Celtics

Why the numbers could favor Celtics breaking up Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown

Though they could still have high upside together, Tatum and Brown might be outgrowing their partnership on the Celtics.

Celtics Jaylen Brown
Boston Celtics guard Jaylen Brown. (AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)
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All things considered, it’s really not surprising the Celtics have lost their last two games to the San Antonio Spurs and New York Knicks the way they have. After all, it’s hard to be one of the objectively worst fourth-quarter teams in the NBA without experiencing a few gut-wrenching defeats.

It also might not be shocking to see that Boston couldn’t win two very winnable games with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown finally back on the court together after Tatum’s four-game COVID-related absence.

The Spurs game on Wednesday saw Jaylen Brown nab 30 points while Tatum (16 points) scuffled a bit in his first game since entering the league’s COVID protocols. Then, Tatum rebounded Thursday with a 36-point game, highlighted by a game-tying jumper with 2.2 seconds left, while Brown faltered after a 12-point first quarter and only finished with 16 overall.

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Their roles in the game’s most meaningful moments were telling. Brown, who came into Thursday with three 30-point games in his last four contests, took just six shots in the second half, including just one in the final frame. Tatum, on the other hand, had 14 field goal attempts in the last two quarters, eight of which came in the fourth quarter.

Contrast that with Brown scoring 21 points in the fourth quarter in his 50-point game against the Orlando Magic last weekend.

Though both are All-Stars, it feels more than ever as if the hierarchy is clear: when both are in the lineup, Tatum typically dominates the ball when it matters most while Brown is an accessory piece.

Tatum’s reputation as a natural scorer and clutch performer is likely a big reason he, not Brown, is viewed as the long-term cornerstone of the franchise in the event of a breakup while Brown is generally the one brought up in trade conversations.

Though both have All-Star pedigree, the numbers seem to indicate Tatum doesn’t need Brown beside him to succeed.

According to Basketball-Reference, neither of the Celtics’ two most effective five-man lineups by offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) involving Tatum include Brown at all. (In fact, the lineup of Tatum, Marcus Smart, Dennis Schroder, Josh Richardson, and Robert Williams has by far the best net rating on the team and the entire division among lineups that have played at least 25 minutes together, via NBA.com.)

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Brown’s two best lineups by offensive rating, on the other hand, are with Tatum, suggesting it is possible for them to be productive together. Then again, the Celtics are 9-12 when the two play together and .500 (7-7 with Tatum, 2-2 with Brown) when there’s only one of them.

Though the sample sizes for some of these lineups remain small, it still provides fodder for the idea that building around Tatum and dealing Brown while he’s near the peak of his trade value is a reasonable play.

Brown’s continued development could make a return haul pretty hefty if he keeps improving.

Interestingly, the 25-year-old Brown has consistently been a more efficient scorer than Tatum by most percentages (two-point, three-point, true shooting) aside from free throws and is the more rugged defender. Brown even contributes more points per isolation possession (1.11) than the famously iso-oriented Tatum (0.89) while relying on isolations just 7.5 percent of the time compared to Tatum (19.8 percent, fifth in the NBA). The Celtics also see an uptick in assist percentage and a much larger drop in opponents’ offensive rating with Brown on the court, speaking to his all-around value.

Brown might never have quite the superstar potential of Tatum, who was ranked as a top-15 player by many experts before the start of this season. But he’s proven himself as a star with untapped upside to explore, as evidenced by his breaking out for five 40-point games in the last two seasons and increasing his scoring averages every season up to this point.

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For whatever reason, though, this Celtics partnership with Tatum simply hasn’t led to wins in the last two seasons even as both players seemingly approach their primes.

Unless the two click in a way they haven’t quite managed yet, both in terms of raw production and their leadership of this up-and-down Boston squad, it may indeed be time for a change of scenery.

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