Why the Celtics should be content standing pat on Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum

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DETROIT — The Boston Celtics aren’t one of the myriad teams feeling they are one move away from vaulting to the top of the Eastern Conference, but they could be in much better shape than previously thought.

In the last few weeks, the Celtics seem to have found an identity — one that could very well quell the thirst to trade either Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown, but it doesn’t involve either specifically.

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Through Monday, the Celtics are in the play-in spot, barely behind the soapy Brooklyn Nets at seventh, but the two are moving in vastly different directions. The Celtics have won seven of eight while the Nets have lost eight straight. With the trade deadline approaching, recent events could play a big part in the immediate future.

During this streak, the Celtics turned into a defensive unit, holding their opponents to 38% shooting and 29% from three. Even if they haven’t exactly gone against offensive juggernauts, the Celtics are whipping opponents by an average of 20 points a night.

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It’s Robert Williams and Marcus Smart putting their stamp on the team, along with Al Horford being more useful in this stop. Williams gets out on switches and is quick enough to protect the rim, aiding Smart in his pest-like, pesky ways.

“We both know our job on the court, and we both look to each other for the energy, for that drive, that will,” Williams said Friday night, after the Celtics took a big lead and held on to beat the Pistons 102-93.

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“Sometimes we just look at each other in the game and just say, ‘Hey, we got to step it up,’ then everybody else follows defensively setting the tone.”

Boston is fourth in defensive rating — only Cleveland, Phoenix and Golden State are better — usually a hallmark of a good team, headlined by its best players.

Why the Celtics should be content standing pat on Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum
© Provided by Yahoo! Sports Should the Celtics trade either Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum or is the core already set up for success? (Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

It’s a bit different for the Celtics. Not to say Tatum and Brown aren’t defensively engaged, but they’re not being counted on to be something they’re not quite built for yet — being vocal leaders.

The urge is almost too irresistible, to split up the still-youngish duo before they get grownish. It’s not an excuse to say Brown is 25, Tatum 23 and believe there’s still so much room for growth, even though we’ve seen plenty.

But not this incarnation of this team. Even when they fell to 18-21 after a loss to the New York Knicks on Jan. 6, there wasn’t real panic from the plan: long, rangy defenders forcing turnovers and clearing the way for two outstanding scorers.

“We never had a real look at it. Injury, COVID situations. Now, everyone’s back healthy for an extended amount of time now,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said. “It’s kind of what I envisioned defensively with our size and versatility. And even what guys were there for the short amount of time we had success with it was just so much lack of continuity.”

The standard for the Celtics is high, and it’s hard to envision Tatum or Brown being the best player on a team that gets past Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo or Kevin Durant in the East.

Perhaps they’ve had their window, fleeting as it was, and squandered it. They came close against the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers in 2018, but were too young to seize the moment. It happens, and plenty of teams fall victim to dynastic players coming into their own. You can’t say Tatum or Brown have underdeveloped, or underachieved.

You wonder about Tatum’s shot selection at times, those instances where he gums up the offense to get into his bag and forces the offense when there’s no need to. And having two perimeter-oriented scorers who aren’t foul-drawers is still tougher, albeit not impossible, to build around.

Udoka is walking a fine line, wanting Tatum and Brown to trust each other and their teammates, while also limiting the mind-numbing isolations in the half-court — but having it available in doses.

“One thing we stress is, having our defense turn into offense, getting stops and turnovers,” Udoka said. “It’s much more beneficial than having isolations, not having to rely on isolations so heavy.”

Arguably, they’ve each exceeded individual projections to this point, even if it hasn’t led to the ultimate team success. Perhaps the Celtics have a blueprint for developing in the immediate future with both, putting rugged defenders around the scorers and winning unconventionally.

But even with the trade deadline days away, it doesn’t mean the Celtics should pull the plug on the two. At least not yet.

Cleveland fired the first salvo, acquiring Caris LeVert from a soon-to-be-rebuilding Indiana Pacers team. There are no expectations to make the Finals, but the Cavaliers are positioning themselves to be flexible and filling holes for the future while still giving an honest effort at making some noise this spring.

It wouldn’t be surprising to see other teams follow suit in a bunched-up East, as Ben Simmons continues to be in mothballs and the Nets trip over their own feet waiting for Kevin Durant to come back and save them.

The quality of the conference is far better than it’s been in decades, but with no one running and hiding, there’s opportunity for shrewd moves to take a flier on the rest of the season and sneakily get a jumpstart on the offseason.

Experienced league executives scoffed at the notion of trading one just to get fresh faces in, noting whatever the Celtics get in return wouldn’t be a better player or even a better fit.

“If it’s a problem, trading one doesn’t solve the problem,” one executive told Yahoo Sports.

Executives have called coach turned decision-maker Brad Stevens “fair” in trade discussions, compared to Danny Ainge’s approach of trying to get your best player for literally nothing. That has streamlined conversations, leading many to believe Stevens wants to subtly add to the core as opposed to tearing it down.

You hear Smart’s name brought up frequently, but he’s remained a Celtic this entire time. Horford has another year after this one left on the massive deal he signed to leave Boston a couple years ago, so it could be attractive.

The Celtics were very well in no-man’s-land, not good enough or bad enough to turn their fortunes — but sitting still, for once, could lead to the best revelation of all.

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