The Celtics didn’t need Gordon Hayward. They might not need Kemba Walker, either. Hayward is in Charlotte after three star-crossed seasons in Boston, while Walker will be out for at least the first few weeks of the season recovering from a knee injury. Both are great players, but their absences could actually help the Celtics by clarifying the team’s offensive identity. There’s no longer anyone around to block the growth of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart. They will finally get the chance to spread their wings on a team built around them.
A lot of big names have come through Boston over the last few seasons, from Hayward and Kemba to Isaiah Thomas, Kyrie Irving, and Al Horford. But the bigger story has been the rise of the team’s three young wings. There’s no better perimeter trio in terms of size, skill, and speed. Tatum (22 years old), Brown (24), and Smart (26) are two-way players who can create their own shot, defend multiple positions, and spread the floor. They are too good to be stuck in secondary roles.
Tatum made his first All-Star Game last season, but he took an even bigger leap during the playoffs. His postseason averages (25.7 points, 10.0 rebounds, and 5.0 assists in 40.6 minutes per game) would have been career highs in every category. He had the ball in his hands more than ever before. Tatum averaged 21.8 more touches per game in the playoffs than he did in the regular season, moving from being in the same range as players like Terry Rozier and Spencer Dinwiddie to ones like Ben Simmons and Trae Young.
Boston distributed shots and touches far more evenly in the regular season:
Celtics Touches During 2019-20 Regular Season
|Players||Touches per game||Time of possession|
|Players||Touches per game||Time of possession|
Having that many players who need the ball is what most would call a good problem. But it’s still a problem. The Celtics were somewhat fortunate throughout the season to have so many stars in and out of the lineup due to injuries. That’s how each of their top five perimeter players started at least 40 games. But it wasn’t a sustainable situation. No one that good wants to just be insurance for someone else.
In hindsight, this oddly specific tweet from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski before the start of the bubble said a lot about Hayward’s mind-set:
Telling stat on Gordon Hayward this season: Only player in NBA history to average at least 17 points, 6.5 rebounds, 4 assists, shoot 50 percent overall, 36 percent on 3-pointers -- with usage rate below 22 percent. https://t.co/GuEeo2vpVh— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) August 20, 2020
Woj probably didn’t dig through the Sports-Reference database to find that. Hayward was good enough in a smaller role in Boston to deserve a bigger one—like the one he had in Utah. That was just never going to happen in Boston, where he was the fourth-best wing. So he declined the player option on his contract and reportedly tried to force his way to his hometown Pacers, then wound up with the Hornets after trade talks fell through. Players don’t sign four-year, $120 million contracts because they want more historically efficient seasons as a role player.
Just about everyone in Boston had reason to be frustrated last season, starting with Tatum. The wings who finished ahead of him on the All-NBA teams (LeBron James, Luka Doncic, and Kawhi Leonard) all had a lot more offensive responsibility. They didn’t just hunt for their own shot. They also moved the ball and set up everyone else. Tatum will never be a de facto point guard like LeBron or Luka, but he can develop into a functional playmaker like Kawhi. Both are dominant scorers who can leverage that ability to make their teammates better.
That’s why Tatum’s improved passing numbers (5.0 assists per game compared to 2.8 turnovers) in the playoffs are so important. Players who can score and set up their teammates can have the ball in their hands for the whole game. It might be a chicken-and-an-egg thing for a natural scorer like Tatum. If he knows the ball isn’t coming back to him, he’ll be more likely to force shots. But he can afford to pass more when he’s the hub of the offense. A more streamlined pecking order in Boston should give him that opportunity.
The same is true for Brown. He’s been a glorified energy player in his first four seasons in the league, running and cutting for open looks as opposed to having plays run for him. His most frequent offensive possessions last season were spot-ups (28.1 percent) and in transition (22.4 percent), far ahead of his slice of plays running the pick-and-roll (13.1 percent) and isolations (7.4 percent). To be sure, he was more effective in the former categories than the latter. But he was no different than Hayward in that just because he accepted his role doesn’t mean that he wouldn’t want more. Brown averaged career highs in points (20.3), rebounds (6.4), assists (2.1), and minutes (33.9) last season. If he moves those numbers any higher, he will join Tatum as an All-Star.
Brown will never be as polished offensively as his younger running mate. But he has an elite combination of size (6-foot-6 and 223 pounds with a 7-foot wingspan) and speed, plus a 3-point shot (career 37.1 on 3.8 attempts per game) that defenders have to respect. Give him the ball in space and he can either raise up for a jumper or bully his way to the rim. He has the skill set to be at least a no. 2 option on a playoff team. There’s no reason for a player with his draft pedigree (no. 3 overall in 2016) and track record to settle for anything less. It’s possible that Brown will one day want a team of his own, but moving him up the pecking order for now gives him a better chance of staying happy in Boston. Brad Stevens will have to keep one of Brown and Tatum on the floor at all times this season. He had too many weapons to need to do that before.
That dynamic also makes Smart more important because he’s the best passer of their young Big Three. It’s easy to forget that he was a point guard at Oklahoma State. He turned himself into a defensive-minded role player because that was the best way to make an impact. But entering his seventh season, Smart has put in the work to deserve more offensive freedom. He’s gone from shooting 29.6 percent from 3 and 72 percent from the free throw line in his first two seasons to 35.5 percent from 3 and 82.2 percent from the line in the last two. There are still times when he does too much, but his occasional offensive explosions in the playoffs, like making five 3s in the second half of Game 2 against Toronto, shouldn’t have been a surprise. He’s a legitimate outside shooter who never lacks for confidence.
Stevens has a different type of coaching challenge this season. Instead of reining his young wings in, he has to squeeze every bit of productivity out of them. Until Walker returns, the only other player on Boston’s roster who can create his own shot is 32-year-old Jeff Teague, who looked close to done while splitting time between Minnesota and Atlanta last season.
All three Celtics stars will have just as much opportunity to grow off the court. Boston is suddenly a young team relying on some combination of Romeo Langford (who is also out with an injury), Grant Williams, Robert Williams III, Carsen Edwards, Semi Ojeleye, and rookies Aaron Nesmith and Payton Pritchard. They will be behind Tatum, Brown, and Smart on the depth chart in the same way that those three were once behind different combinations of Hayward, Kemba, Kyrie, Thomas, and Horford. Boston’s trio of wings are now the older and more established players who have to set the tone in the locker room, as opposed to being the younger players looking to make a name for themselves. The Celtics just have to hope that Tatum doesn’t get so frustrated early on that he’s calling Kyrie for advice like Kyrie called LeBron two seasons ago.
There was a weird dynamic between Tatum and Kemba at the end of games in the playoffs. It was unclear who should have been the closer. Tatum wasn’t as natural in the role, settling for difficult stepback 3s instead of driving the ball and pulling up in the midrange. While he had to expand his shooting range after living in that area of the floor in college, there’s still a place for those shots during crunch time. Kemba had a better grasp of when to drive or shoot in those moments, but there has to be a changing of the guard at some point in Boston. A basketball team with a 5-foot-11 closer is like a baseball team whose closer has an 85 mph fastball. There’s a ceiling for how far it can go.
No one knows how Kemba will respond to the stem cell injection he received in his knee a few weeks ago. He’s an undersized 30-year-old guard who relies on speed and couldn’t get his knee right last season. Celtics GM Danny Ainge made cryptic comments at Media Day, saying that “this year will tell us a lot more” about his future. The best-case scenario for Boston is that Kemba will come back to a situation in which Tatum, Brown, and Smart are firmly entrenched as the top three players. A player with Walker’s profile isn’t likely to improve over the next few seasons. The opposite is true for Tatum, Brown, and Smart.
The reality is that Hayward and Walker were never going to be the best players on a championship team in Boston. Tatum might. He could play his way into the MVP conversation this season, and Brown and Smart could be the perfect supporting cast around him. The Celtics should be one of the best teams in the NBA for a long time to come. Their young stars don’t have to fit in anymore. Everyone who comes to Boston from now on has to fit around them.