The NBA wanted to believe that the news media’s interest in the league’s continuing conflict with China was cooling.
LeBron James duly reheated blanket domestic coverage of the topic with an interview Monday night that was widely received as pro-China — to the point that James is suddenly facing his harshest criticism perhaps since “The Decision” that took him from Cleveland to Miami in 2010.
This is clearly not the October that the league at large expected after an offseason of unprecedented roster upheaval. Rather than bask in the uncharacteristically wide-open title race that summer player movement spawned, we’ve spent nearly two weeks fixated on a geopolitical crisis that has consistently overshadowed the basketball.
There has been little discussion, as a result, of an important day that usually generates much more October coverage: Monday is the deadline for 2016 first-round picks, who are in the final year of their original rookie-scale contracts, to sign extensions.
Toronto’s Pascal Siakam and Sacramento’s Buddy Hield are two of the strongest candidates to land such deals before Monday’s 6 p.m. Eastern time buzzer. Indiana’s Domantas Sabonis is another prime contender among the 16 remaining eligible draft picks from 2016; he is known to be in active talks about a possible extension.
Yet it can be argued that no case is as intriguing as Boston’s negotiations with Jaylen Brown.
Brown’s 2018-19 season, much like Boston’s itself, fell far short of expectations after he helped the Celtics advance to one win from the NBA finals as a second-year forward in 2018. The long-standing reluctance of the Celtics’ team president, Danny Ainge, to dole out rookie-scale extensions — Rajon Rondo was the last Celtic to receive one, in 2009 — has further convinced many league observers that Brown is unlikely to end that drought.
But Brown was among the few players who emerged from USA Basketball’s humbling seventh-place finish in the FIBA World Cup in China with a boost to his reputation. He was aggressive, competitive and versatile for an American team gutted by a rash of defections by marquee names, emerging as one of the players U.S. coach Gregg Popovich trusted most. A dearth of dependable frontcourt players led Popovich to deploy Brown as a power forward and, occasionally, as a small-ball center to try to fill the void.
Brown also appears to have a measure of leverage that recent Celtics extension candidates such as Marcus Smart and the since-departed pair of Terry Rozier and Kelly Olynyk did not. Without an extension by Monday, Brown will become a restricted free agent in July — and one of the most desirable free agents in the league next summer should he produce a strong 2019-20 season.
The venerable HoopsHype.com recently labeled Brown as a top-five free agent in July 2020. That’s thanks at least partly to a marketplace devoid of this past summer’s star power, but Brown may have an even stronger hand if Siakam and Hield land extensions in coming days.
“Everybody says that they’re not concerned with it, but in some way, shape or form they are,” Brown, in a recent telephone interview, said of contract talks. “But to be honest, it’s really not overwhelming me or ruling my thoughts. I know what type of talent I have. I’m confident in myself. I’m confident in my ability.
“It’s not something that’s keeping me up at night, if that’s what you’re asking.”
Brown felt sufficiently secure entering this season to shave his head shortly before the start of training camp. The social media stir that caused was quickly forgotten amid all the chaos in China that followed Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s Oct. 4 post on Twitter in support of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong — but the initial response has stayed with Brown.
“It was shocking,” he said. “I didn’t know people cared so much about my hair.”
What Bostonians really care about, of course, is what sort of rebound the Celtics can muster after a season of undeniable tension surrounding the oft-scrutinized leadership of Kyrie Irving, as well as a second-round playoff exit to Milwaukee that hastened Irving’s free-agency defection to the Brooklyn Nets.
For all the questions about consistency Brown has inspired as a Celtic, his ceiling as a shooter and his level of offensive production given his elite athleticism, his production in 115 career starts is actually very similar to Jayson Tatum’s in 159. Tatum tends to generate more buzz as a potential franchise player, but some talent evaluators see Brown as the more effective, well-rounded two-way player.
Brown took the rare step of representing himself upon matriculating to the pros as the No. 3 overall pick in the 2016 draft. Yet he recently hired veteran agent Jason Glushon to represent him in this fall’s negotiations with the Celtics.
Glushon also represents Al Horford, whose free-agency defection to Philadelphia in July, combined with Irving’s exit, has probably thrust Brown into a role with expanded responsibility. The size-challenged Celtics, in general, are a team people will be tracking in the Eastern Conference no matter what happens with Brown’s extension negotiations — especially after four Celtics spent the bulk of the summer together with USA Basketball (Brown, Tatum, Smart and the newcomer Kemba Walker) and with no clear-cut No. 3 seed in the East behind Milwaukee and Philadelphia.
“We spent a lot of time together, hanging out, talking, just getting to know each other,” Brown said of his summer excursion to Australia and China with the other three Celtics. “When you’re out of the country, guys tell you things they would never tell you here. We were all in the same bubble, so it was really good to learn stuff about my teammates. Video games, dinner, shopping — we never left the hotel alone.”
Brown, though, swatted away the notion that the time abroad gave the Celtics any sort of head start on the new season.
“I don’t want to say that,” Brown said. “I don’t want to put any expectations or added pressure on what’s on this team already. I just want to say it was a good experience. We’ll see whether it helped or hurt as the season goes on.”
The lone promise you can extract from Brown is that he plans to be a more vocal leader as he prepares to turn 23 on Oct. 24 — two years younger than Siakam and four years younger than Hield. Pressing him further about expectations, contractually or on the floor, tends to shut the conversation down.
“I’m avoiding that word in general,” Brown said. “‘Expectations’ is not a word I’m even going to try to use or that I want anybody on our Celtics team to use.
My mantra for this year is, ‘Just hoop.’”
Although that’s easier said than done in the NBA’s current tense climate, Monday’s extension deadline and the intensifying spotlight that comes with it may provide an immediate opportunity to see how well Brown pulls it off.