Before the NBA season was put to a halt on March 11 due to the coronavirus outbreak, Jayson Tatum was in the middle of becoming a superstar. Since Jan. 1, Tatum has averaged 26 points per game on 43 percent 3-point shooting. Beginning in February and continuing after the All-Star break, those averages have risen to 29 points on 46 percent from 3.
On a Boston Celtics team long known for their equal-opportunity offense, Tatum has clarified the scoring hierarchy. He’s the go-to player, but that doesn’t mean they go out of their way to go to him.
“I think if you asked Brad [Stevens], he’d tell you they’re still at their best when they’re moving the ball and coming at you from a lot of different directions,” an Eastern Conference scout told CBS Sports prior to the stoppage. “But you look at Kemba Walker missing time, [Jaylen] Brown missed some time, that opened the door for Tatum to assert himself. It’ll be interesting to see when they get everyone back how [the offense] shakes out.”
At the top of the food chain, this is about the co-existence of Tatum and Kemba Walker, who was brought in to replace Kyrie Irving as the established go-to player. Through the first six weeks of the season, Walker was the pretty clear No. 1 in the 1-2 punch. By January, their usage rates had drawn even. Since Feb. 1, Tatum’s 30.0 usage rate leads the team, with Walker’s 26.6 and Brown’s 25.5 next in line.
But that’s actually only an eight-game sample with Walker having missed nine games over that span. He returned for four games prior to the stoppage and was clearly rusty — shooting under 30 percent from the field in three of those four games.
Meanwhile, Tatum took 87 shots to Walker’s 59 over those four games. It makes sense. Tatum was riding a hot streak, having scored 41, 36, 33 and 32 in the four games preceding Walker’s return, and Walker was just easing back in while trying not to interrupt Tatum’s virtually unstoppable flow.
“The great thing about Walker is he’s not going to make it about him,” the same scout told CBS Sports. “This might be a problem if he had a different personality. But he can see what Tatum’s been doing. If he has to take, not so much a step back, but maybe just a step to the side, he’s not going to have a problem doing that.”
It’s not just about Walker and Tatum, of course. The Celtics have an abundance of capable creators, and they need them all. Even with Tatum playing at an All-NBA level, the Celtics’ offense ranks just 15th league-wide since Feb. 1, a span that saw Walker, Brown and Gordon Hayward miss a combined 18 games.
Tatum’s growing usage rate might reflect an evolving, traditional No. 1 option, and he is that in many ways. His length allows him to get shots over defenders that the 6-foot Walker can’t create. His temporary struggles to finish at the rim have been rectified. His handle isn’t talked about enough in terms of his ability to create space. Per Synergy, Tatum ranks in the 88th percentile in all jump shots off the dribble.
Still, all of this is happening, in coach speak, within the flow of the offense. You won’t see Boston isolating Tatum time after time. In many cases the offense starts somewhere else, runs through its options, any of which are free to attack as they see fit without any particular mandate to get Tatum the ball.
If the possession plays out long enough, and the ball naturally ends up in Tatum’s hands, it often stops there and Tatum goes to work, which is why his usage rate reflects that of a top option even if he didn’t start at the top of the possession. But if the ball never makes it to Tatum, the Celtics are fine with that, too.
Tatum will often begin stationed in the corner. Sometimes he stays there, effectively acting as a decoy as one of the Celtics’ other creators takes the reins. Here it’s Hayward and Daniel Theis playing pick-and-roll, with Tatum occupying the help defender in the strong-side corner long enough for Theis to slip to the basket.
Note the time and score in the bottom right corner. That’s a crucial possession, with Boston trailing the Oklahoma City Thunder by three with just over a minute to play. And yet Stevens is more than comfortable putting the ball in someone else’s hands. If that’s the Houston Rockets, the offense is going through James Harden or Russell Westbrook. If it’s the Los Angeles Lakers, LeBron is absolutely dictating that possession.
The Celtics are different — not necessarily more diverse as most of their actions are the same, heavy pick-and-roll, regardless of who’s initiating them, but certainly deeper in terms of options they trust. That’s not to say they let themselves stray too far from Tatum. late in tight games, Tatum’s early-clock touches become of greater priority.
Here the Celtics are trailing the Indiana Pacers 109-107 with just over a minute to play, and Tatum has been a spectator on a handful of prior possessions. You’ll see Stevens draw a line in these situations, whether it’s early or late if Tatum hasn’t directly impacted a possession for three or four straight trips, and basically say, “it’s time for our best player to get the ball.”
Tatum is a killer in pick-and-roll, 91st percentile according to Synergy. And yet, after he just got to the basket that easily, on the very next possession, with the score tied and under a minute to play, Marcus Smart is empowered enough to attack the basket one-on-one rather than waiting for Tatum and going back to the play that just yielded the tying basket, as a lot of teams would.
That is the epitome of what the Celtics do. Tatum isn’t so much the man as he is one of many men. When it gets down to it, he is Boston’s best one-on-one player, but that specific hierarchal deployment only plays out on certain possessions. For the most part, the Celtics’ true danger still lies in the the sum of their parts, even if Tatum has, individually, become the most dangerous one.