In the summer of 2016, the Boston Celtics drafted Jaylen Brown 3rd overall in the NBA Draft. In the four years to follow, Boston made it to the Eastern Conference Finals three times and drafted Jayson Tatum, another All-Star, with the third overall pick in 2017. When LeBron James went west in the summer of 2019, it felt like destiny that the Boston Celtics would win the Eastern Conference and reach an NBA Finals very quickly. Now? They may be lucky to win games in the East and make it into the NBA Playoffs. 

For whatever reason, the best version of these Celtics was in their two stars earliest days. We remember Tatum dunking on James at a crucial moment in Game 7 of the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals. We remember the excitement in adding All-Star guard Kyrie Irving and Tatum in the summer of 2017, and how it felt like a seismic shift was coming. Boston was on the precipice of history. 

And now? The Celtics are making history… it’s just not the kind they wanted to make: 

In the time since the Chicago game, a frustrated Marcus Smart spoke to the media. Smart said “I can only do so much just standing in the corner. … Everybody’s scouting report makes them [Tatum and Brown] try to pass the ball. They don’t want to pass the ball and that’s something they’re going to learn.” 

What to Make of The C’s

What Smart said is interesting on several levels. In the game he was referencing, the Bulls outscored the Celtics 37-9 in the fourth quarter. Chicago figured something out and Boston never fixed it. But is that thing forcing the 6’9” Tatum to pass? 

Few players match the size, length, and perimeter fluidity of Jayson Tatum, but they’re rarely asked to be incredible passers. Kevin Durant creates offense, but he’s never asked to pass more. Kawhi Leonard is a two-time Finals MVP, but he’s only broken five assists per game one season. Donovan Mitchell lacks the size that Tatum has, but even he isn’t asked to lead his offense in passing or assists. In a similar vein, Jaylen Brown is a big, long, and strong scoring perimeter player. His athleticism sticks out even when sharing a floor with the best athletes in the world. Sure, he’s never averaged more than three assists per game, but why should he? 

In the 2020-21 season, the top-10 assist leaders were a list of nine traditional point guards and James Harden, who has transitioned into a point-guard and creator role since playing for Mike D’Antoni in 2017. Further, many of the top assist men had a key scorer alongside them. Chris Paul has Devin Booker. Russell Westbrook had Bradley Beal. Harden has Durant. Smart implied that Tatum and Brown need to pass the ball more, but they fit the latter half of those passer-scorer relationships. They’re missing the former. 

Building Problems

Smart isn’t entirely wrong: there are problems in Boston. It’s not that they just went ice cold against Chicago, got unlucky in some playoff seedings, and thus didn’t get out of the first round. It’s not that they caught the injury bug here or there. The team lacks a distributor. Thus the offense they create is some version of an isolation here or a structured set there. The Boston Celtics can do those two ends of the spectrum very well, but they can’t navigate the nuance between them. 

Brad Stevens was lauded as the Celtics’ head coach for the intricacy of his offensive sets, out of time-out creativity, and inbounds plays. Tatum and Brown are hailed for their brilliance in isolation. But the entire time this iteration of the Celtics has been relevant, they’ve also been without a signal-caller on the floor. Between 2017 and 2021, the Celtics have started Isaiah Thomas, Kyrie Irving, and Kemba Walker at point guard. While each of those guys is a talented basketball player, they’re also all score-first players. Thus the Celtics are getting an “I-need-to-score” player at each of the three perimeter positions. Brown, Tatum, and each point guard can pass the ball, but it’s not what they’re best at. 

Ironically, the person who ended up fitting in the lineups the best over that time became Marcus Smart because he wasn’t a score-first player. Smart is a role player that defends and shoots when he’s open. When the ball isn’t kicked out to him for a three, Smart is the player who is regularly running through an offense. While his defensive versatility means he could play the “four” spot, his offensive strengths and weaknesses fit him well opposite Tatum and Brown. He’s the closest perimeter player to the one he’s both describing and saying the Celtics need. 

Smart is correct to ring the alarms over issues in the Boston Celtics. The franchise has high expectations that are only heightened with two All-Stars that are 24 and 25 years old. But the flaw of the Celtics isn’t in the growth and development of Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown but in the construction of what fits around them. If the dynamic duo had played with a point guard that distributed more than he scored, they may have been even better over the last half-decade.

And if current point guard Dennis Schroder were to fit that role, they may be better over the next. 

For more on sports, sneakers, and fandom, follow me @painsworth512 for more. Give our podcast “F” In Sports a listen wherever you listen to podcasts! Be sure to check our NEW weekly basketball show, The Midweek Midrange, on YouTube,Twitter, and Instagram!

About Author

Parker Ainsworth

Senior NBA Writer, Co-Host of "F" In Sports and The Midweek Midrange. Parker is a hoops head, "retired" football player, and sneaker aficionado. Austinite born in Houston, located in Dallas after a brief stint in LA... Parker is a well-traveled Texan, teacher, and coach. Feel free to contact Parker-

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *