Picture, in your mind’s eye, what a Steph Curry team looks like. Immediately you’ll see the spaced floor and the natural fluidity, the pitch-and-catch game that drafts off a shooter so dangerous he uproots the bedrock principles of NBA defense. Or, instead, picture a Giannis Antetokounmpo team—with the kind of size and mashing physicality that might make you instinctively reach for an ice pack. Picture a Chris Paul team and you’ll see patience; picture a Kevin Durant team and you’ll see his ease of creation; picture a LeBron James team and you’ll see total matchup control.
But picture a Jayson Tatum team and you might see a dozen different styles flicker past. Picture a Jaylen Brown team and you could see even more. This is because the recent history of the Celtics is a protracted identity crisis. Some versions of the team have played fast, and some slow; some have crashed the glass and some haven’t; some tried tighter roles while others let loose; some have set the tone with their offense, while others—like the current iteration—have survived only with defense. Even within the first half of this season, wildly different versions of the Celtics have shown up from night to night, fumbling in the dark for the team they’re supposed to be.
This is what we’re really talking about when we mull the futures of Tatum and Brown as teammates in Boston, and consider a world in which they no longer would be. Building around a pair of All-Star wings is never really a doomed enterprise in the NBA. These two are much too skilled for that, and far too versatile. Yet without real and consistent organization, all that versatility can feel aimless. Brown, in particular, so often plays like a star searching for the limits of his role. Tatum’s long-term progress has stalled somewhere between knowing he could create a shot for himself at pretty much any time and wondering whether he should. When one is—or both are—pressing, they threaten to either win the game outright or throw Boston’s entire operation off balance. The result isn’t just a middling season, but an undercurrent of voiced frustrations and passive aggressions. Trade speculation was an inevitable byproduct.
“If we get over this hump and continue to learn, I think there’s a lot of good basketball on the other side of this,” Brown told reporters last week. That much is all but certain; a team with Tatum and Brown projects to be better than one game under .500—hence the angst. Play out their partnership over a long enough timeline and most of their teams figure to be better than these Celtics have shown. The current supporting cast, after all, is far from blameless in the state of Boston’s season. Brown has totaled more turnovers than assists, but it’s a problem all its own that after he picks up his dribble, he has to decide whether he should kick out to Marcus Smart (30.4 percent from beyond the arc this season), Al Horford (28.5 percent), or Dennis Schröder (32.6 percent).
The Celtics could continue as they have, reshuffling the roster from season to season and banking on their two All-Stars to figure it out. Yet, even in doing so, they’d eventually be forced to confront the fact that teams built around Tatum and Brown tend to wobble more than most. Night-to-night stability in the NBA comes from one of two places: first-class playmaking or first-class shot-making. The former is a no-go; Tatum has improved enough as a distributor to hit some of his open teammates, but not so much that he won’t occasionally rifle a pass into the side of Robert Williams III’s head. The shot-making is where things get more interesting—and where Tatum seems to have earned the Celtics’ patience. The 23-year-old forward can hit tough, contested jumpers with the best of them, though not quite as reliably. Therein lies the damning difference. To really anchor a contending team while playing the style Tatum does, he would probably need to hit impossible shots at the level Durant and Kawhi Leonard do. He would need to convert those looks with such consistency that defenses would overreact, turning strength into structure. Anything less leaves the offense teetering with every miss, and all the more dramatically when Brown’s own attempts to create turn chaotic.
A team with two players of this caliber shouldn’t have to play so many of its games in the mud. Yet Boston has to show its work to win—grinding out close margins against much less talented opponents, and scrapping on defense just to have a shot at keeping tougher games within reach. That’s not really about Tatum or Brown. It’s about Tatum and Brown, and how their games intersect on offense when left to their own devices. When those two wings have shared the floor this season, the Celtics have actually been more than solid—outscoring opponents by 5.1 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass. Yet even those lineups have been awful on offense, scoring well below league average in bigger and smaller configurations alike. Boston could chart a future that leans further into its defensive success, but it’s not easy (or cheap) to improve on the spots manned by Robert Williams III, Smart, Horford, or even Josh Richardson or Grant Williams.
Boston’s cleanest way forward would be to bring in a managerial point guard who can help focus the scoring of Tatum and Brown, but taking the ball out of their hands seems almost antithetical to the players they’ve become. You don’t score 50 without an incredible amount of latitude. Players—and emerging stars, especially—don’t tend to give that up easily. Selling a restructure like that might require more of a star point guard than merely a good one, though as the Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker experiments showed, those loaded perimeter dynamics can be complicated in their own way.
This stuff is never simple. Which, of course, is why we’re here—not so much pushing one of Brown or Tatum out the door, but wondering whether the line between the Celtics and sustainable contention could be a bit more straightforward than it seems to be. “We both wanna be here,” Tatum told reporters after a win against the Pacers this week. “We both wanna figure it out.” Given enough cracks at it, maybe they could.