The Jayson Tatum Experience has been an interesting ride. The Celtics are 5-2 and the second-year lottery pick has looked like the confident player we remember from last year’s playoffs, averaging 16.6 ppg, 8.1 rpg, and 2.3 apg. Tatum has quickly emerged as the second option for a hit and miss Celtics offense that is currently 28th in points per possession via Cleaning the Glass.
The slow start offensively is understandable to an extent. Gordon Hayward is still trying to find his shot, Kyrie Irving has been tasked with helping his teammates get going while he works through his own offensive kinks, and with the emergence of players like Jaylen Brown and Tatum, there’s the natural struggle of players trying to grow within the confines of a loaded offense. Call it growing pains.
But the Celtics do have a glaring weakness in their shot selection.
Through the first seven games, the Celtics are taking 36.3% of shots from the mid-range, and of those, 20% have been of the long-two variety, which is the 4th highest mark in the league. To compound matters, the Celtics are 23rd in the league in long-two accuracy which means a huge part of their offense is made up of looks that are highly inefficient.
There are multiple ways to approach this issue, but a lot of it starts with Tatum who takes up 28.6% of the long-two’s the Celtics take and he’s shooting them at 34%. Shot quality became an underlying theme for Tatum when Kyrie officially went out for the season last winter. Naturally, without his ball-handler getting him better finishing looks, Tatum had to rely on his own self-creation ability which led to an uptick in pull-up jumpers, a decrease in catch and shoot opportunities, and an overall downgrade in efficiency.
To take it even a step further, one of the knocks on Tatum coming out of college was that he relied a little bit too heavily on his pull-up J in his lone year in Duke where he was also tasked with trying to create on offense without a lead ball-handler. By that logic, the insertion of Irving should have meant better shot quality for Tatum except that isn’t what’s happened. Tatum is taking 7.4 pull-up attempts compared to 2.4 catch and shoot attempts, 57.5% of his shots are unassisted, and he’s tied for 12th in isolation possessions.
Part of the Celtics disjointed offense has appeared to come from a lack of familiarity with players’ roles. Last year, the team had a strong understanding of what they wanted to do on offense. The ball would go through their presumptive Big Three of Irving, Hayward, and Horford and the other players would act as complements. When Hayward went down, it became the Irving & Horford Show with Brown, Tatum, and Morris working as “3 and D” players who were excellent counters to the Irving-Horford pick and roll.
This year, the offensive roles aren’t that easily defined. Jaylen Brown spent the summer working on his playmaking, ball-handling, and wants to showcase that part of his game. Tatum just led his team in scoring through the playoffs and set a goal for making the All-Star Game this year. That’s a far cry from the unproven young wings from last year who didn’t even have their starting positions fully guaranteed.
Furthermore, Stevens never puts his players in positional boxes so when you have five guys with limited familiarity with each other on the court who can dribble, pass, and shoot within an offense largely based on decision-making, you’re going to see possessions where someone has the ball with 12 seconds left on the clock and a one-on-one mismatch. At 6’8 with a 6’11 wingspan, Tatum often finds himself in that position with a smaller or slower defender in front of him. Those looks usually turn into step-backs or fadeaways from within the arc. Off season workouts with former Laker Kobe Bryant don’t help this narrative:
This is not the area of the floor that the Celtics want to shoot out of, but at the same time this isn’t Tatum breaking out of the offense or taking away a higher quality shot elsewhere. He’s the only option on these looks and it’s his job to create something.
On the flip side, Tatum has also gotten into the habit of stepping out of three-pointers and taking the long-two instead.
He also just flat-out takes shots that aren’t good.
These type of situations are what end up hurting the team because they’re taking away a better-quality look for an inefficient shot. Taking the three off the catch or taking a side dribble into a three will be worth more then settling for a 17ft’er or passing the ball when it’s early enough in the shot clock and resetting the offense rather than settling for a tough look is type of offensive maturation that Tatum has to make.
There’s ultimately room for Tatum’s mid-range game, but it has to come within the confines of the offense. When it’s up to him to create because the team is out of other options, it is fine. If it’s at the end of the shot clock where that becomes the best quality shot, it is fine. But taking those looks early in the possession or turning down three-pointers for them is where he can get himself in trouble.
It’s worth noting that there won’t be a complete erasing of these attempts. For example, this play is something the Celtics ran for Tatum over and over again in the playoffs when he led the Celtics to a Game 3 win against the Sixers.
The season is still young and the offense will be in for another face lift once Kyrie and Hayward start to round into form. As the rotations firm up, the players build new rapport, and the stars begin to look like stars again, there will most likely be a re-distribution of Tatum’s attempts since he’ll start to become relied on less.
Change will also come with better decision-making and stronger ball-movement, as the Celtics showed during their last 3 games. Tatum has all the tools to be a fantastic scorer and looks primed to be a leader on a contending team, but it’ll be up to the Celtics as well as Tatum to make sure he’s being put in position to get quality shots. So far, there’s a lot of room for growth.