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Jaylen Brown Was Supermaximally Shitty When It Counted

Jaylen Brown looks miserable during the post-game press conference.
Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Imagine this: Jayson Tatum turns his ankle on the first play of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals and spends the rest of the game limping around painfully. Tatum continues heroically, doing what he can as a decoy and a spot-up shooter, but is otherwise offensively toothless. Worse, he's a glaring defensive vulnerability. The Celtics are in deepest shit.

Hmm, OK, you didn't have to imagine that part, because that's what happened. But imagine this: The Miami Heat smell blood and start hunting Tatum down like wounded prey, using screens and ball movement to force him into the action over and over again, where his wobbly left leg simply cannot hold up. Suddenly the Heat are puncturing Boston's defense every trip up the floor; Tatum's teammates, largely playing 4-on-5, are scrambling like mad to coordinate help, contest layups, close out to shooters, and box out underneath. The Celtics are constantly on the brink of drowning; the breakneck work of it drives them to the point of exhaustion. The Heat get into a dangerous rhythm and threaten to sprint off into the distance playing fast, merciless, deliriously telegenic basketball.

That part you'll have to imagine. For reasons passing understanding, the Heat largely declined to exploit Tatum's spaghetti leg. The hobbled swingman played 42 minutes Sunday night, including all 22 pre-garbage time minutes of the second half, but according to the NBA's stats service Tatum was the closest defender on just nine Heat shot attempts, fewer than five other Celtics players and 12th most among all players. Robert Williams III, who played just 14 minutes in Game 7, contested 11 shots. Derrick White, who after Marcus Smart was Boston's best perimeter defender, contested a whopping 22 shots. Boston reacted to Tatum's injury by hiding him on whichever Miami player was stationed in the weakside corner, and Miami responded to Tatum's injury by repeatedly throwing themselves at Boston's best and least physically compromised defensive players. Miami won the game by a lot, so I cannot condemn them as fools, but it sure would've been a lot lovelier to watch if they hadn't chosen the path of most resistance.

Let us return once more to the delightful realm of imagination. The Celtics are holding on for dear life and Tatum is almost unplayable, setting limp screens and shambling slowly toward vanishing pockets of shooting space, hoping mostly to distract a defender long enough for someone else to manufacture a bucket. Meanwhile at the other end the Heat are doing prime Warriors shit, zipping around and creating lots of cool highlights, even starting to show off a little. Boston desperately needs a hero from among Tatum's ambulatory teammates. But which teammate? White is already doing as much as he can as a primary defender and floor-spacer; Smart and Al Horford are overtaxed as much more than release valves; Williams is a lob threat and nothing else. Who can rescue the Celtics from certain death?

This is when Jaylen Brown, Tatum's co-star, comes swooping in like Batman. Brown hauls Boston's offense onto his back possession by possession, responding to each gorgeous, ecstatic Heat bucket with calm and precise but unmistakably physically punishing isolation play. He uses screens to force his way onto Max Strus or Gabe Vincent or Kyle Lowry; he uses size and explosive athleticism to bully these overmatched defenders into the paint, earning tough buckets and free throws, cutting Miami's momentum, singlehandedly resetting the game's tempo and rhythm, and keeping the frenzied Boston crowd invested in every bounce of the ball. The Heat try desperately to scram their vulnerable defenders out of harm's way, but eventually they have no choice but to send urgent double-teams. Brown was waiting for this. He flings quick outlet passes to White and Smart and Horford and even Tatum, and Boston's elite-level team three-point shooting immediately casts Miami's scrambling defense into utter chaos. Now we've got a beautiful, flowing game, with Miami's coordinated attack exploiting Tatum at one end and Brown's one-man dynamo routine unzipping the Heat defense at the other. Yeah!

The Heat still win in this scenario, because even as cruel and shitty a universe as ours cannot allow the Celtics to pull off the first 3–0 comeback in NBA history. But this would've been a beautiful game, instead of the grueling one we got. More to the point, this morning Jaylen Brown would not be feeling like total crap, and the rest of us would not have the vague feeling that we'd been witness to something shameful and indecent. Instead, Brown had the kind of nightmare game that will be haunting his sleep all summer, and possibly for the rest of his life. Far from coolly shouldering Boston's offense in a valiant losing effort, Brown played like a total goofball. He was frantic and desperate-seeming, his shot was off, and he foul-hunted his way into some genuinely galling misses. At all times he seemed like a less serious, less decisive, and lower-wattage version of teammate Derrick White, who did his best to carry the Celtics despite topping out, skills-wise, as a very solid and well-meaning role-player.

Worst of all, Brown just could not dribble the ball. Of Brown's game- and career-high eight turnovers Sunday night, five were of the dreaded lost-ball variety, times when Brown simply dribbled the ball directly into the hands of a defender. The last of these was representative of Brown's miserable night overall, and functioned as the effective end of the competitive portion of the game:

"It stings, like, incredibly," Brown said after the game. "It’s hard even being up here and talking about it ... I failed, and we let the whole city down." Brown understood the opportunity he'd missed, to Go Legend Mode and rescue his team from disaster. "My team turned to me to make plays, and I came up short. I failed. It's tough. I give credit to Miami, but just a terrible job."

It was a less-than-ideal time in his career for Brown to play so horridly in such a big moment. Next season will be his last under his current contract. Because he made second-team All-NBA this season and has a couple All-Star appearances under his belt, Brown is now in line for the dreaded supermax contract extension, which would be worth something like $295 million spread over five seasons, taking Brown through his age-31 season. This would be the most expensive contract by total value in NBA history.

That is mostly a function of league revenues that continue to grow and grow. What's important is that a supermax deal is worth 35 percent of a team's salary cap allotment. It's an enormous commitment, and a team has to be very sure that they've invested it in the right player. Supermax-level contracts for John Wall, Russell Westbrook, and [gulp] Rudy Gobert aged like November's forgotten jack o' lanterns; even with a player the caliber of Damian Lillard, an investment of that size makes it extremely difficult for a team to stock the rest of the roster with proven veterans and useful role-players. Complicating matters, next summer the Celtics will be in the unique position of having a second player, in Tatum, who is also eligible for a supermax extension. If the Celtics make the full commitment to both players, as they are expected to, they will owe 70 percent of their salary cap allotment to just two players, starting with the 2024–25 season.

Having two players of this caliber on your roster is at first glance a good problem. Unfortunately, the league's new collective bargaining agreement, hammered out in April, will make it extraordinarily difficult for the Celtics to build a roster of any real depth around this core. It will be just about impossible to avoid blowing past the league's salary cap and luxury tax lines. Under the new CBA, there are two levels beyond the luxury tax threshold, called aprons, that impose additional limitations on big-spending teams. Teams that blow past the second of these aprons—as the Celtics would be hard-pressed to avoid doing—will lose use of a tool called the taxpayer midlevel exception, which is one of a very limited selection of contract types that tax-paying teams can use in free agency, beyond the veteran minimum. Teams over the second apron would also be limited in their access to veterans on the mid-season buyout market, which is always a cheap source of useful role-players for teams in the title hunt.

Worse, as Bobby Marks and Tim Bontemps explained for ESPN back in April, starting in 2024 teams over the second apron will no longer be able to aggregate salaries in mid-season trades for a single player. In years past a team could batch together some rotation guys and some roster flotsam to match salaries in a trade for, say, Eric Gordon—who the Clippers grabbed up in a swap with Houston in February—and then fill in the few emptied roster spots with recently bought-out veterans on minimum-value contracts. The idea behind all of these CBA tightenings is to severely limit the ability of teams spend their way into contention. If you think you have a player worth 35 percent of your salary cap, fine, good, but by paying him his value you are going to make it exceedingly hard for yourself to pay other good players their value. If you think you have two players that in combination are worth 70 percent of your salary cap, it is the position of the other league's owners that you should burn in hell.

The Celtics built this contender, under longtime general manager and current Utah Jazz executive Danny Ainge, by being extraordinarily cautious about how they spent, both in terms of cash and in terms of valuable roster assets. The jewels of that project are Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, two players who have surpassed every reasonable expectation and now check off every formal qualification a player can attain to earn the most money possible. The Brown-Tatum core has now made the conference finals three times in four years, without the Celtics needing to supply them with a third superstar or doing a lot of risky gambling in the Deal Zone. The Celtics absolutely could've won a title in this era. If Tatum's ankle didn't kerplode in Game 7, they might be headed back to the Finals today.

They might still win a title. I don't want to be too GM-brained about this. Brown is a fantastic basketball player, he's only now entering his prime years, and for all the urgency the Celtics will feel about reaching an understanding about his future during this summer, they can always just run it back next season with most of the same rotation, and they will once again be up among the title favorites. But I'm sure they and Brown would both feel a whole lot better about that huge looming contract discussion if only Brown could, you know, dribble a damn basketball. Someone get this guy some thumbs, stat.

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