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They would have ranked even higher if we made the list a year earlier.
Tatum was coming off an inspiring first season, finishing third in Rookie of the Year voting. After showing promise in his first season, Brown took the next step and finished seventh in Most Improve Player voting. Both forwards played key roles in Boston’s historic run to the conference finals while Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward were injured.
Then, last season happened.
The Celtics had terrible chemistry and flopped with a second-round loss. Kyrie Irving took the brunt of the blame and deserved plenty.
But Tatum and Brown both backslid. Though Irving’s clumsy leadership and selfish play might have factored, that doesn’t totally absolve the two forwards. When Celtics president Danny Ainge said some young players were too focused on becoming All-Stars rather than winning, Tatum and Brown were prime suspects.
Now, Irving is gone, and Tatum and Brown get a fresh start. The forwards are still young and talented, and without Irving, key to unlocking the brightest possible future in Boston.
Tatum impressed with his decisiveness as a rookie. He launched open 3s when open, attacked the rim, drew fouls and defended hard. He lost some of that his second season, instead over-dribbling and forcing bad shots. Iso scoring is a valuable skill, but Tatum overly relied on it. If he can find a better balance between his approaches, the sky is the limit.
After a slow start, Brown improved throughout last season. He carried that momentum into the FIBA World Cup, where he often looked like Team USA’s best all-around player.
Whatever problems were their own fault last year, Tatum and Brown have an opportunity to scapegoat Irving. Retroactively, as we still try to deconstruct what happened to Boston last season, bounce-back years by Tatum and Brown would point to Irving as the culprit. That might be particular motivation for Brown, who stuck up for the young Celtics when Irving criticized them.
Brown will also likely be playing for a new contract. He’s extension-eligible until the season starts and likely headed toward restricted free agency next summer.
Will that help Brown or distract him? Even without Irving, Boston could still be prone to chemistry issues. Brown and Tatum, still trying to establish themselves in the league, still have incentives to play for themselves. The root of Ainge’s concern didn’t dissipate overnight. Though he should be much better for morale than Irving was, Walker needs plenty of touches. Gordon Hayward might also be ready for a bigger role – especially complicated because of his history with Celtics coach Brad Stevens. Plus, Hayward is another forward.
Boston should be good next season and good for a while. But Irving was supposed to put this team over the top. He’s a proven deep-playoff star and friends with Anthony Davis. That plan is out the window.
Tatum and Brown are the Celtics’ next hope. This season could go far in determining the viability of building a championship team around those two.