Opening up the Mailbag while wondering why Lance Stephenson ever played anywhere but Indiana …
Where do you stand on Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown? Break them up? Keep building around them? Something has to change [in Boston]. —Stephen, Braintree, Mass.
Breaking up the Tatum/Brown pairing never made any sense to me. Doing it would mean trading Brown and how many available stars would you swap him for? Domantas Sabonis? Nope. CJ McCollum? Nuh uh. I wouldn’t swap Brown for Ben Simmons, not with all the questions surrounding Simmons right now (more on that below). Injuries have limited Brown to 26 games this season but he’s averaging 24 points in them, including a shade under 30 in his last five games.
Besides, the suggestion that Tatum/Brown’s games don’t mesh well ignores the fact that they have. In four seasons together the Celtics have advanced to two conference finals, pushing the LeBron James–led Cavs to seven games in 2018, Tatum’s rookie year. That’s not a championship, but it’s something. Boston’s net rating with the two on the floor isn’t overwhelming, but to me that’s more about the roster around them than any fundamental issue with Tatum/Brown.
Think about it: Where would the Celtics be if Kemba Walker’s knee issue didn’t sabotage his run in Boston halfway through his first season? Or if Lonzo Ball, a player the Celtics liked a lot last summer, was in green instead of Chicago red? Marcus Smart is extremely valuable, but he’s probably best suited for the Swiss Army knife role he played in recent years, not as a primary playmaker. Or if any one of the young shooters—Romeo Langford, Aaron Nesmith, Payton Pritchard—was ready to play a bigger role? The priority in Boston isn’t splitting up Tatum and Brown, it’s finding the right pieces to complement them. And it should be.
Is it time to break up the Hawks? They don’t look anything like the team we saw in the playoffs last season. —Marcus, Athens, Ga.
I saw the Hawks in L.A. last weekend, and it was ugly. The defense is bad. They played defense like it was a nuisance in the way of their chances to play offense. And it was jarring to hear GM Travis Schlenk on local radio last week blasting his team for its lack of effort, declaring that there “was no sense of accountability” and perhaps he should “lower [his] expectations for this team.”
The Hawks are one of the most active teams right now when it comes to trade talks, so I expect them to do something. Schlenk will look to make a big swing, and he is armed with assets. I’d guess Atlanta could get the Sixers’ attention with a John Collins–Kevin Huerter headlined packaged, though you would have to then ask how Ben Simmons and Trae Young, both ball-dominant playmakers, would mesh together. Cam Reddish could get the Pacers interested in trading Caris LeVert. And while SI’s Michael Pina wrote about Jaylen Brown’s being a potential fit, a more realistic Boston target could be Marcus Smart, who would instantly upgrade Atlanta’s leaky perimeter defense.
In short: I think something significant happens in Atlanta.
Thoughts on Klay Thompson’s return? —Edward, Los Angeles
I knew Klay would look pretty good—Golden State, smartly, slow-played his return, making sure he was not just healthy but in as close to game shape as he could possibly be before running him out there. But he looked way better than I thought. Forget the three-point shot; you knew that would be there. I was impressed by how he elevated to finish over two defenders at the rim; how he was able to get separation on drives, pushing off on that surgically repaired right leg; how sharp he looked defensively after a 941-day layoff. Like most, I wondered what version of Thompson the Warriors would get back this season. It looks like they got a very good one.
Does it impact the Warriors’ chance to win a title? How could it not? Golden State now has half a season to sharpen Thompson before the playoffs, and if Sunday night was any indication, there’s a good chance the All-Star version of Thompson will have arrived by then. That player is one of the NBA’s best shooters, a sturdy and versatile defender and the kind of offensive threat that opens up the floor for everyone else. Believe me: Contenders in both conferences recognize that their path to a title just got significantly tougher.
Best guess: Does Ben Simmons play a game for the Sixers this season? —Mark, Allentown, Penn.
The Sixers’ messaging on Simmons, both publicly and privately, is that they want Simmons back in the lineup. And they have conveyed to teams that they aren’t lowering the asking price for Simmons, sources familiar with the Sixers told Sports Illustrated, continuing to insist any package includes an established All-Star. Will that position change as we get closer to the Feb. 10 trade deadline? Teams I’ve talked to aren’t so sure Philly will have the stomach to reject a solid but not spectacular offer for Simmons, not with the Eastern Conference’s looking so competitive and Joel Embiid’s playing at an MVP level.
But to answer your question: No, I don’t think Simmons plays for Philadelphia. Now, it will get really interesting if Simmons isn’t traded before the deadline. Will Simmons really sit out an entire season? Will the Sixers allow him to without dropping the financial hammer on him? But nothing I’ve seen or heard makes me believe Simmons has any interest in playing for Philadelphia again. Which is, in and of itself, pretty wild.
Did Becky Hammon’s decision to jump to the WNBA surprise you? She seemed like the heir to Pop. Does this hurt her chances of becoming an NBA head coach? —Mark, Austin
A little. Hammon had generated some NBA head-coaching interest in recent years, interviewing in Milwaukee and Portland, and has seen her responsibilities in San Antonio grow since the Spurs added her to the coaching staff in 2014.
Still, Hammon is getting a great deal to coach the Las Vegas Aces—she will reportedly be the WNBA’s highest-paid head coach—and I think you can make an argument that a stint as a head coach anywhere will make Hammon a more appealing head-coaching candidate at the NBA level. That lack of experience was the glaring hole in Hammon’s résumé. She will get it with the Aces.
Who knows when Gregg Popovich will step away from coaching—Pop, at 72, has a chance to pass Don Nelson for the all-time lead in coaching wins this season and seems to genuinely enjoy coaching this young Spurs team—but I’d imagine Hammon remains a candidate when Pop decides to call it quits. Hammon, Will Hardy, an ex-Spurs assistant now working in Boston, and former Sixers coach Brett Brown are all part of the Pop coaching tree, and I’m sure each will get long looks … whenever the job opens up.
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