11.8 rebounds, and 6.0 assists over the last four games. And he has been even more dominant this season. A series against Embiid could expose the Celtics’ lack of size at center. Theis is much smaller than Horford and Baynes, who always gave the Sixers big man trouble last year. Boston may have to count on Robert Williams, who has shined in limited minutes, or hope it can go small and run Embiid off the floor.
The Celtics are a team of really good players, one that will need someone to make the leap to greatness in order to win a title. Tatum and Brown are still a long way from reaching the level of Giannis or Kawhi. The good news for Boston is that its young building blocks are only 21 and 23, respectively. Everyone may have jumped the gun on them last season. But the Celtics are now one of the best teams in the NBA—and the best version of this team is still a couple of years away.