The Boston Celtics' no-good, very bad 2020-21 season took another massive blow on Monday with the news that Jaylen Brown is out for the season with a torn ligament in his left wrist. Any title hopes that gained steam after the team appeared in the Eastern Conference Finals during the bubble playoffs in Orlando took blow after blow as Boston's top players were all hurt or unavailable constantly over the last five months.
The Celtics' best seven players at this point in the year -- Brown, Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, Robert Williams, Evan Fournier, and Tristian Thompson -- played exactly zero games together this season. None. Nil. Zilch. This does not excuse the inconsistent play across the roster or Brad Stevens' inability to fix the team's slow starts or the utter lack of intensity on defense over the course of the year. But it does provide context, and everybody understands that it's hard to play good basketball for long stretches when there's no continuity or chemistry, especially when the players missing a lot of games are often crucial to foundational success.
It also doesn't change the fact that this season was a big disappointment. The one positive factor was Brown emerging as an up-and-coming star in his own right, with his points-per-game average skyrocketing as he was voted to his first All-Star Game appearance. Regardless of what happens with the play-in games, the season is over and fans just want everyone else to emerge from the year unscathed. A deep playoff run was improbable but not impossible with a fully healthy roster. That is no longer a possibility, and so the season is essentially done.
But because the Celtics were tabbed as title contenders before the year, they will be picked apart appropriately. The process began today as First Take tackled the two youngsters that make up the foundation of Boston's present and future and wondered if the Tatum/Brown combo is good enough to win a championship on its own. Max Kellerman does not think so.
As The Big Lead's resident Green Teamer, I disagree!
While there were a lot of problems with this team's roster -- aside from the injury bug -- that will need addressing, the play of Tatum and Brown is not one of those issues. Tatum's early season was completely derailed by a bout with COVID that affected him for months afterwards but still managed to up his averages to 26.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 4.4 assists per game, all increases across the board. Since the All-Star break, he's been playing like a legit MVP candidate, with a trio of games with more than 40 points including a 60-burger against the Spurs. Tatum has averaged 27.7 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 4.3 assists on 48 percent shooting from the floor and 40 percent even from deep on seven attempts per game. He's improved his all-around game substantially despite no offseason. No issues.
Brown is similar. Last year, he averaged 20.3 points per game on 15.6 shots per game, shooting 48.1 percent from the floor and 38.2 percent from deep. This year, Brown put up 24.7 PPG on 19.2 shots from the floor per game, shooting 48.4 percent and 39.7 percent from deep. He maintained efficiency while becoming a more featured part of the offense. That's a leap that separates good from great in the NBA.
This is the part where I remind you that they're both under 25 years old and (Brown's most recent injury aside) remarkably durable considering how much basketball they've played over the last three years. They've gone to the ECF twice in that timespan, dealt with this year's shortened offseason, and burned most of one offseason playing for Team USA. The Celtics are in safe hands with these two, and any who tell you otherwise are wrong.
But that isn't the question. The question that Kellerman answers is whether or not they'll ever be good enough to win a championship without needing a third star better than both. To proclaim that they cannot now, when the two are still several years away from their physical primes, is quite simply preposterous.
There is a chance, of course, that Tatum and Brown never get better than they are now. At their current levels of production, Tatum tops out as a top-20 player but never higher than 15 or so and Brown probably belongs in the top-30, but would vary based on the rise of players at his skill level. NBA champions all have at least one top-10 player at worst, and that's a trend that may as well be truth considering the last 20 title teams all have met that qualifier except the Detroit Pistons of the mid-aughts.
If the Celtics never land a third star, they're entirely reliant on Tatum elevating his play to top-10 level and Brown coming in close behind him. That's very difficult to envision in the short-term, given that names like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and James Harden still reign and show no signs of slowing down.
But Boston's title window isn't likely to slam shut in three years. It certainly could! The last few years have been unprecedented in terms of player movement and Brown will be up for a new deal in two years and Tatum's contract runs through "only" the 2025 season. But if Tatum and Brown stick in Celtics green for the next six or seven years ... why can't they reach the level required to be good enough to win a ring?
Both have exceeded expectations given the short length of their careers. There's no reason to believe either is close to hitting their ceiling, either. Brown's steady production has included a few explosions of 30-plus points and Tatum has proven capable of keeping up with the league's best scorers on any given night. There is a universe in which they become another star duo in the vein of Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, elite wing scorers who can carry the offense while making up the foundation of a playoff-quality defense. In theory, that's what you need to win a title in today's league.
The concept of a championship window is notoriously fickle. We've seen dozens of teams over the years with a core like Boston has put together fail to live up to title expectations for any number of reasons. Sometimes injuries get in the way, like the 2010 Bulls. Sometimes a superteam gets formed and nobody can do anything about it, as the Rockets of the last eight years can attest to. What appears to be a championship foundation can be blown up in an instant by a bad front office decision. Just ask the Thunder. No team, not even the Celtics, can predict the future and avoid those kind of pitfalls.
But when it comes to Tatum and Brown? They're absolutely good enough. They might not be right now. But if both continue to grow at the rate they've shown over the last three years, the duo will be the least of Boston's problems. It will be everything else that needs to go right.