Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown Are Entering Historic Scoring Territory

The Boston Celtics are the best team in the NBA by all realistic standards. They have won the most games, have the best point differential, and are the only team with a top-five offensive and defensive ranking.

This is a better, more diverse team than even the team that stormed into the second half and reached the Finals last season — and not just because notable new faces, like interim coach Joe Mazzola and third-leading scorer Malcolm Brogdon, fit so well into the rotation of Boston’s periphery. Instead, the Celtics have been elevated by the improvement of two running backs, Jason Tatum and Jaylen Brown, who are now approaching historic ground as a duo.

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Tatum is fourth in the league in scoring with 31.1 points per game, while the Browns are 14th among eligible players at 27.0. The Brooklyn Nets, with Kevin Durant 9th and Kyrie Irving 11th, are the only other team this season with multiple players in the top 20 (along with LeBron James.)

Only four other times in league history have two teammates had over 27 points per game while qualifying for the official leaderboard:

  • 1965 Lakers with Jerry West and Gene Baylor
  • 2001 Lakers with Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant
  • 2003 Lakers with Kobe and Shaq
  • 2020 Rockets with James Harden and Russell Westbrook
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For now, the Tatum-Brown and Durant-Irving partnerships are poised to join this exclusive club. So as the Celtics and Durant-less Nets gear up for a showdown Wednesday night on national television, it’s time as never to take stock of the improvements from Tatum and Brown that have put their team on their way to redeeming the Finals this summer.

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Perhaps the most remarkable component of the Celtics’ superstar duo is their consistency. Unlike most other pairs, which feature players like Durant, Irving, Davis, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard and Khris Middleton – who have all missed out on significant swaths this season – both Tatum and Brown are healthy and reliable.

And so far this season, either Tatum or Brown (or both, on five occasions when they’ve tied) have led the Celtics in scoring per game. Each team has at least four leading scorers, with a league average of 6.7 unique leading scorers.

Tatum naturally leads the way, with 28 games as Boston’s lone leading scorer to the Browns’ 18 (the best player on that metric, for curious readers, is Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, with 42 games as the Thunder’s leading scorer). The point is, on the rare occasions that Tatum falters, Brown is able to pick up the slack. In the five games in which Boston has had the least production from Tatum—three games he missed, plus relative clunkers against the Heat Warriors—Brown boosted his scoring to 31 points per game on 61 percent true shooting.

This backup option gives Boston an advantage that most other teams with MVP candidates don’t have. The NBA in 2022-23 has fewer all-star teams than at any other time in the recent past — which, aside, could help explain a lot of the superstar explosions we’ve seen this season. The likes of Nikola Jokic, Luka Doncic and Giannis Antetokounmpo You have To score a lot of points because they don’t have as much help.

Tatum does, and he still has the potential to become the first Celtic ever to average 30 points per game over an entire season. (The franchise record is now Larry Bird’s 29.9 per game in 1987-88.) His new and crucial wrinkle this season is his determination to make his way to the free throw line, making 8.8 attempts per game this season, a 42-percentage increase from his previous career.

In fact, more than half of the jump in Tatum’s scoring from last season (26.9 points per game) to now comes from extra free throws. He added 1.8 points per game from the court and 2.3 points per game at the line.

Brown, meanwhile, fell to 33 percent on 3-pointers, but made up with a stinging 49 percent of mediocrity, each for Cleaning the Glass—easily a career high. Considering that Brown makes a lot of 2-point jumpers and that his free throw accuracy is at 79 percent — a career best, it’s not like his shooting gave him up despite his 3-point inconsistency.

In his seventh season in the NBA, Brown is still more limited as an offensive builder than Tatum. In particular, he stagnated as a passer and caught an average of 3.2 tackles compared to 3.1 turnovers per game. No player has scored as often as Brown this season with fewer assists.

But on a team with Tatum, Brogdon, Marcus Smart, and Derrick White—even the big guys Al Horford and Robert Williams III are excellent passers for their size—Brown doesn’t need more passes. If he left the Celtics when he reached free agency in 2024 to become another team’s No. Option one, this issue may become a more pressing concern; Right now, on a Celtics team tied for fifth in pass rate, he’s ideally picked as a scorer first and foremost.

And in this role, Brown scores in perfectly effective video. His real shooting percentage is the same this season as it was in 2019-20, before he became an All-Star — but his usage rate has increased by about a third in that span. Often, players lose efficiency as they get bigger because they have to hit harder and get more defensive attention, but the Browns haven’t suffered from this kind of trade-off.

Playing alongside Tatum helps, of course, because the MVP candidate attracts the opposing team’s best wing-stopper, but that idea is overblown. It’s not like Braun is driving exfoliators past. In last season’s playoffs, the most frequent defenders in the midfield, at Second Spectrum, were Jrue Holiday, Jimmy Butler, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. So far in the 2022-23 season, his most popular defenders include OG Anunoby, Butler and Kawhi Leonard.

The Tatum-Brown pairing stands out not only against other pairings in 2022-23, but also against the best in NBA history. If Tatum and Brown maintain their current scoring average, they’ll finish with the highest scoring average of two teammates in a full season since the 1960s — a huge turnaround for a pairing so many fans and pundits wanted to part because of an apparent underachievement as recently as the middle of last season.

(Harden and Westbrook teamed up as recently as the later ’60s, of course, but there was an abbreviated campaign due to COVID. This chart takes into account all players who have appeared in at least 48 games, which is a more lenient minimum than the official NBA eligibility threshold.)

Highest points duo in NBA history

Team highest score #2 The registrar middle*
Team highest score #2 The registrar middle*
1962 Lakers Elgin Baylor Jerry West 34.12
1962 Warriors Wilt Chamberlain Paul Arizin 30.50
2020 Rockets James Harden Russell Westbrook 30.38
1963 Lakers Elgin Baylor Jerry West 30.14
1965 Lakers Jerry West Elgin Baylor 28.93
1961 Warriors Wilt Chamberlain Paul Arizin 28.91
2023 Celtics Jason Tatum Jaylen Brown 28.89
2003 Lakers copy print Shaquille O’Neal 28.69
2001 Lakers Shaquille O’Neal copy print 28.61
2023 Nets Kevin Durant Kyrie Irving 28.44

*This calculation uses harmonic means instead of straight averages. In this case, the harmonic averaging rewards teammates who both score a lot of points, rather than adding weight to a particularly dominant member of the duo.

Fun fact: every retired player on this chart is inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, and Harden, Westbrook, and Durant are locks, too. It’s strange to think that a player like Brown, who will be named an All-Star for only the second time this season, might be in the Hall of Fame pathway, but there are no outliers here.

To be fair, Tatum and Brown’s higher score totals result in part from league-wide inflation, which is also indicated by the preponderance of pairings from the ’60s on this graph. We can compute the general league environment, then, using the method described in this article, to generate a contextually adjusted sense of where the Celtics duo rank throughout.

This adjustment takes some of the sparkle from Tatum and Brown, who dropped to eighteenth place, and Durant and Irving, who dropped to twenty-eighth. Shaq and Kobe dominate, as expected, with four of the top eight because they both scored a set despite playing in a low-scoring era.

In fact, adjusting the context of the league, Tatum and Brown weren’t even the Celtics’ best pairing. Scoring was so dismal at the turn of the century that the 2000-01 matchups between Paul Pierce (25.3 points per game) and Antoine Walker (23.4) were topping.

Highest-scoring doubles in NBA history, adjusted for the league’s scoring environment

Team highest score #2 The registrar averaged average
Team highest score #2 The registrar averaged average
2001 Lakers Shaquille O’Neal copy print 30.18
2003 Lakers copy print Shaquille O’Neal 30.17
1962 Lakers Elgin Baylor Jerry West 28.72
2002 Lakers Shaquille O’Neal copy print 27.41
2020 Rockets James Harden Russell Westbrook 27.18
2007 Nuggets Carmelo Anthony Alan Iverson 27.07
2012 Thunder Kevin Durant Russell Westbrook 26.61
2000 Lakers Shaquille O’Neal copy print 26.25
2011 Heat LeBron James Dwyane Wade 26.22
1965 Lakers Jerry West Elgin Baylor 26.16
1963 Lakers Elgin Baylor Jerry West 26.14
2008 Nuggets Alan Iverson Carmelo Anthony 26.06
2013 Thunder Kevin Durant Russell Westbrook 25.93
2006 76ers Alan Iverson Chris Webber 25.87
1962 Warriors Wilt Chamberlain Paul Arizin 25.67
2001 Celtics Paul Pierce Antoine Walker 25.60
1983 Nuggets Alex English Kiki Vandeweghe 25.33
2023 Celtics Jason Tatum Jaylen Brown 25.30
1984 Nuggets Kiki Vandeweghe Alex English 25.29
2000 Pistons Grant Hill Jerry Stackhouse 25.29

However, 18th among all teammates pairings in league history is still an impressive placement — and that doesn’t even amount to their two-way ability, because both Tatum and Brown excel as defensive wingers, too. They may make up one of the highest scoring duos of all time, but that is probably not the strongest feature of their combined abilities.

There is no better summation of why the Celtics were slated to win the title, after failing in the Finals last June. Not only are they lucky with such a deep spin that a capable player like Payton Pritchard can barely smell the field; They also have one of the best star pairs in the league, which gives their roster a high ceiling And The floor is when most teams are lucky to have one or the other.


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