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Are the Celtics making the wrong move by running it back with the same team next season?

Credit: Boston Celtics

The Boston Celtics’ star player shrank in various clutch moments and experienced an injury at the worst possible time. Yet, the Celtics should still believe in Jayson Tatum.

The Celtics’ other co-star shot inefficiently from deep, became too ball dominant and showed mixed progress with the team’s top player. Yet, the Celtics should still invest in Jaylen Brown.

The Celtics’ first-year head coach showed learning curves throughout the playoffs with preparing his players with a strong game plan, motivating them to compete and making tactical adjustments. Yet, the Celtics should still allow Joe Mazzulla to keep patrolling the sidelines.

Brad Stevens, the Celtics’ president of basketball operations, affirmed on Wednesday that the organization feels the same way. Stevens maintained that Mazzulla’s job is safe. Stevens expressed interest in signing Brown to an extension that could pay him up to a five years at $285 million. Stevens stressed that the team has co-existed just fine with Tatum and Brown as the main duo.

At first glance, some of these arguments can seem as confounding as processing the second-seeded Celtics’ playoff run.

They barely scraped by against the Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks in the first and second round. In the Eastern Conference Finals, the Celtics lost the first three games to an eighth-seeded Miami Heat team. They unexpectedly tied the series and appeared capable of becoming the first team in NBA history to overcome an 0-3 series deficit. Then before a strongly supportive home crowd, the Celtics completely unraveled in Game 7 less than a year after challenging the Golden State Warriors to six games in the NBA Finals.

Despite these issues, the Celtics appear better off avoiding any major changes. Doing so would only exacerbate existing problems, while creating new ones.

Tatum’s mixed play-off performances may seem confusing. In some games, he dominated. In other games, he shrank. Still, there’s a simple explanation for that.

One, Tatum is only 25 years old and just completed his sixth NBA season. Two, Tatum’s struggles in Game 7 (14 points on 5-for-13 shooting) largely had to do with injuring his left ankle on the first play of the game. Tatum still competed and remained aggressive, but the injury appeared serious enough that he grimaced with every step and landing he made. Just like during his ailment, Tatum hasn’t shied away from challenges. He has used setbacks as opportunities to improve himself. While it might seem discouraging for Celtics fans that Tatum has yet to reach his potential, it should be invigorating that he has the work ethic and willingness to do so.

Brown may elicit mixed feelings about his possible supermax extension following his uneven post-season play. After shooting efficiently against Atlanta (54.1%, 51.5% from 3) and Philadelphia (54.1%, 43.2% from 3), Brown went cold against the Heat (41.8%, 16.3%). Throughout the playoffs, Brown averaged nearly as many turnovers (3.3) as assists (3.4), sparking persisting questions both about his playmaking discipline and mentality. And for all the suggestions Brown would like to become the team’s No. 1 option, he failed to carry that mantle during Tatum’s limitations in Game 7. Then, Brown finished with 19 points while shooting 8-for-23 from the field and 1-for-9 from deep along with eight turnovers and five fouls. Nonetheless, the Celtics should still commit Brown to an extension.

There might be questions about Brown’s trajectory, let alone the looming luxury tax implications. But committing a regrettable long-term deal to a star player no longer equates toward buying a house or car that needs hefty repairs. Though teams may not ever receive equal value in a trade for a star player, they can still flip that kind of player for a collection of draft picks and rotational players. Simply punting off an extension could lead to more disjointed locker room chemistry, anyway. It also puts the Celtics at risk with Brown leaving for nothing should he become a free agent in the 2024 offseason. Besides, Brown has shown substantial improvement with both his game and chemistry with Tatum dating back to last season. Following his seventh NBA season, the 26-year-old Brown might remain a work in progress. Yet, he has still mostly moved in the right direction.

Mazzulla surely drew mixed reviews as the Celtics’ first-year head coach. Though an NBA team’s success or failure mostly hinges on its talent, its health and its effort, the Celtics have perspective on how dramatically different the mostly same roster looked under Ime Udoka. They defended much better. They made better use of their size. Their effort and chemistry stayed sharp. Under Mazzulla? They became too offensive-driven. They used too many small lineups. Their effort and chemistry often hinged on either appearing motivated to compete against a top opponent or appearing bored with facing an inferior team. Still, the Celtics are better off keeping Mazzulla.

Stevens selected Mazzulla after serving as one of his assistants when he was the head coach. Therefore, the Celtics have more investment in Mazzulla succeeding than if a new ownership group or front office wanted to make its own hire. Following Udoka’s firing for off-the-court behavior, the Celtics credited Mazzulla for his even-keel demeanor, relationships with current players and knowledge of the team’s system to maintain a top spot in the Eastern Conference. Though the 34-year-old Mazzulla showed his shortcomings in the playoffs, he also displayed his quick learning curve. As much criticism as he might deserve for the Celtics falling 0-3 to Miami, Mazzulla also deserves praise for Boston forcing a Game 7. While Mazzulla will likely continue to grow, expect the Celtics to mitigate some of his inexperience with adding more seasoned veterans on his staff.

It may be unusual these days for an NBA team to stay patient with its head coach and its core players after failing to win an NBA championship. It’s not unprecedented, though. The current Denver Nuggets reached the NBA Finals partly because they maintained continuity with their coaching staff and core players through both break-out and underperforming seasons. In the Celtics’ case, they are nearly close to the finish line. With Tatum and Brown, Boston has reached the Eastern Conference Finals in five out of the past seven seasons. With both players in their prime, they are significantly closer toward finally climbing over the last hurdle.

Even if the Celtics tripped over those hurdles recently, they should keep faith they will stand up and try again. They may not currently have what it takes to win an NBA championship. By improving from within, though, the Celtics soon will.

Mark Medina is a veteran NBA reporter who will be contributing to Aaron Torres Online and Aaron Torres Media throughout the NBA playoffs - follow him on Twitter and on Instagram.

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