There’s the idea that the last thing missing from the Boston Celtics roster is a true point guard, and it feels unfair to the Celtics as well as point guards in general. The idea of a ‘true point guard’ itself is idealistic and out of date; the modern NBA favors attacking playmakers that can cause breakdowns in the defense and force help into rotation, instead of game-manager or pass-first types that don’t really number in the league’s superstar strata these days.
The ‘true point guard’ and what it connotes might as well be a myth of the mind. Other than Chris Paul, how many ‘true point guards’ exist in the NBA that are an improvement over the real point guards that we have instead? Speaking with the Boston Globe’s Adam Himmelsbach, Marcus Smart said it best: “We’ve had star point guards, and yet this so-called non-point guard is the only one that’s led them to the Finals.”
Boston's trade for Malcolm Brogdon comes against this backdrop of positional controversy. The trade represents great value for the Celtics, and an indisputable win: Daniel Theis, Aaron Nesmith, Nik Stauskas, Malik Fitts, Juwan Morgan and a 2023 first-round pick for Brogdon. Aside from Theis, none of those players figured to be a significant part of the Celtics’ rotation going forward, and even Theis was on the fringe in the playoffs.
This isn’t the trade that cures all that ails the Celtics, even if it helps. Brogdon adds a versatile offensive skillset to Boston’s backcourt, a player who can dribble, shoot and pass as an outlet for Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, or otherwise initiate their offense himself. He’s going to be more dynamic than stationary catch-and-shoot players such as Payton Pritchard or Grant Williams, and probably more than even Smart or Derrick White as well. His three-point percentage, which has fluctuated in recent years, should trend upwards with easier spot-up opportunities, and he can take some of the playmaking burden off Tatum or Brown to conserve their energy. He’s going to grease the wheels and make things easier. This is a great trade in part because he isn’t a true point guard, but instead able to contribute with and without the ball — and at 6’5 and 230 lbs, he’ll fit right into the Celtics’ switch scheme that has become one of the best defenses in the league.
The Celtics never had a point guard problem. Their problem certainly wasn’t Smart, who was a perfectly willing complement to the team’s stars on offense while also comprising the cackling and ferocious identity of their defense. However, neither Tatum nor Brown are advanced playmakers, and it was a part of the Celtics’ downfall in the NBA Finals that the Golden State Warriors could punish Tatum and Brown by trapping them with extra defenders. Given that we’re talking about a series that still went to six games, this is sort of a marginal thing, but fair to quibble about. There’s a recurring image in my mind of Draymond Green digging down on Brown’s drives, forcing a turnover every time Brown picked up his dribble. In general, Boston’s offense had a tendency to go stagnant and rely on jumpers, instead of passing the ball around or gaining much downhill momentum.
In reality, this isn’t the Celtics greatly or profoundly exposed. This is not some existential roster or positional crisis that comes with having Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown as your two best players. As it is, Boston has two mid-size wings who can go for 50 on any given night, each two-way forces with explosive one-on-one games. They have it as good as it gets. Their “problem,” which is nothing fatal by any means, is just that they reached the NBA Finals, where the standard of play is at its highest possible. In the Finals, every player is held accountable to the finest detail and most minor flaws of their game. It’s the grandest stage in basketball, featuring the best teams at the end of the gauntlet. There won’t be many weaknesses in play, and anything that resembles one will be milked for all it’s worth.
That just means Tatum or Brown have to get better, which is no crisis at all. All their careers, they’ve gotten better, and you hope that after getting their first taste of the Finals, it casts a light on those last few skills that they need to work on as already-great NBA players trying to become championship stars. In this case, that’s their playmaking, their passing and their handling. Tatum and Brown have already become good players in all of those categories — they can create for themselves with wicked footwork combinations right out of the Kobe Bryant bag, and they’ve had enough on-ball reps to make instinctive passing reads against help defense. To become the alphas of a championship team, those skills are going to have to become even better and pass an even higher level of scrutiny. That includes processing multiple progressions of help rotations to see the open man at the end of the chain, or protecting the dribble against two or even three defenders on drives, or other similarly demanding in-game situations that will present themselves. The bar was never going to be set anywhere less than high.
Put that way, of course this isn’t a problem that the Celtics were going to fix with Smart or Brogdon. Any solution that starts with introducing another initiator to take the ball out of Tatum or Brown’s hands is going to be a non-starter. Brogdon will alleviate the problem, same as Smart did last year, but this is a problem specific to Tatum and Brown’s games and responsibilities that they have to improve upon. Encouragingly, everything we’ve seen to this point suggests they can and will.
As we just saw, this is a foundation that is as good as any in the Eastern Conference or the NBA at large; they were able to pass muster against the Brooklyn Nets’ Big Two That Was, the top-seeded Miami Heat and the reigning champion Milwaukee Bucks. They were two games away from beating the Warriors. We aren’t even talking about Tatum or Brown having to become LeBron James to get over the hump. At this level, with the best competing against the best, marginal gains can make the difference. The Celtics are already close. They’ll go as far as Tatum and Brown will take them, and there are few situations in the NBA that you would rather be in than that.