Through the first 41 games this season, just 20 of which they have won, the Celtics have been so annoying that a good portion of the fan base wants them to make a trade almost certain to be regrettable just for the sake of not having to watch this anymore.
And what is this, exactly? An extraordinary, exasperating knack for courting, and often finding, disaster late in games in which they once held a big lead.
It’s the only consistent thing about them, really. And sometimes the anticipation of how they’ll crumble in crunch time this time is the only interesting thing about them.
In their last nine games going back to a Christmas Day game against the Bucks in which they blew a 19-point lead, the Celtics:
▪ Got torched by Jaylen Nowell and Greg Monroe — not exactly a dream “NBA Jam” tandem — in a 108-103 loss to the Timberwolves;
▪ Shot 4 for 42 from 3-point range in a 91-82 loss to the Clippers;
▪ Lost to the Spurs, 99-97, when Jaylen Brown couldn’t convert a fairly tough layup at the buzzer;
▪ Gave up 41 points to Evan Fournier and lost to the Knicks, 108-105, on an R.J. Barrett banked-in 3-pointer at the buzzer.
I’m telling you, the Celtics didn’t find that many creative ways to lose when they were tanking hopelessly for Tim Duncan in 1996-97.
It should be noted that the Celtics have averted self-inflicted disaster on occasion, including a 116-111 overtime win against a depleted Magic team Jan. 2, when within a span of about 24 seconds late in regulation, we got the most quintessential Marcus Smart sequence we will ever witness: Defensive rebound, missed 4-footer, airing of grievances to the official while running back on defense, ferocious steal from Franz Wagner, clever but risky bounce pass to Brown for the tying layup.
As innovative as the Celtics have been at losing late leads, let’s get this on record right now: Trading Brown or Jayson Tatum right now would be a panic move that would almost certainly haunt the franchise for years.
Don’t get me wrong. I get why Celtics fans would fall for the temptations of the “Trade Machine.” Tatum and Brown are outstanding individual players — the former is probably a top-15 player in the league, the latter, what, top 30? — but in their fifth season as teammates, they do not yet maximize each other’s skills.
There are too many Tatum step-back 23-footers with 12 seconds on the shot clock, too many Brown drives to the hoop with his head down and the defense closing in, too much my-turn basketball. Their isolation-ball habits when a game starts to get tight are the antithesis of Celtics basketball, not to mention aesthetically unsatisfying unless one of them happens to be on fire, such as when Brown dropped 50 on the Magic.
The “Trade Machine” tells you what can be done. It doesn’t tell you what should. And there are multiple reasons not to trade Tatum or — and his name comes up more often, perhaps because he’s regarded as the slightly lesser player — Brown.
First, have you ever heard a potential trade that has the Celtics getting equal value in return?
Ben Simmons, you say? He’s a malcontent, a historically bad shooter (the Celtics need more shooting, if anything), and since when is it Boston’s obligation to remedy Philadelphia’s chronic headaches?
Maybe De’Aaron Fox from Sacramento? Good player. Fun player. Speedy. Get it done, Brad Stevens! (Checks Fox’s basketball-reference page.) Uh … what’s this? He’s a worse career shooter from 3-point range than Smart (24.7 percent this season), and averages fewer assists per game than Smart (5.3 to 5.1). The Celtics need a commanding, playmaking point guard to take the reins late in games. Fox is not that. Anyone know where to find the next Chris Paul?
How about Domantas Sabonis from the Pacers? OK, fine, that might be interesting. He’s crafty and well-rounded (he had a 42-point game and a triple-double recently), and he might fit with Tatum. But he wouldn’t do much to help the Celtics’ perimeter shooting woes (he’s at 32.3 percent on 3-pointers), and Brown is the better all-around player.
The other important argument for keeping Tatum and Brown together: Contrary to what their shot selection sometimes suggests, they do care. They recognize that this doesn’t mesh as it should, and they want it to work. Brown mentioned as much after a win over the Knicks last Saturday. It was Tatum’s turn to acknowledge their desire to thrive as teammates after Monday’s win over the Pacers.
“[There are] not many players in the league like JB,” said Tatum. “The grass ain’t always greener. We’ve had some great stretches and this year hasn’t been what we’ve expected, but I think in the long run it will be good for us. We’ve got to figure some things out, but I think the most important thing is we both want it extremely bad. We want to try to figure it out together. So for us just to be on the same page is extremely important. We’ve got each other’s back and we’re going to give it all we’ve got to figure this out, regardless of what people say.”
The Celtics don’t need to break them up. They need to get them the right help. Perhaps Robert Williams, who has been on a tear since coach Ime Udoka (who has had a steep learning curve in his first head coaching gig) criticized him after the Timberwolves loss, can develop into the third star. His block with two minutes left in the Pacers game led to a Grant Williams 3-pointer, arguably the pivotal play in the game. Robert Williams has bad habits to break defensively, but he’s easily the most fun player to watch on this team.
Several Celtics, including Tatum, are shooting well below their career averages. Maybe that suggests a bunch of Celtics are about to get hot at the same time. But it’s clear that they need more shooting on the roster. Aaron Nesmith and Payton Pritchard need to be allowed to develop. Grant Williams needs to play in crunch time. Smart and Dennis Schröder cannot be paired when the game is on the line. (Schröder did not play in overtime Monday after Smart left with an injury. That was a wise decision by Udoka.)
For all of the words we’ve spent here on their creative ways of losing, there have been signs lately that this is salvageable. They’ve won four of six entering Wednesday night’s rematch with the Pacers, including a 15-point win over the Suns on New Year’s Eve without Tatum, who was in COVID-19 protocol.
Now Tatum and Brown are both healthy, and they vow they’re going to get this right, together. Step away from the “Trade Machine” and give them the chance. These Celtics need more players with their special level of talent, not fewer.