Basketball

Jaylen Brown exit interview: the perils of success

I’ve talked more about Jaylen Brown in therapy than perhaps I have any other basketball player. Not more than any other human being. That would be asinine. But basketball player? Most definitely. He still comes up more than he should. Probably more than any basketball player should. But these are my therapy sessions, and thus my analogies to toy with. They work for me; I haven’t asked whether they work for Dr. Bailey, but she also hasn’t asked.

There has never been a professional athlete to which I’ve felt more connected to than Brown. I relate to his experience with anxiety, the voices in his head that he’s previously struggled to quiet. Back in February of 2020, he told Bleacher Report’s Taylor Rooks, “It was tough,” referring to the 2018-19 season, during which Brown briefly lost his starting spot, and the Celtics lost more games than preseason prognosticators anticipated. “I suffer from a lot of anxiety. When you have so much expectations, especially in a city like Boston, which is like they want to win. If you’re not performing, you start to lose your confidence. You start to doubt yourself.”

Even though the fears he’s detailed in the past exist primarily on the basketball court – that is, per what he’s detailed – I can understand them. The nagging thoughts of inadequacy in your field, for one; I never stop itching to be a better writer, editor, reader, listener. The idea that others around you, proven or otherwise, might look down on you, no matter if it comes from a place of pure malice or is done in an effort to pick themselves up. That might happen more often in professional sports than in any other field in the world, sans politics. They call it trash talk for a reason, the same reason it might be said that someone “talks a big game.”

Maybe that’s why I can fathom the urge Brown has to like a tweet referencing how he’s disrespected by Celtics fans amid swirling rumors surrounding Brown’s inclusion in a hypothetical deal to acquire Kevin Durant now that he asked the Brooklyn Nets for a trade. Or his impulse to respond to Draymond Green’s comments about taking Brown’s “heart” in the NBA Finals. On a paired podcast recording of Green’s “The Draymond Green Show” and JJ Redick’s “The Old Man and the Three”, Green opined, “when Jaylen Brown went in the media and said, ‘he tried and pulled my shorts down,’ I knew I took his heart.” Brown responded accordingly, saying Green “lost his dam [sic] mind” and “could never” take his heart.

You can hardly blame Brown for jumping to his own defense, or talking a big game about his own abilities in response to an opposing player lauding theirs. He’s been the token trade centerpiece in Boston ever since he arrived back in 2016, despite the team’s glowing assessment of him as a star, the city’s love for him and his loyalty, and his reciprocal feelings.

This, of course, works as both a compliment and a plight for Brown. He’s tasked with leading a franchise that pundits are constantly saying he should be moved from. “Would the Celtics [make Brown available in a trade for Durant]? Yeah. It’s Durantula! KD! The Slim Reaper!” Brian Scalabrine recently said on NBC Sports Boston.

The Athletic’s Jay King and Jared Weiss went back and forth on the topic yesterday, the former writing, “for a franchise that talks about championship banners more than anybody, it seems like even a few years with Durant next to Jayson Tatum would be worth sacrificing what should be a prosperous future with Brown,” and the latter wondering how Jayson Tatum would feel about Durant joining the mix. “It’s one thing to give up the spotlight in international competition and another for a young guy to do it early in his NBA career, after taking a team to The Finals,” King wrote. “[Tatum] cares about the right stuff. But it would be a major adjustment for him to fit next to a player of Durant’s caliber. This is Tatum’s franchise right now. It wouldn’t be if the Celtics [acquired] Durant.”

Then again, what Brown has dealt with and is presently experiencing, even if it’s just tangentially, is part of being a pro, particularly in the NBA. Think about CJ McCollum, floated forever in Portland’s trade talks until he was finally shipped off to New Orleans (a great fit, it turns out). Fitting, that he was Damian Lillard’s second banana, much like some may say Brown is to Tatum.

But there are differences between those franchises and their long-term plans – after a while, it didn’t seem like McCollum made sense as a partner for Dame, while Brown and Tatum have had immense success co-leading the Celtics to four Conference Finals appearances and one NBA Finals berth in their tenure.

Also fitting, that this assignment is a Jaylen Brown exit interview, what with all this talk of him exiting the Celtics franchise at the behest of the coach-turned-GM that drafted him. Just one year after he was a borderline All-Star, borderline champion, and averaged borderline career-highs in almost every category.

Noticing a trend?

Because the NBA calendar cycles through at the speed of light, it’s incredibly easy for us to forget what happened mere weeks ago, let alone months. While Brown’s 2021-22 season was chock-full of highs – 46 points in an Opening Night loss to the Knicks, each point causing everyone who spent the summer calling for the Jays to be split up to recoil a bit more; a 50-bomb in early January – it also ended with a whimper. He averaged 23.1 points per game in the postseason on 47 percent shooting. But he also racked up 3.1 turnovers per contest, recording four-plus giveaways 10 times and seven turnovers twice.

Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

That’s nightmare fuel for fans and players alike when you’re playing against the 2.0 edition of one of the premier offenses in NBA history. And it’s not like Brown just became lackadaisical with the ball in the postseason; this has been a persistent issue for a long time. Do you trade a player because of ballhandling issues alone? Of course not. Do you trade him for Kevin Durant? At the very least, you think about it.

None of the reports that have come out after Durant’s trade request suggested that the Celtics would, could, or will strike a deal for the superstar. The Nets likely plan to keep Durant’s list of preferred teams, the Phoenix Suns and Miami Heat, in mind as they look for a potential partner. But if Brad Stevens plans on calling Sean Marks (and, if I’m a betting man, he does), the first name Marks will mention is Jaylen Brown’s. Be ready to hear that report; be prepared for the possibility of it coming to fruition, albeit slim.

Whether or not Stevens balks at that idea could shape the Celtics immediate future in what might be as impactful a way as Brown has left his fingerprints all over its past. From seasons of struggle to a trip to The Finals, Brown has been as integral a Celtic as Tatum. Nothing can change that.

The raising of an 18th banner can’t be changed once done either, at least symbolically. Whether Brown is in a Celtics uniform to put it up is now one of the biggest questions facing the franchise. Just like he was in 2017, ’18, and so on.

Apparently, nothing’s changed. For better or worse.

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