Tatum and Optimizing the Celtics' Offense

Maybe Tatum's big night in Atlanta will be a turning point for him, and an end to the almost daily "What's wrong with Tatum" pieces. I just saw one about the Celtics’ shooting woes that dug all the way down to the surface with stats about Tatum’s average shot distance by year, and the % of his shots within 3’ of the rim. Yes, both Tatum and the offense in general have had a rough start, but I'm not sure I agree with the consensus about why. Does Tatum really need to drive to the rim more? Do the Celtics need to get better shooters, or do they just need to get better shots?


I’ve been watching Tatum’s numbers for a while, and they can actually tell us a lot about what he’s good at, what he’s improving on, what he’s not good at, and what we should expect this season.

JT is often a slow starter, and he will also slip into a prolonged shooting slump every once in a while.

51.3%, 48.2%, 55.3%- Those are Tatum’s first month true shooting percentages for the last 3 seasons. He’s shooting 49.6% so far this season. The season he started at 48.2% (2019/20) he followed that up with a 52% month. The last month of that season he shot 69.7% and he made an All NBA team. Last season coming off Covid JT put up a 39.7/ 31.6/ 89.5 shooting line at 51.6% True Shooting in February. Is coming back from the Olympics and adjusting to a his new bigger shoulders the same as coming off Covid? No, but this isn’t unprecedented, or even that unusual. If Jayson’s past is any sort of a guide he should be fine.

Ok, so how about those average shot distance and percentage of shots at the rim numbers? Here they are for everyone who hasn’t seen them 500 times this week (average distance first, % of shots from 0-3’ second).

2017/18- 12.7’/32.0%

2018/19- 13.6’/26.1%

2019/20- 14.4’/24.8%

2020/21- 14.6’/19.7%

2021/22- 15.1’/17.7%

Those numbers don’t look good, but they also ignore a lot of context. Early in his career JT was more of an off ball player. Now he’s a different player in a different role.

His Field Goal Attempts have more than doubled going up every year from 10.4 as a rookie to 22.2 this year.

His Usage has gone up every year from 19.4% as a rookie to 32.2% this year.

His Assist Percentage has gone up every year until taking a very slight dip this year. JT started at 8.3% and got up to 20.3% last year. He’s at 17.1% this year.

His ISO stats and driving numbers have increased as well. JT started his career driving 5.7 times per game and attempting 2.9 shots on those drives. Those shots accounted for 28% of his total FGAs. This season he is around 14 drives and about 7 FGAs of those drives, which account for nearly 30% of his total FGAs. That's a similar percentage of his FGAs, but a lot more volume. During his career JT has gone from shooting 1.4 times per game out of an ISO to 5.3 this season. His ISO Points Per Play have hovered around .8 his entire career.

When JT entered the league most of his shots were assisted. His first year 56.5% of his 2s were assisted as were 92.4% of his 3s. Corner 3s made up 22.7% of his 3 point attempts. This season 36.3% of his 2s are assisted. 51.2% of his his 3s are assisted, and 14.3% of his 3s are from the corner.

He’s also shooting a lot more 3s. His first season 3s made up 29% of his total FGAs. They make up 37.8% of his total FGAs this season.

Jayson carries a much heavier load as a scorer and creator now. It’s harder to get to the rim when the opposing defense is focused on you and you’re creating more of your own shot opportunities. Another reason he’s shooting from farther away is that he’s shooting more 3s. That’s a good thing. As much as I’d love to see Tatum get to the rim more often I don’t think that’s some kind of panacea for him and the C’s offense. I also don’t believe that’s something he can just do on his own. What the above stats suggest to me is that Tatum got to the rim more before because he wasn’t having to create so many of his own at rim opportunities from a standstill.

As Jayson’s volume has gone up significantly his shooting efficiency has remained pretty consistent until this season. His shots at the rim in 2020/21 might have dropped by 5% as a share of his FGAs from 2019/20, and his shots were slightly farther away, but his True Shooting percentage went up from 56.7% to 57.6%. Over his career the percentage of JT’s shots coming inside 3 feet and his average shooting distance don’t have much of a relationship with his shooting efficiency. There's not really anything there that make me worry about him. Higher volume and longer shots haven't stopped him from maintaining efficiency before.

There are some related Tatum numbers that suggest room for significant growth. The worst thing Jayson does is take midrange jumpers. His midrange shots are less efficient than any Marcus Smart shot. Tatum is often pulling up on ISOs and on drives and that’s a huge win for the other team. That’s the shot they want. Tatum’s .77 Points Per Play and 31.8% field goal percentage on ISOs are bad. If a team scored .77 points per play they would have a 77 Offensive Rating, that’s off the charts awful. Tatum has been mediocre in ISOs his entire career, except for the Nets series last playoffs. Why? Because he stinks from midrange. He’s good at the rim, and he’s good off the dribble from 3, but in between, yuck. Last season he was worse on 2 point pull-ups, 35.8%, than he was on 3 point pull-ups, 36.3%. He’s also just bad from everywhere between 3 feet and 3. Last season 14% of his shots came from 10-16 feet and yielded .7 points per shot. For reference Smart scored .99 points per shot from 3 last year. Tatum’s ISOs and pull-ups, which are his two biggest offensive weaknesses, have become a larger percentage of his game recently. While his total drives per game have doubled over his career his ISOs and pull ups have tripled. As he carries a heavier load he ends up settling for more of these easier to create midrange pull-ups. That HAS to change for him to be a genuine superstar and for the Celtics to have a dangerous offense. I would love for JT to improve his midrange game, he is going to need to take some midrange shots, but the volume has to come down.

Tatum is an incredible 2 way player, and when he’s rolling he’s one of the most dangerous offensive players in the league. What Jayson, Drew Hanlon, the Celtics, and us fans need to understand is that JT is not KD. KD is a midrange killer (he improved that skill significantly around Tatum’s age), and this season he’s creating 1/3rd of a point more per ISO than Tatum. Jayson also isn’t a heliocentric star. He just isn’t a good enough ISO player or playmaker to be that guy. He needs to be playing a game that’s a better fit for his skillset, and a better fit for this team. (Giannis and the Bucks made some small adjustments and won a title. Giannis's basic box score volume stats- FGAs, assists, etc- mostly went down as did his usage.)

Last year JT’s catch and shoot percentages were 45.9% from 2 and 44.6% from 3. Now we’re talking .92 and 1.34 points per shot instead of .72 on pull-up 2s. JT also created 1.35 points per potential assist last year on pretty high volume. That’s also very good. He scored 1.47 points per shot inside 3 feet last season. Again, excellent.

Tatum is one of the few players on the Celtics who can create offensive opportunities for himself and others, and it’s especially tough when Jaylen has been out, but the midrange jumpers are a crutch. I would love to see him off ball more often. He was a good enough cutter early in his career to get a shoutout during a Thinking Basketball YouTube video about off ball movement. He’s a great finisher at the rim and from 3, and he’s deadly off the catch. As soon as he holds the ball and/or starts dribbling around his efficiency falls off a cliff. (This is partly why the Celtics can’t hit shots late in close games- 34.4% clutch shooting from Tatum, barf.)

What I'm saying is that I don't think Tatum getting more self generated shots at the rim is the answer because I don't know if he can do that consistently game in and game out. (His midrange weakness allows opposing defenses to take away the rim in favor of leaving the midrange open.) I do think taking fewer self created midrange shots is part of the answer. He should be getting more/easier shots in the flow of the offense rather than straining to create, and then take, inefficient shots himself. Tatum can throw an opposing defense off balance. It seems obvious that skill is best used creating good shots for the team than it is creating bad shots for himself.

The Team

The Celtics are struggling on offense in part because they’re shooting so poorly, and that will probably change. It’s a situation where regressing to the mean will be a good thing. They’re also struggling on offense because they don’t have an identity, or theory, on that end that works, and a number of players are languishing in roles that play to their weaknesses rather than strengths.

Marcus Smart is a really good passer, playmaker, post player, and ball handler, but a below average spot up/ catch and shoot guy. (His ISO and midrange numbers last year were better than Tatum’s.) When Marcus is standing around on the 3 point line late in the clock spreading the floor while JT "goes to work" neither is doing what they’re good at, and both are in prime position to be mediocre. That’s a KD/Harden and Joe Harris game plan, not a Tatum and Smart game plan.

Jaylen has been amazing at everything this year as a scorer (1.28 points per play in ISO is elite), but he’s not a great passer/ playmaker and once he starts dribbling too much things often don’t go well. Schroder’s ability to create and put pressure on the rim is really great, but when he does too much he kills the team with turnovers. There are complementary skillsets there, but right now the wrong guys are too often doing the wrong things.

On the other hand… Rob is killing it in his role and is arguably the most efficient offensive player in the league. When he gets shots around the rim they go in almost 80% of the time. Grant is currently shooting over 40% on catch and shoot 3s and is in the 80th percentile as a spot up shooter. Smart (70th percentile last season), Tatum (70-75th percentile), and Brown (85-90th percentile) have all been very good as pick and roll ball handlers. (Smart isn’t so good so far this year.) Rob and Horford have been excellent roll men during their careers, and Al can also pop. Rob, Grant, and Al are the only Celtics who have enough possessions off cuts to qualify for the NBA stat (bad news), but all of them have been really good off cuts (good news). The Cs do have guys who can make plays and shots.

The Warriors are killing the league moving the ball and bodies around the floor. The Nets are up and down playing ISO/ kick out heavy offense. The Celtics are playing like the Nets, and should be playing more like the Warriors. Tatum is ISOing more per game than the entire Warriors team, and the Celtics are ISOing the second most in the league behind only Brooklyn. The Nets are 3rd in ISO Points Per Play at 1.05 with their elite ISO players and knockdown shooters. The Celtics are 20th at .84. The Celtics have to be a ball and player movement team. Obviously Steph with his movement and gravity is an actual NBA unicorn, but the Jays catching the ball with any kind of advantage and making a quick decision could be an absolutely terrifying proposition. The Celtics starting 5 is loaded with good to very good passers. Smart is an incredible passer. Horford is great at finding cutters. Rob is good with cutters and kick outs too. Even Tatum is good. Smart and Brown both were among the few players in the league to create over 1.5 points per potential assist last year. The Celtics are super efficient off of passes. They have players who can get an opposing defense off balance and in rotation. When that happens and ball moves they should be able to create good shots consistently. On both sides of the ball they have to be flying around and playing with effort because they don’t have the right kind of talent to do anything else. Everything this team needs is there, including the ".5 offense" Ime wants to run. They just have to actually do it.

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