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Jayson Tatum’s All-NBA case is plain to see

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The honor would garner the Celtics’ star an inflated payday. It would also prove that dominance in an otherwise disappointing season didn’t go unnoticed.

2021 Play-In Tournament - Wizards v Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

When Jayson Tatum scored 50 points Tuesday night to propel the Boston Celtics to victory over the Washington Wizards, his playoff career-high didn’t change. Despite the 50-piece performance in the 118-100 play-in tournament win, his playoff peak remains 34 (recorded in Game 2 of last year’s semi-finals against the Toronto Raptors, to be specific). His efforts on Monday thus have no place in the regular season nor playoff record books. Basketball Reference doesn’t have a home for them, nor does Real GM, nor does... well, any other database. As of now, it’s merely a play-in record. An impressive but historically inconsequential feat. An accomplishment bound to be hidden amongst an amalgam of others that may very well go to waste unless the Celtics somehow fight their way from the NBA’s brink to its pinnacle.

Okay, so that’s not exactly true. Play-in stats count... somehow. If they didn’t, the game wouldn’t have a result, and thus would never end, and teams would just dribble in circles until someone looked up at a blank scoreboard and shouted, “hey, does anyone know what the point of all this is?” What is in question is where and how exactly these stats will be quantified once a team has officially qualified for the playoffs. Per the NBA, they aren’t regular season stats, and they’re not playoff stats. Does a 50-point barrage fade away as quickly as an 11-point outing? If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

It was hard not to think about this same quandary as I read and listened to a plethora of NBA writers/awards voters personally publicized All-NBA ballots, many of which made arguments for anyone but Tatum to find a way onto the final ballot. Most of the cases came down to one dilemma in particular: that including Tatum (or any other forward, for that matter) would mean compiling three All-NBA teams that, egregiously, would be left without room for LeBron James. Some of the justifications came with logic attached; most of them went for a more general approach.

  • Jackie MacMullan (via “The Bill Simmons Podcast”): “LeBron is the one I’m struggling with, and I’ll tell you why. [43] is a low number [of games played]. But the games he played, he was in the running as the best player in the league… If I’m gonna put him on, I’m gonna put him on second team, and I’m gonna put him on second team because he missed all those games. I’m not super comfortable with it, but I think he belongs on this ballot.”
  • More from MacMullan, this time on Tatum: “Tatum, my God, he had some of the most incredible individual performances of the year. He’s just amazing. But… I don’t think you can vote for anyone from the Boston Celtics. You just can’t.” Simmons backed that point: “He didn’t make anyone else better.”
Los Angeles Lakers v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
  • Zach Lowe (ESPN): “Four second-team spots were no-brainers. The fifth went to LeBron. It will be interesting to see whether LeBron makes All-NBA at all. I bet he will… I also don’t think it’s unreasonable to give James — provided he meets some threshold of games — the ‘duh, we all know he’s the best player, and he might have won MVP’ benefit of the doubt.”
  • Dan Devine (The Ringer): “I thought about Jayson Tatum, who is averaging just under 28 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 4.2 assists per game on .604 true shooting since the All-Star break, while continuing to play strong perimeter defense… And then I considered that picking [him or Domantas Sabonis] would mean leaving LeBron James off the ballot… Other forward options have played well and played more, but I don’t think any of them have played better; there are worse ways to resolve issues than by holding to the precept that, when in doubt, and if he’s an option, you should just go ahead and pick LeBron James.”

I’m not necessarily interested in dedicating too many words to countering the above arguments directly. They come from writers I admire and respect, and they come from actual All-NBA voters, an exclusive club of which I’m not a member. I’m also wary of the fact that doing so could cause this column to become the equivalent of an elderly homer screaming at clouds for being grey while steaming the wrinkles out of his green no. 0 Celtics jersey. That’s also a club I lack membership for. I guess there’s still time.

But the ideas that Tatum 1) wasn’t one of the best players in the league when he played (64 out of 72 games), 2) hasn’t made others better this season, and 3) isn’t LeBron James feel like straw man arguments against Tatum made in an effort to reward the knee-jerk impulse NBA consumers are quite often guilty of. You never hear “when in doubt, take Rudy Gobert” or “if he’s an option, you should just go ahead and pick Damian Lillard,” though those inclinations may have truth to them. LeBron James’ name is most often plugged into those sentiments. That he receives “benefit of the doubt” is expected at this point, but in a year like this one, it feels particularly unnecessary.

Sure, it’s because of the legacy he’s formed over the course of 18 seasons and four championships, an impact that other players have yet to sniff. But awards are a part of that, no matter the sport. One's impact can be charted convincingly without them — just ask Chris Paul or Elgin Baylor or, hell, LaMarcus Aldridge.

But when players are deserving and subsequently go unrewarded, you find yourself in a forest of falling, muted trees. In time, you may remember that those trees failed to make a sound upon crashing down — that’s why we now look back in shock, wondering how in the world Isiah Thomas nor Jerry West never won an MVP. But in the moment, you’re far more likely to remember those that left the “greatest” impact, primarily on your eardrums.

If it matters — and it should — Jayson Tatum only missed eight games this season (the Celtics went 2-6), par for the course for a typical NBA player, particularly those on a “playoff” team. Eight games, even in a shortened season, isn’t alarming. What makes it alarming is that five of those games came due to Tatum contracting COVID-19. He’s had to use an inhaler since he returned from that absence, something he never had to do before.

On May 14th’s Woj Pod, he told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, “It’s hard to explain and hard to pinpoint, but I don’t necessarily feel or breathe the same that I did before I had COVID. Just trying to figure out how long this is going to last. Am I ever going to feel back to 100 percent?” LeBron James said something similar as he neared his return from an ankle injury; he played in just 45 games this season.

He’s also averaged career highs in points, rebounds, and assists per game. Not to mention, he’s maintained career-best numbers in PER, field goal percentage, free throw percentage, effective field goal percentage, and true shooting percentage. He’s had his best around-the-rim season, finishing 68-percent of those shots. He finished the regular season 10th in the league in scoring; his usage among forwards was in the league’s 98th percentile (31 percent).

As for his inability to make others better? He assisted on 19.6 percent of his team’s field goals. That’s in the 91st percentile among forwards. When Tatum was on the floor, Boston outscored opponents by 3.4 points per 100 possessions. That dropped 1.3 points when he sat, an otherwise negligible advantage but a particularly crucial one for a team that now stares down arguably the league’s most imposing roster in the first round of the playoffs.

Like you needed (or wanted) more, how’s this for legacy: while it happened in the play-in, Tatum’s 50-point night was his third this season. The only player in Celtics history with more, per Stathead, is Larry Bird (he has four). His four career-high performances — 53 against the Timberwolves, 44 against the Warriors, 60 against the Spurs, and this 50-bomb — came in the span of 38 days. He’s a 23-year-old stud who has steadily improved, even faced with the adversity of a shortened season, a ravenous virus of which he was briefly a victim, and an injury-or-illness-decimated team that underwhelmed, yet still persevered.

If Tatum has been asked to check a box this season — availability, ability, what have you — he’s checked it. He has ascended in real-time, before the eyes of fans, announcers, and voters. Night in or night out, he’s been the barometer, the dictator of how good the Celtics can be when carried on his back. If there’s anyone who should be “given the benefit of the doubt” this season when it comes to garnering honors like this one, perhaps it should be the best Celtic.

Recently removed from the thrashing his team received at the hands of the Celtics star, Wizards head coach Scott Brooks noted that Tatum will be “an MVP of this league soon.” All-NBA is often a precursor for the league’s top honor, just as it was for LeBron James all those years ago. For Tatum, especially this season, the same should be true.