The other day, I found myself writing, as one does, about Ersan Ilyasova. He is an elite charge-taker. What this means is that he’s elite at anticipating and positioning. He’s also probably a little quicker than someone his size has any right to be. These skills add up to make Ilyasova a really good team defender.

Recently, Zach Lowe had Zach LaVine on his podcast, and the conversation inevitably turned to defense. LaVine is a gifted athlete, but he does not (yet?) possess any of the attributes I listed above in describing Ersan Ilyasova. LaVine is actually a little less quick than you’d think he’d be, at least on the defensive end. He’s usually a step behind the action. He’s often in the wrong spot. Lowe asked LaVine if this is the kind of thing that a player can fix by just working harder, and LaVine talked about needing to trust his teammates more. The truth, I’m guessing, is that he isn’t sure.

Present day NBA basketball requires an incredible amount of strategy and communication on defense. Offenses are skilled at running their opponents through endless screens and ball-reversals, and defenders need to be able to switch assignments seamlessly while pulling one another out of bad matchups. Watch a good defense, and you’ll notice nearly constant talking and processing. Go play a pickup game sometime and you’ll immediately realize how exhausting this shit is. It wears you out.

Teams are so ready for switches and strategic ploys that they often let offenses dictate unfavorable terms. A team like the Rockets is so fundamentally ready to defend against mismatches that they often seem to invite them, baiting opposing big men into post-ups and out of more effective offensive sets. James Harden—ostensibly a guard—defends so many post-ups that he’s actually started to get more credit for his defense, even though his weaknesses on defense were the exact thing that caused the Rockets to defend the way they do.

Still, there must be a place for good, old-fashioned, on-ball defense, right? Last night, the Celtics totally flummoxed the Bucks in the 2nd half, turning a 19-point 1st half deficit into a big win. At the heart of this effort, beyond some hot shooting, was the defense of Semi Ojeleye, who over and over again simply stayed in front of Giannis Antetokounmpo. There was no real mystery to it. Just quick feet and good instincts. Semi seemed to be perfectly squared up on Giannis on every possession.

Those little moments bloomed into a big deal. Late in the game, the Bucks were frustrated. Their vaunted ball movement and their fast-paced drive-and-kick game were stuck in mud. Khris Middleton kept them in it with some incredible shot-making, but eventually that stuff ran out of steam.

How does one assess the value of a player like Semi Ojeleye, who, as Brian Scalabrine put it during the C’s telecast last night, has probably spent as much time thinking about guarding Giannis as anyone in the league (see: 2018 NBA Playoffs, Round 1)? I’m not sure, but I’m glad he’s on the team I root for. Sometimes, you just need guys who can stay in front of the great ones, because defense, finally, is just about being there a little early, profoundly in the way.

Passing Is Everything

I can’t remember where I saw this line of reasoning first, but it goes like this: the difference between being Seth Curry and being Steph Curry is all the stuff beyond shooting. In fact, while Seth has made 44.1 percent of his 3s over the course of his career, Steph is at 43.7. Meanwhile, Seth has worked his ass off to become a good rotation guy, and Steph is a legend.

The point here is that if you can’t dribble and pass well enough, it doesn’t matter how good you are at shooting the ball. This goes for all the parts of playing basketball. Teams draft hyper-athletic players—think Jerami Grant, who was a monster last night in the Nuggets’ win over the Suns—in the hopes of teaching those players the mundane stuff that will allow them to harness their athleticism. The reverse happens, too, of course—think of the Celtics’ experiments with Glen Davis and Jared Sullinger over the past decade or so.

Anyway, when the Celtics drafted Jaylen Brown 3rd overall in 2016, the idea was that he was a project. An athletic wing, smart as hell, capable of learning how to be great. In various ways, he’s been both more and less than that, but through three years, while he’d had great moments and exceeded expectations here and there, his feel seemed to be lacking.

I’m being vague, because it’s hard to describe specifics. I think it comes down to passing. If you’re Jaylen Brown, and you have enough ball-handling and shooting and strength to get to your spots on the floor, the only thing left to prevent you from being great is your ability to see the floor. It tends to be the last piece to develop. Even in his destruction of the league in last season’s playoffs, it was clear there was room for Kawhi Leonard to improve his passing. This season, through two games, it feels like Kawhi is seeing it all. Everything has slowed down.

When players get great at seeing the floor and passing, they are able to exert outsized influence over the game as it is happening. Think late-career Jason Kidd, moving around the top of the key and slinging lasers all over the place. It was like he was operating the game from a distant control center. He was basically washed up as an athlete, but if you are great enough at thinking the game, and capable of leveraging your mind by moving the ball around through the pass, you can help a team win games.

Part of it is patience. You need to let the game develop. Jaylen used to go to the basket like a dart; he was a straight-line driver; he was without syncopation; there was no nuance to it. That’s one way of doing it, and if you’re lucky enough to have great teammates, you’ll usually get the ball with half a step on your defender, so your straight-line driving is an asset. To be great, you need to be able to manufacture your own leverage. Jaylen could always get to his spots, but now it seems like he’s in control when he gets there. He knows his options. Defenders are reacting to him—not vice versa.

So, yeah, part of it is patience, but part of it is vision. Passing is the great connector. Anyone who has ever learned a rudimentary press-break knows that dribbling is death. Passing is how you get to the good shit: run outs on fast breaks, wide open 3s, easy buckets. Great passing is the tactic for which there can be no accounting, because nobody can possibly move that fast. Passing takes a small advantage and explodes it into a huge one.

As a Celtics fan, I was optimistic heading into this season, but my biggest concern was that Jaylen (and Jayson Tatum, too) has been slow to develop as a passer. How far can you go as a team if your best players don’t see the floor better than the average replacement-level schmuck? I don’t want to overstate this; Jaylen just had four assists last night. Still, it feels like something fundamental has changed. On a fast-break in the 4th, with the C’s down one, Jaylen whipped a long bounce pass to Gordon Hayward for a lay-up that made a weird, “ohhhhh” sound come out of my mouth.

Jaylen is in control out there. He sees the game happening, and he has some control over how it happens. I’ve been a huge fan of Jaylen’s since before the Celtics drafted him, but for the first time, I think he might be truly special.

2019-20 Previews: Boston Celtics

Losses: Al Horford, Kyrie Irving, Aron Baynes, Terry Rozier, Guerschon Yabusele.

Additions: Kemba Walker, Enes Kanter, Vincent Poirier, Romeo Langford, Grant Williams, Carsen Edwards.

Likely Starters
Guard: Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart
Wing: Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum (Gordon Hayward?)
Big: Enes Kanter 

Predicted Record: 51–32 | 6th in NBA* | 3rd in East

Love. Who can know its mysterious corridors, its secret, locked rooms, its vaulted chambers full of light and fragrant air? Just when it seems most familiar, it changes again. You’re dreaming of a future with Kyrie Irving and some even better, as-yet-to-be-named superstar, and then one day he feels differently, and then you feel differently, and one dream turns into another. It’s a different future, but it’s in the future, so you don’t have to do anything differently in the present. Or anyway, you can’t. It’s all in your mind. Isn’t that strange?

It has been a weird couple of years for those of us who love the Celtics. We had a glorious future ahead of us, full of possibilities, and over time those possibilities eroded into a clearer present moment. That’s how time works. Every day you live is a day in which you could have done something else and didn’t. You did what you did, and having been done that, the doing becomes a solidified past; and since you are going to die someday, every day the future gets a little smaller, a little more narrowed down.

And so all those possibilities—all those hypothetical trade packages for Anthony Davis, Mike Conley, etc.—have become a core of Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward. There are some more future assets—that pending pick from the Memphis Grizzlies still looms large—but fewer than there had been. Any growth that happens is likely going to be internal.

What that means, more than anything, is that this team is going to go as far as Jayson Tatum can take them. That’s a scary thought if you are a C’s fan. Tatum seems to be largely getting a free pass for last season. Specifically, it is alarming that he went from getting to the line with some regularity as a rookie to getting there hardly at all. He didn’t compete; he didn’t improve. Still, you can see the talent. It’s right there, on the surface.

On the other hand, there’s a comfort in knowing what you’ve got. For the first time in a few years, I know what I’m rooting for as a Celtics fan. I’m not focused on trades or on salary cap mechanics. My thoughts are all about basketball.

Last night, the C’s played their first preseason game against the woeful Charlotte Hornets. The C’s eked out a win despite their starters all finishing with negatives in the plus/minus column. Still, I found myself thinking about player development and strategy. Robert Williams was really hitting people as opposed to slipping screens. Jaylen Brown was using his strength to bully his way to the rim and finishing with control when he got there. The C’s struggled when Charlotte blitzed their high pick-and-rolls, and then, especially with Carsen Edwards in the game, they ran some stuff to adjust. In previous years, I might have been thinking: who cares? All of this is moot until we trade for AD. Things are different now. I’m living in the moment with this team.

Of course, it remains to be seen how good they’ll be. The frontcourt defense is a joke. There’s still a logjam at the forward spots, and possibly too many mouths to feed on offense. Jaylen Brown is playing for a new contract, and that’s going to get complicated if he feels marginalized. Nevertheless, I love the C’s, and for the first time in a while, I know who they are. They’re not going to win the championship, but they’re going to play basketball. It’s gonna be great.

*I know the C’s aren’t better than the Warriors or the Rockets, but playing in the East this year is a major boon to a projected win total.