What will determine the Celtics’ fate this season is whether their two franchise players can bring the best out of one another.
Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are no longer the understudies behind players such as Kemba Walker, Kyrie Irving, and Gordon Hayward. The Celtics are their franchise, and the two under-25 All-Stars are primarily responsible for moving past last season’s disappointing finish and changing team culture.
Many have questioned whether Brown and Tatum can thrive together. They can do many of the same things. They are considered defensively interchangeable. Traditionally, NBA teams have a primary scorer. The Celtics have two, and they encourage each other.
A few days after Tatum returned from Tokyo with his Olympic gold medal, he met up with Brown in Las Vegas. Brown put the medal around his neck and they took a photo that was posted on social media.
“It’s definitely grown a lot,” Brown said of his friendship with Tatum. “I think it’s centered around respect. There’s a respect there. Jayson respects my work ethic, I respect his. We both put a lot into this game.”
Brown used his first training camp media session on Wednesday to clear up some misconceptions, such as he’s more focused on social activism and other off-court endeavors than basketball.
“Regardless of what I do off the court, I put everything, my heart and soul, in this game,” he said. “Our relationship is built around respect. I respect Jayson because he’s one of the best players in this game, regardless of 25 and under or over, and I think he can be one of the best players [of all time] when it’s all said and done. I think the same about myself.”
Brown said he believes outside forces, such as the media, choose to create a narrative where the two can’t function together because of their similarities. That isn’t quite the case. There is concern, however, that the two have grown into the habit of taking turns offensively, making the Celtics more predictable.
“The media likes to dichotomize things, and one thing against the other, and there has to be a Batman and Robin,” Brown said. “We’re just two guys that can hoop. The reality is two guys that can hoop can coexist.”
New Celtics coach Ime Udoka’s plan is to help make both better playmakers and even more productive teammates.
“That goes without saying that they’re the pillars, as we’ve mentioned several times,” Udoka said. “Guys need to appreciate each other. And sometimes you don’t appreciate what you have right next to you. That’s one thing I’ll stress to them, but I don’t think it’s a question of whether they can or cannot play together. It’s been proven what they’ve done when they’re healthy and together on the court.”
What was interesting about Udoka’s comments is that he plans to adjust Tatum and Brown’s time together on the floor. He plans to make the astute move of keeping at least one on the floor at all times.
The Celtics were 28-23 last season in games Tatum and Brown played together, and scored 114.7 points per 100 possessions.
“We’re staggering their minutes, and when one is in and one is out they have a chance to be more aggressive and taking advantage of matchups,” Udoka said. “It’s just a matter of them growing as players and being more playmakers, it’s not just looking for yourself every time.”
Brown assured Celtics fans they don’t have be concerned with any issues between he and Tatum. It’s critical that Brown and Tatum play with chemistry and cohesion, that they make the game easier for each other, that both not only increase their scoring and offensive efficiency but also their assists.
“The media wants to kind of sometimes write the story that [tries to pull] us apart,” Brown said. “But we talk a lot. We don’t let it bother us. We hear a lot of things, the comparisons, but I want what’s best for him and he wants the best for me, regardless of what everybody is saying: We can’t coexist, we don’t play well together or whatever. I enjoy playing with Jayson. I really do. He’s a guy I trust out there to make plays. I know he can carry [the team] and I know he trusts me out there, as well. Sometimes that’s not always easy to find.”
There have been plenty of dynamic duos that have broken up because they felt they couldn’t thrive together, such as Stephon Marbury-Kevin Garnett, Kevin Durant-Russell Westbrook, and now likely Ben Simmons-Joel Embiid. That won’t be an issue in Boston. Brown knows how important he is to Tatum, and vice versa. The next step is staying healthy and each upgrading their games to atone for last season.
“We kind of started our careers together; we won a lot of games here in Boston together at an early age, which is rare,” Brown said. “Sometimes it’s fascinating to me to see such an urgency to pit us against each other at times. But I could care less about what you read and see. It doesn’t really bother me none. I just try to come out and be a better version of myself. I want the best for my teammates and I want the best for myself, as well. You just take that one day at a time.”