The Boston Celtics might face a conundrum with Jaylen Brown.
On one hand, he’s among the NBA’s brightest young stars, with an all-around game that’s still evolving ahead of his 25th birthday. On the other, the Celtics are searching for an identity with him and Jayson Tatum as their franchise cornerstones, and it’s fair to question after a disappointing season whether Boston ever will become a legitimate NBA Finals contender with both in tow.
Conventional wisdom says the Celtics should build around Tatum and Brown, even though new president of basketball operations (and former head coach) Brad Stevens, who just replaced Danny Ainge, might be limited in how much he can augment Boston’s roster this offseason.
But what if Brown won’t ever reach his full potential playing alongside Tatum? And vice versa?
The Celtics almost certainly won’t trade Tatum, already one of the NBA’s most dangerous scorers. So, the focus inevitably shifts to Brown. And while Boston theoretically could trade Brown, for the sake of shaking up its core and acquiring someone whose style meshes better with Tatum’s, would Stevens really want to live with watching him blossom into a bona fide superstar elsewhere?
Think James Harden, for example.
Harden, drafted third overall in 2009, spent three seasons with the Oklahoma City Thunder, playing third fiddle behind Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook — and even behind Jeff Green, to some degree, particularly early on. It wasn’t until the Thunder traded Harden to the Houston Rockets in 2012 (at age 23) that he flourished and became the perennial MVP candidate he still is today (at age 31) with the Brooklyn Nets.
It’s not outside the realm of possibility that Brown could follow a similar trajectory — perhaps not exactly to that extent — if the Celtics traded him. After all, he’s still improving after five seasons in the NBA, and the 24-year-old’s work ethic and leadership are undeniable.
“Jaylen Brown scares me, because I think if he goes, Jaylen Brown is going to have a James Harden-like explosion,” former NBA center Ryan Hollins, now an ESPN analyst, said Wednesday on CBS Sports Radio’s “The Zach Gelb Show,” as transcribed by WEEI.com. “And I don’t think that he’s ever going to have that under Jayson Tatum.
“He can shoot, he can score. He can sink his hips into his crossovers, which means he moves as if he’s a guy who’s 5-foot-10, 5-foot-11. He’s got that type of mobility. And I think he could have a James Harden-like explosion, and it just may not happen with the Celtics.”
Which brings us back to the overall quandary: If the circumstances in Boston — namely, playing alongside Tatum — will prevent Brown from reaching his ceiling with the Celtics, should they at least consider trading him, knowing it’ll sting but ultimately might enhance their chances of competing for a title?
It depends on the return, of course. And unless the Celtics can acquire a top-tier player, they’ll probably be hesitant to part ways with Brown, whom they drafted third overall in 2016 (one year before picking Tatum third overall) and have under team control at a reasonable rate through the 2023-24 season.
“Who’d I trade (Brown) for? The only person comparable — but unfortunately he’s older — that I would even consider is possibly a Paul George. So, I just don’t see it, ultimately,” Hollins said, as transcribed by WEEI.com. “If I’m letting him go, there was something really, really, really good. … This better be a darn sweet deal for me to move on from him. Otherwise, I’m going to hold onto him.
“But I just don’t think that Tatum and Brown are going to be the best fit. I think Brown is a star on another team and in another organization.”
All told, the Celtics’ best course of action involves finding a third star to put alongside Tatum and Brown, and then hoping the team can jell with some seasoning, a better supporting cast and a new head coach.
If that’s not realistic, well, then it’s time to start thinking outside the box, about possible decisions that could be very uncomfortable, both in the moment and years down the road.