Something is a bit off in Boston.
Instead of looking up and down the roster to see who is not carrying their weight, settle your gaze on the third-year wing from California, Jaylen Brown. A player once thought to be too filled with potential to include in a Kawhi Leonard trade, Brown has fallen short of the lofty bar set for him coming into the season.
His numbers, 11.8 points on 41 percent shooting, 28 percent from three, 4.2 rebounds and 1.5 assists, are a tad disappointing. But the fact he shot almost 40 percent from deep a season ago makes falling by ten percentage points a wholly unforeseen setback.
We cannot stop there, though. Beyond his shooting, the stretchy and athletic wing is simply not meshing in a lineup filled with stars and scorers. Nor is he grasping a defense built around switching and versatility instead of one-on-one dominance.
As a result, coach Brad Stevens has moved Brown to the second unit several times throughout December with hopes of sparking his play and staggering his minutes with the top tier Celts. A dive into the film, along with Brown’s efficiency numbers and splits, can illustrate that solving what plagues him could lead to a strong turnaround for Boston.
Brown has played in 26 games, during which the Celtics are 13-13. They are 5-0 when he sits.
In games where he attempts 14 or more field goal attempts, they are 2-4. Change that to games with multiple assists and the team improves drastically at 10-4.
How about one more win-loss variant for Brown: Boston is 2-7 when he does not attempt a free throw.
Simple translation: The Celtics are a superior team when he keeps it simple and creates for others.
Within their offense, Brown can blend in as a third or even fourth option. Kyrie Irving and Jayson Tatum are clearly superior scorers from a one-on-one perspective. Playing through Al Horford allows those two to get easier shots, and create looks for others like Brown.
Both Brown and the struggling Gordon Hayward can easily fit into a complementary role where their offense comes out of the attention paid to others rather than their own isolations.
In essence, Brown needs to be smarter about picking his spots. There are multiple times where he gets caught hoisting an end-of-clock attempt. (He’s 2-16 in the final four seconds of the shot clock, according to Synergy.)
Instead of bailing him out and pardoning those crimes by necessitating the attempt late in the shot clock, Stevens must challenge Brown to move the ball to a superior scorer late in the clock rather than far too much of this:
A quick reversal to Marcus Smart once Tatum hits him in the corner would rotate the ball and likely find Kyrie Irving at the three-point line. Instead, Brown dials up a one-on-one move on the wing where four bodies are between him and a drive to the rim. He has no choice but to pull-up and kills the movement of the possession by letting the ball stick to his hands.
Why Brown isolates on individual elite defenders like Kawhi Leonard—while sharing the floor with teammates like Kyrie and Tatum—is beyond me. He’s a poor passer out of iso, not quick enough to realize he does not have an advantage, and shouldn’t even attempt to create openings out of certain situations:
Most of the questionable possessions come from Brown simply trying to do too much:
Yet, he is the ideal third cog when he is attacking the rim, getting others involved and taking open catch-and-shoot looks.
Brown has been better since returning from a three-game absence due to a scary fall and subsequent tailbone injury. Since December 6th, he’s averaging 13.7 points on 46 percent shooting and 37 percent from three. He’s also averaging two dimes a night, and his shot selection has been solid. If those keep up, Brown is going to be a net positive.
Unfortunately, defense has equally been an unexpected issue for a guy was once thought to be a next-gen stopper.
With their wing-heavy personnel, the Celts have practiced a switching-heavy scheme this season: They switch ball screens, handoffs and cuts. Any opportunity where there are two offensive players brought together, two Celtics guards or wings will pass off their assignments and eschew bulldozing through screens.
In theory, this is an effective strategy. Brown, Tatum, Hayward and Marcus Smart are all tailor-made for such a scheme based on their length, size and dexterity. With a blanket to help Irving off-ball, the Celtics can survive with one weaker defender on the court; The team’s length and activity can atone for his sins.
Yet, any defensive scheme is ineffective if players do not guard the ball one-on-one. Continuously throughout the year, Brown had been the victim of poor closeouts, giving up straight-line drives to the rim instead of corralling the ball. Sometimes he gives up two on the same possession:
Taking a poor angle or struggling to keep one player in front is not a cardinal sin. These mistakes happen, and defenses rotate to cover them up. The disheartening portion revolves around Brown’s apparent lack of desire to cover up opponents’ rotations and his effort to recover on a possession when he does get beat.
After making a run on Friday night to claw their way back against the Milwaukee Bucks, Brown and Terry Rozier deflated the energy in TD Garden with a major defensive gaffe:
Oof. It’s still hard to say exactly what the defensive strategy was here. It appears Rozier is trying to play “weak” coverage on Eric Bledsoe, seeing a middle ball screen coming and forcing him to play with his weak hand. If that is the case, Brown needed to be ready for the jump switch within the Celtics standard defense.
Instead, he was flat-footed and spinning his arms like a turbine in the wind to wrap Bledsoe.
At the very least, these are issues fixed by effort and communication. Brown hasn’t fully grasped the multitude of switching, nor the onus on him to be a great help defender at all times.
Overreacting to poor play is dangerous. Brown is in a shooting slump. If he were above 35 percent from three, the narrative surrounding his start would likely be quite different. Brown has as much reputation for his smarts as he does his athleticism; This is definitely not a poor player for the Celtics.
There are, however, certain glaring areas that must be fixed if he’s to be a key part of the Celtics’ success this year rather than a hurdle they overcame.
Unless otherwise noted, all stats are courtesy of basketball-reference, NBA.com or Synergy Sports Tech, and are current as of Sunday, December 23, 2018.
Adam is a TBW staff writer and college basketball coach at Dickinson College. He loves watching for offensive schemes while specializing in individual skill development, shooting technique and coach-speak. Born in New Hampshire, Adam grew up as a Celtics fan but now claims to just love “good basketball”, which does not include mid-range jumpers.