The Boston Celtics are the NBA’s best team by any realistic measure. They’ve won the most games, they have the best point differential, and they’re the only team with a top-five offensive and defensive rating.
This is a better, more well-rounded team than even the one that stormed through the second half and reached the Finals last season—and not just because of prominent new faces, like interim head coach Joe Mazzulla and third-leading scorer Malcolm Brogdon, a perfect fit in Boston’s perimeter rotation. Rather, the Celtics have been elevated by the improvement of two returning players, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, who are now verging on historic territory as a duo.
Tatum ranks fourth in the league in scoring at 31.1 points per game, while Brown places 14th among qualified players at 27.0. The Brooklyn Nets, with Kevin Durant in ninth place and Kyrie Irving 11th, are the only other team this season with multiple players in the top 20. (The Los Angeles Lakers would slot here as well if Anthony Davis had played enough games to qualify and pair with LeBron James.)
Only four other times in league history have two teammates each averaged 27-plus points per game while qualifying for the official leaderboard:
- 1965 Lakers, with Jerry West and Elgin Baylor
- 2001 Lakers, with Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant
- 2003 Lakers, with Kobe and Shaq
- 2020 Rockets, with James Harden and Russell Westbrook
For the moment, both the Tatum-Brown and Durant-Irving partnerships are poised to join that exclusive club. So as the Celtics and the Durant-less Nets prepare to clash Wednesday night on national TV, it’s as good a time as any to take stock of the improvements from Tatum and Brown that have their team on a path toward Finals redemption this summer.
Perhaps the most remarkable component of the Celtics’ star duo is its consistency. Unlike most other pairings, which involve players like Durant, Irving, Davis, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, and Khris Middleton—who have all missed large swaths of this season—both Tatum and Brown are regularly healthy and reliable.
And so far this season, either Tatum or Brown (or both, on five occasions when they’ve tied) has led the Celtics in scoring every single game. Every other team has had at least four leading scorers, with a league average of 6.7 unique leaders.
Tatum naturally leads the way, with 28 games as Boston’s sole top scorer versus Brown’s 18. (The top player overall by this metric, for curious readers, is Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, with 42 games as the Thunder’s leading scorer.) But the important point is that on the rare occasions when Tatum falters, Brown is able to pick up the slack. In the five games in which Boston has received the least production from Tatum—three games he missed, plus relative clunkers against the Heat and Warriors—Brown has boosted his scoring to 31 points per game on 61 percent true shooting.
That fallback option gives Boston an advantage that most other teams with MVP candidates don’t possess. The NBA in 2022-23 has fewer superstar team-ups than at any other point in the recent past—which, as an aside, could help explain so many of the superstar explosions we’ve seen this season. The likes of Nikola Jokic, Luka Doncic, and Giannis Antetokounmpo have to score so many points because they don’t have as much help.
Tatum does, and still he’s likely to become the first Celtic ever to average 30 points per game over a full season. (The franchise record right now is Larry Bird’s 29.9 per game in 1987-88.) His new, crucial wrinkle this season is a determination to find his way to the free throw line, as he’s generating 8.8 attempts per game this season, a 42 percent increase over his previous career high.
In fact, more than half of the jump in Tatum’s scoring from last season (26.9 points per game) to now comes from extra free throws. He’s added 1.8 points per game from the field and 2.3 points per game at the line.
Brown, meanwhile, is down to a career-low 33 percent on 3-pointers, but he’s compensated with a scorching 49 percent mark from midrange, per Cleaning the Glass—easily a career high. Given that Brown’s making so many 2-point jumpers and that his free throw accuracy is up to a career-best 79 percent, it’s not as if his shot has abandoned him despite the 3-point inconsistency.
In his seventh NBA season, Brown is still more limited as an offensive creator than Tatum. In particular, he’s stagnated as a passer and averages 3.2 assists compared to 3.1 turnovers per game. No player who scores as often as Brown this season records fewer assists.
But on a team with Tatum, Brogdon, Marcus Smart, and Derrick White—heck, even big men Al Horford and Robert Williams III are excellent passers for their size—Brown doesn’t need more passing chops. If he leaves the Celtics when he reaches free agency in 2024 to become another team’s no. 1 option, this issue may become more of a pressing concern; for now, on a Celtics team that is tied for fifth in assist rate, he’s perfectly cast as a scorer first and foremost.
And in that role, Brown is scoring at a perfectly efficient clip. His true shooting percentage is essentially the same this season as it was in 2019-20, before he was even an All-Star—but his usage rate has increased by nearly a third in that span. Often, players lose efficiency as they increase their volume because they have to take tougher shots and receive more defensive attention, but Brown hasn’t suffered that sort of tradeoff.
Playing alongside Tatum helps, of course, because the MVP candidate draws the opposing team’s best wing stopper, but that notion is overblown. It’s not like Brown is driving past scrubs. In last season’s playoffs, his most frequent defenders in the half court, according to Second Spectrum, were Jrue Holiday, Jimmy Butler, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green; thus far in the 2022-23 season, his most frequent defenders include OG Anunoby, Butler, and Kawhi Leonard.
The Tatum-Brown pairing stands out not only compared to other 2022-23 duos, but also against the very best in NBA history. If Tatum and Brown maintain their current scoring rate, they’ll finish with the highest scoring average for two teammates in a full season since the 1960s—quite a turn for a pairing so many fans and pundits wanted to break up for ostensibly underachieving as recently as midway through last season.
(Harden and Westbrook teamed up more recently than the 1960s, of course, but had a shortened campaign due to COVID. This chart considers all players who appeared in at least 48 games, a more permissive minimum than the NBA’s official qualification threshold.)
Highest-Scoring Duos in NBA History
|Team||Top Scorer||#2 Scorer||Average*|
|Team||Top Scorer||#2 Scorer||Average*|
|1962 Lakers||Elgin Baylor||Jerry West||34.12|
|1962 Warriors||Wilt Chamberlain||Paul Arizin||30.50|
|2020 Rockets||James Harden||Russell Westbrook||30.38|
|1963 Lakers||Elgin Baylor||Jerry West||30.14|
|1965 Lakers||Jerry West||Elgin Baylor||28.93|
|1961 Warriors||Wilt Chamberlain||Paul Arizin||28.91|
|2023 Celtics||Jayson Tatum||Jaylen Brown||28.89|
|2003 Lakers||Kobe Bryant||Shaquille O'Neal||28.69|
|2001 Lakers||Shaquille O'Neal||Kobe Bryant||28.61|
|2023 Nets||Kevin Durant||Kyrie Irving||28.44|
Fun fact: Every retired player on that chart is enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame, and Harden, Westbrook, and Durant are locks, as well. It’s strange to think that a player like Brown, who will be named an All-Star for only the second time this season, might be on a Hall of Fame trajectory, but there are no outliers here.
To be fair, Tatum and Brown’s elevated scoring totals result in part from league-wide inflation, which the preponderance of pairings from the 1960s on this chart suggests as well. We can account for the overall league environment, then, using the method outlined in this piece, to generate a context-adjusted sense of where the Celtics duo ranks all time.
That adjustment takes some of the shine off Tatum and Brown, who fall to 18th place, and Durant and Irving, who fall to 28th. Shaq and Kobe dominate, as expected, with four of the top eight spots because they both scored a bunch despite playing in a low-scoring era.
In fact, after adjusting for league context, Tatum and Brown aren’t even the top Celtics duo. Scoring was so dreary at the turn of the century that the 2000-01 pairing of Paul Pierce (25.3 points per game) and Antoine Walker (23.4) nudges ahead.
Highest-Scoring Duos in NBA History, Adjusted for League Scoring Environment
|Team||Top Scorer||#2 Scorer||Adjusted Average|
|Team||Top Scorer||#2 Scorer||Adjusted Average|
|2001 Lakers||Shaquille O'Neal||Kobe Bryant||30.18|
|2003 Lakers||Kobe Bryant||Shaquille O'Neal||30.17|
|1962 Lakers||Elgin Baylor||Jerry West||28.72|
|2002 Lakers||Shaquille O'Neal||Kobe Bryant||27.41|
|2020 Rockets||James Harden||Russell Westbrook||27.18|
|2007 Nuggets||Carmelo Anthony||Allen Iverson||27.07|
|2012 Thunder||Kevin Durant||Russell Westbrook||26.61|
|2000 Lakers||Shaquille O'Neal||Kobe Bryant||26.25|
|2011 Heat||LeBron James||Dwyane Wade||26.22|
|1965 Lakers||Jerry West||Elgin Baylor||26.16|
|1963 Lakers||Elgin Baylor||Jerry West||26.14|
|2008 Nuggets||Allen Iverson||Carmelo Anthony||26.06|
|2013 Thunder||Kevin Durant||Russell Westbrook||25.93|
|2006 76ers||Allen Iverson||Chris Webber||25.87|
|1962 Warriors||Wilt Chamberlain||Paul Arizin||25.67|
|2001 Celtics||Paul Pierce||Antoine Walker||25.60|
|1983 Nuggets||Alex English||Kiki Vandeweghe||25.33|
|2023 Celtics||Jayson Tatum||Jaylen Brown||25.30|
|1984 Nuggets||Kiki Vandeweghe||Alex English||25.29|
|2000 Pistons||Grant Hill||Jerry Stackhouse||25.29|
Even so, ranking 18th among all teammate pairings in league history is still a remarkable placement—and that doesn’t even get into their two-way ability, because both Tatum and Brown excel as defensive wings too. They may form one of the highest-scoring duos ever, but that’s probably not even the strongest feature of their combined abilities.
There’s no better summation of why the Celtics are title favorites, after falling short in the Finals last June. They aren’t just blessed with such a deep rotation that a capable player like Payton Pritchard can barely sniff the court; they also have one of the league’s top star pairings, giving their roster a high ceiling and floor when most teams are lucky to have one or the other.