Here are evaluations of the top of the Celtics roster, as well as coach Joe Mazzulla and president of basketball operations Brad Stevens. Players are graded based on performance related to expectations, not simply skill level.
Jayson Tatum: A-minus
Tatum is one of the NBA’s most durable superstars, so it was a cruel twist when his ankle sprain on the opening possession of Game 7 of the conference finals may have cost this Celtics core its best chance at a title.
By most measures, the season was a resounding success for Tatum. He was a first-team All-NBA pick, finished fourth in MVP voting, was named All-Star Game MVP, and he kept the Celtics among the league’s elite. Advanced stats and the eye test both made it clear that the Celtics’ play suffered when Tatum was on the bench. But a championship remains elusive.
Tatum has shown progress getting to the rim. His .399 free throw rate — the number of foul shots per field goal attempt — was a career high by a wide margin. He continues to evolve as a willing passer in the face of double-teams and averaged a career-best 4.6 assists per game.
But his 3-point percentage fell for the third year in a row, to a career-low 35 percent. And the downturn was even uglier in the playoffs, when he connected on just 32.3 percent of his tries, down from 39.3 percent during last season’s Finals run.
He shot 47.5 percent from the corners during the regular season, but just 59 of his 685 3-point attempts came from that area.
Lastly, he’d benefit from spending less time complaining to officials.
Jaylen Brown: B-plus
When Brown was named second-team All-NBA last month, he became eligible to receive a five-year, $295 million super-max extension from the Celtics this summer. If he gets that contract, he would briefly become the NBA’s highest-paid player when it kicks in, and for many who saw Brown go 8 for 23 and cough up eight turnovers in the Game 7 loss to the Heat, that simply does not compute.
Brown continues to evolve as a gifted scorer. This season he set career highs in field goal percentage (49.1), free throw percentage (76.5), free throw attempts (5.1 per game), and points (26.5). In a league that devalues mid-range attempts, he remains very dangerous from that area. He made a blistering 57.6 percent of his 2-pointers. He did regress from beyond the arc, however, shooting a career-low 33.5 percent.
But Brown’s bigger struggles occurred elsewhere. He remains uncomfortable as a playmaker, his ball-handling is a detriment, and late in the season he was often involved in defensive miscommunications that led to wide-open perimeter shots for opponents.
The Celtics were 3.7 points per 100 possessions worse with Brown on the court in the regular season, and 7.9 worse in the playoffs. By comparison, they were 5.6 and 7.8 points better with Tatum on the court during the regular season and playoffs, respectively.
Marcus Smart: B
The 2021-22 season was almost perfect for Smart. He was named NBA Defensive Player of the Year, and after years of playing behind point guards such as Isaiah Thomas, Kyrie Irving, and Kemba Walker, he was handed the keys to the offense and helped this core to its first Finals appearance.
This season, Smart was the first to admit that he was not as effective on defense, calling his performance at that end of the floor “mediocre.” Just about every advanced metric agreed, showing slippage from his award-winning campaign. The Celtics’ defense was actually 3.2 points per 100 possessions better when Smart was off the court.
Smart remained an effective conductor for the high-powered offense, however. He averaged a career-high 6.3 assists and seemed to be more judicious with his shot selection. His shots per game fell for the third season in a row, to just 9.9. And his 3-point percentage ticked up slightly for the second year in a row, to 33.6.
Joe Mazzulla: B
Last summer, Mazzulla was preparing for another season as a behind-the-bench assistant on Ime Udoka’s staff. When Udoka was suspended in September, after top assistant Will Hardy had already left to join the Jazz, Mazzulla suddenly found himself in charge of a championship contender.
There were rocky moments, for sure. Mazzulla probably should have gone to the Al Horford/Robert Williams lineup earlier in the conference semifinals against the 76ers. His benching of Grant Williams was puzzling. His usage of timeouts and his reliance on 3-pointers drove some fans mad.
But as a whole, there is plenty to build on.
Mazzulla led the Celtics to 57 regular-season wins, more than Stevens or Udoka ever did. The 3-0 deficit against the Heat in the conference finals was discouraging, but Mazzulla at least ensured that his team did not quit there.
He’ll remain under a microscope next season, but Stevens and ownership remain quite bullish about the 34-year-old coach’s future.
Brad Stevens: B-plus
Over the last two years, Stevens has acquired Horford, Derrick White, and Malcolm Brogdon without giving up any pieces that led to regrets. It’s been an incredible run, really.
The addition of Mike Muscala at the trade deadline had no impact, and maybe Stevens should have tried harder to do something bigger. But it was very unlikely that the Celtics could have brought in a player who would have bumped Brogdon, White, or Robert Williams out of the rotation.
Stevens’s biggest fault this season was not doing more to fortify the coaching staff after a string of departures.
The Celtics lost Udoka, Hardy, and Damon Stoudamire over an eight-month span and did not make any outside hires to replace them. Some of the timing was unfortunate, but the bench could have used the voice of a former NBA player down the stretch.