NBA Double Dribble: Tatum and Brown could be new Stockton and Malone with Celtics looking like a nearly team
Boston are in danger of being one of those very good NBA teams who have a lengthy playoff streak without ever getting their hands on the trophy.
The Celtics have a couple of bona fide stars who are still getting better as they enter the peak of their careers in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown but the famous franchise is one loss away from a ninth straight playoff run with no silverware to show for it.
They have done well to fight back after being 3-0 down to force a game six in the Eastern Conference finals against the Heat with a win in Miami and then Friday’s 110-97 triumph.
However, the odds are still stacked against the Celtics becoming the first team to win a series after losing the first three matches – given the fact that 150 teams have tried and all failed.
Hope springs eternal in Beantown but it looks like too little, too late as they head back to Florida for Sunday’s next clash.
Tatum and Brown are All-Stars and deserving All-NBA selections who are still only just entering their prime at 25 and 26 respectively.
Brown’s All-NBA Second Team nomination means he’s eligible for a five-year contract worth $US295 million.
Tatum has to wait another year for his extension but that will be north of $300m.
The Celtics have little to no choice – both players should be re-signed and the remote possibility of trading one of them should only be considered as a last resort.
Unless they can somehow defy history to overcome Miami and then slay the Denver Nuggets post-season juggernaut in the finals, the Celtics need to ask hard questions about the rest of their roster and their coaching situation in the off-season.
Rookie coach Joe Mazzulla is younger than some of his players and has done a solid job for Boston since being thrust into the position on the eve of the season when news of Ime Udoka’s off-court misconduct broke.
Udoka, who took the Celtics to the finals in his rookie campaign last year, deserved to be stood down for the season for his improper relationship with a female staff member.
Mazzulla had the interim tag removed and was promoted to permanent coach (if there is such a thing in the NBA) in February when Boston were atop the East standings.
But since then they lost the top seed to Milwaukee and after unconvincing 4-2 series wins over Atlanta and New York, they looked rudderless at times in their first three tussles with the Heat.
Mazzulla has copped plenty of blame and there have been reports that some of the players wanted Udoka to be reinstated but he has since signed with Houston.
Coaches, like players, make rookie errors when they’re finding their feet in the NBA.
Mazzulla will be better for the experience but the problem for Boston is that they can’t afford to waste another playoff run.
They were not legit title contenders in some of the previous eight seasons but this is shaping up to be the sixth time in that timespan that they have finished in the top four of their conference without going all the way.
Their nine-year run is the longest active streak among all franchises.
It’s starting to feel like shades of Utah circa the John Stockton and Karl Malone era.
The Jazz made the playoffs for 20 straight years leading up to 2003 mainly due to their Hall of Fame point guard and equally legendary power forward.
But they never quite nailed the third star who could take them over the hump. Mark Eaton was an elite shot blocker and Jeff Hornacek was a solid backcourt companion for Stockton but even when they weren’t nullified at the final hurdle by Michael Jordan’s Bulls, they ended up the NBA’s best nearly team.
Boston measure success in franchises only, not Conference titles or divisional banners and are searching for their 18th to put them back into outright first all-time ahead of the Lakers.
For the Celtics to avoid a Jazz-like destiny with their current crop, they will likely have to move on from Marcus Smart.
Their on-court general is a dogged defender, decent passer and their vocal leader but too often he dominates down the stretch when the ball should be going to Brown or Tatum.
They have a readymade replacement in Sixth Man of the Year on the bench, Malcolm Brogdon, so if they trade Smart, they don’t necessarily have to bring back another starting point guard.
He is probably their best trade asset. Al Horford will be 37 before the start of next season and is only taking up $10m in cap room while Robert Williams, Derrick White and Grant Williams are all serviceable role players but unlikely to bring much back in a trade.
The Celtics don’t even have their own first-round pick in this year’s draft to trade as they owe it to the Pacers from the Brogdon deal but they could give up a couple down the track to potentially come up with a package that will yield the third star that Tatum and Brown desperately need.
There’s still a glimmer of hope they can salvage this season but if they become the first team in NBA history to come back from a 3-0 deficit, then Lucky the Leprechaun may very well have true magic powers.