Each week during the 2020-21 NBA season, we will take a deeper dive into three of the league’s biggest storylines in an attempt to determine whether the trends are based more in fact or fiction moving forward.
The Celtics are failing Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown
In the NBA, the clock starts ticking on a star player's timeline with his team as soon as he signs a contract. Jayson Tatum inked his max extension with the Boston Celtics in November, the same month teammate Jaylen Brown's four-year, $106 million deal began. They reached the Eastern Conference finals in two of three seasons together, so expectations for their ceiling are set as high as it gets. And the ticking is audible.
Few players experience as much as Brown and Tatum did on their rookie contracts.
Their arrivals respectively coincided with the rise and fall of Isiah Thomas. He was discarded in favor of Kyrie Irving, who along with the addition of Gordon Hayward carried considerable promise. Their 2017-18 regular season was bookended by campaign-ending injuries to Hayward and Irving. Yet, Brown and Tatum emerged as the top scorers on a team that pushed LeBron James within six minutes of a conference crown.
The 2018-19 season began with Irving's promise of re-signing and ended with him reneging on that promise. Al Horford joined him at the exit. In between, brewing tension between the old and new guard boiled over onto the court, resulting in a disappointing record and Irving's subversion of a playoff series.
Kemba Walker's arrival and Hayward's departure sandwiched a bizarre 2019-20 campaign, which saw Tatum's ascendence to an All-NBA level, a global pandemic and a conference finals berth in the bubble. Only the health of Walker and Hayward stood between Tatum, Brown and another shot at LeBron's crown.
All the while, trade rumors related to Paul George, Jimmy Butler, Kawhi Leonard and Anthony Davis, among others, have encircled the Celtics. Tatum and Brown have seen every side of the business of basketball in their young careers, save for themselves requesting a trade in pursuit of a better shot at the title elsewhere.
In total, they have watched three All-Stars leave Boston, each replaced by inferior talent. The gains in Tatum and Brown's games offset much of those losses, maintaining their fringe contender status, but this season, the two opposing forces — their ascent and an ever-diminishing roster around them — settled into an uncomfortable stagnation. The Celtics are barely above .500, clinging to a guaranteed playoff seed.
Boston's ceiling is now entirely dependent on Tatum and Brown's continued evolution into superstardom. They have twice gotten a whiff of the Finals, without a taste. They may well get there eventually, but all that the two young stars have given the Celtics — a combined 51 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists a night this season — still does not feel like enough to compete with rivals that have improved on their margins.
There are worse wagons to tie your championship hopes to than Tatum and Brown, but they still need the horses around them. Given all they have experienced so far, you can imagine how what we perceive as the start of their new contracts could feel to them like the middle of an eight-year cycle leading nowhere new.
Every move the Celtics have made in the years since swindling the Brooklyn Nets for the picks that led to Brown and Tatum is defensible, but that matters little when those same Nets have since built a superteam.
Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge has drafted Robert Williams and Payton Pritchard late in the first round, finding a pair of promising building blocks around Tatum and Brown. It is hard to see that forest through the trees when Romeo Langford, Aaron Nesmith, Tristan Thompson and Evan Fournier are playing like stiffs, spoiling Brown's 39 points in a home loss to the dreadful Oklahoma City Thunder.
Langford and Nesmith represent lost opportunity — lightly protected lottery picks from the Sacramento Kings and Memphis Grizzlies, which once held significant value and now scream replacement level. Thompson and Fournier embody the roster's decline. Horford's exit led to the signing of Enes Kanter, whose trade made room for Thompson, whose signing set in motion the salary dump of Daniel Theis, a better and cheaper alternative. Hayward's exit created a trade exception, which made possible the trade for Evan Fournier, whose re-signing might eventually result in a salary dump of either Marcus Smart or Walker.
Walker is further evidence of Boston's deterioration. He entered as Irving exited, a decent swap if Walker plays at his 2019 All-NBA level. Only, his knee began giving him problems months into a four-year max contract, and he has not been the same player since. It cost them a shot at the 2020 Finals, and it will lower their ceiling for the duration of his contract (through 2023) unless he can perform to the value of his deal.
None of this is exactly Ainge's fault. Irving is unpredictable, signing Horford to another $100 million deal would have been a mistake and Hayward's tenure in Boston was cursed from the onset. The Kings and Grizzlies wildly outperformed expectations. Could the Celtics have done a better job foreseeing some of these diminishing returns? Sure, but it is a lot easier to say that in retrospect than it was in the moment.
Regardless, Tatum and Brown are living with the result, and there is no doubt this roster is failing them. There is still time for the Celtics to rectify their mistakes before their two stars' eyes start wandering, just as there is time for them to develop into the sort of superstars who can carry a contender on their own. That is little comfort when we can already see a path to the end of their contracts that falls short of expectations.
Mental health is valued until it is not
When Cleveland Cavaliers big man Kevin Love slapped the ball back in bounds out of frustration on Monday night, leading to a Toronto Raptors 3-pointer in an eventual blowout loss, the first thought that sprung to my mind was, Man, he must have been in a really dark place in that moment. I hope he's OK.
I can guarantee that was not the first thought that sprung to mind for most people who watched it. He was lambasted for what was clearly an act of unprofessionalism. The word "tantrum" was used in headlines.
Along with San Antonio Spurs guard DeMar DeRozan, Love was on the forefront of making mental health an open topic of conversation in the NBA. They helped alleviate some of the stigmatism around depression and anxiety. He again acknowledged in Wednesday's public apology that his mental health played a factor.
It should not be hard to sympathize with how he reached that boiling point. The Cavaliers have transitioned from perennial contender to lottery mainstay in his seven-year Cleveland tenure. Granted, he signed a $120 million extension as that transition was taking place, but we do not know what promises were made to him in 2018, and Love is far from the first handsomely paid player to visibly grow disgruntled on a bad team. He has also been plagued by injuries over the course of that deal, unable to perform to his own expectations.
Throw some questionable officiating on top of all that weight, and it is a wonder to me how he did not kick the ball into the second deck. Heck, I blew a lid because my internet was not working this morning, only my outburst didn't go viral. Mental health is a work in progress, diametrically opposed to a meme. It is as difficult a topic to understand as it can be to discuss, and we should do better to recognize it in practice.
This is not dissimilar to the dustup between Los Angeles Clippers star Paul George and the Phoenix Suns earlier this year, when afterwards he acknowledged he was experiencing more trash talk than ever because he publicly shared his own mental health struggles. It was evident again when Suns star Chris Paul snubbed George after Wednesday's game, leading to George's irritated response to a question about Paul.
It all appears to have stemmed from an earlier on-court confrontation in which Suns guard Devin Booker called George "soft" (to put it mildly) for obvious reasons. Paul's actions are a perceived endorsement of his teammate's behavior. Couldn't that then be interpreted by players that their union president is delivering a message that, while mental health is fine as a topic of conversation off the court, all bets are off on it?
Tom Thibodeau is the Coach of the Year
The success of the New York Knicks is the most welcome surprise in the NBA this season, if not the biggest. Preseason odds set the over/under for their win total around 22. They hit that mark on March 23 and are currently 35-28, a game up on the Atlanta Hawks for the East's fourth and final home playoff seed.
Teams like the Celtics and Miami Heat may be more talented, but in his first season at the helm, Thibodeau has the Knicks ranked fourth in defensive rating — up from 23rd last year. Their offense falls in the middle of the pack, but it is ranked second in the league over the course of their recent run of 11 wins in 12 games.
Is what Thibodeau has done more impressive than Monty Williams' work with the Suns, who are threatening to capture the top seed in the Western Conference? Phoenix is on pace to win 51 games, a 24% year-over-year increase in winning percentage — same as New York's improvement under Thibodeau. Remove the bubble from the equation, and the Suns are 31% better than they were at this time last year.
Williams' Coach of the Year case is hindered by Paul's arrival, as the veteran point guard has received a greater share of the credit for the Suns' improvement, at least among those who boil these things down to the simplest terms. Paul is also lauded for gains made by Mikal Bridges and Deandre Ayton. This ignores Williams' role in developing a team that not only attracts buy-in from Paul but incorporates him seamlessly.
Conversely, Thibodeau is not solely responsible for massive steps forward from Julius Randle and R.J. Barrett. Those guys put in the work to meet his demands. These things are all unquantifiable measures.
Coaches are tasked with producing quantifiable results, and Coach of the Year generally goes to the one who extracted the most collective improvement from his roster. Both Thibodeau and Williams maximized theirs. Either one is deserving of the award, but to me it feels far harder to make the leap from lottery team to bona fide contender in the West than it is to improve from East doormat to middling playoff challenger.
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