Nine months ago, just before the Boston Celtics were slated to face the Washington Wizards for the second time in four days, star forward Jayson Tatum was asked about his longtime friendship with guard Bradley Beal, the Wizards star who was his mentor when they were growing up in St. Louis. But Tatum was not just asked about how tight he is with Beal—he was asked about whether that tightness could lead to the two teaming up with each other, presumably in Boston, which might require Tatum to do some recruiting.
Tatum slogged through an uncomfortable answer. “We’ve talked about it plenty of times,” he said, according to NBC Sports Boston. “I think, moreso, just thinking about how cool it would be to play with him. Just how we grew up and how close we are. It’s something I’ve always dreamed about. … Just, like, playing with your big brother. Who wouldn’t want to do that?”
Pressed on how Beal responds to those kinds of conversations Tatum said, “There’s a lot that goes into that. Obviously. And there’s decisions that he would have to make, what’s best for his family. The idea of it we both like the idea of it for sure.”
Tatum is careful, measured in those kinds of situations. That’s because he is mindful of the fact that for Beal to wind up in Boston, the Celtics likely would have to give up something in return, and everyone knows what that something would be: his fellow Celtics star, Jaylen Brown.
The exchange about Beal showed that Tatum, as much as he might want to play with Beal, knows he must be cognizant of his working relationship with Brown, who has been ever-present during Tatum’s remarkable five-year run with the Celtics. That working relationship has now produced three trips to the conference finals and one to the NBA Finals. Yet it always has the appearance of a delicate relationship, one about which Tatum never quite seems to know what to say.
The relationship between the two has come up as a topic again this week, with the news that the Nets and Celtics had, at some point in the past four weeks, discussed a potential trade of Brown to Brooklyn as part of a package for superstar Kevin Durant. Tatum was asked about what he made of that news during a movie premiere in New York.
“I don’t make anything of it,” Tatum said. “I just play basketball.”
Tatum was then asked about the potential of playing with Durant: “I played with him during the Olympics, obviously. He’s a great player. But that’s not my decision. I love our team, I love the guys we have got. I don’t know if that report is true or not. … I don’t believe everything I see on TV.”
Tatum’s stance on Durant had a lot in common with his stance on Beal. He’d be crazy not to acknowledge he would not want to play with Beal, because he is one of his best friends in the world. He, similarly, would be crazy to not want to play with Durant, one of the best players in the world. He can’t acknowledge either fact too firmly, though, because he risks denting his relationship with Brown if he does.
Brown can be sensitive. When news of the Durant talks resurfaced this week, he tweeted out the vague but pregnant acronym, “Smh”. Even if it was not clear what, exactly, Brown was shaking his head about (the Celtics? the Nets? the media?), the mere act of sending that tweet ensured that the world knew he was not happy with the latest developments.
Tatum is left with the diplomacy. That’s not a natural role, because Tatum is a quiet guy by nature, a leader by example more than by voice. And we don’t really know just how Tatum feels about Brown, even after five years together. When given the chance, Tatum did not come out and say directly, “No way should we trade Jaylen,” and he did not even name Brown directly. All he said, in fact, was that he liked the team and was not involved in basketball decisions.
It is a tough situation for Tatum to be in. The questions make him uncomfortable, and he does his best to avoid them. He and Brown don’t have to be longtime buddies (like Beal) to play together, and Brown does not have to be one of the Top 3 players in the world (like Durant) to win a championship with Tatum. Still, surely, on some level, Tatum has to wonder, “‘What if …” when these Brown trade scenarios come up.
He never lets on that he’s considered any such possibility, though, other than not explicitly going to bat for Brown. Tatum has been careful to protect the fragile relationship he has with Brown, and with the Durant kerfuffle still fluttering, he has at least managed to continue to do so.