The absence of Marcus Smart could have loomed large. He’s leading the team in basically every passing category and has grown into just shy of elite playmaking point guard. It should be no surprise then that the Celtics offense have a 118.0 rating when he’s on the court, which would lead the league, and a 114.2 offensive rating when he sits, which would be around league average. In summation, when Smart plays, Celtics good, when Smart doesn’t, Celtics kinda not good.
Yet, during his absence, the Celtics have maintained a solid 115.0 offensive rating. You might be saying, “but Spooney, that’s barely better than the on/off offensive rating you just shared.” Yes, person I just made up, that is true, but you also have to take into account that during the 10 games Smart missed, the Cs have also missed Brown for 5, Horford for 4, and Brogdon and Rob for 2. The “off” numbers in those two numbers for Smart above are season long, so many of the minutes include some smattering of Tatum, Brown, Horford, Brogdon, and Rob.
So, despite missing various key rotation pieces beyond Smart, the Celtics were able to maintain a slightly above league average offensive rating, which is excellent. “Sometimes being slightly above average is excellent” is something my father would tell me to make sure my career expectations were in line with my mental and physical gifts. But I digress, the primary reason for this above averageness? Jayson Tatum (and Derrick White, but lots have been written about him and his busted ear and bloody mouth lately). Specifically, Jayson Tatum taking over the controls of the offense and turning into more offensive engine than play finisher. This adjustment of Tatum’s role has enabled the Celtics to weather the potentially stagnant waters of a weeks long Smart-less offense.
The stats speak for themselves. Below is a chart that shows Tatum’s passing stats for the season and during the 9 games he’s played while Smart was out.
Every single passing stat taking a nice jump. That assist number would put him around the likes of CJ McCollum, Shai, and Devin Booker. Three guys that are regularly asked to be primary ballhandlers for their teams. I question how NBA.com tracks secondary assists, also called hockey assists, because I think their numbers are artificially low, but nonetheless, that 1.2 number would be tied for second in the league, behind only Luka. His 10.6 potential assists during this timeframe would put him just .6 behind Curry. Extremely encouraging signs.
The eye test tells a similarly compelling story about Tatum’s playmaking jump. Playmaking really boils down to three things on a fundamental level: raw passing and vision (I’m counting this as 1 thing, work with me), the ability to draw help and bend the defense, and mindset.
Tatum’s greatest strength as a playmaker lies in his consistent ability to draw two and make the right pass, even if it’s the easy one, like he does in the clip below.
Even when the shots not falling, it feels like Tatum is making a point to make the right play, even if it's the easy one. Accept the double, move the ball, trust your teammates. pic.twitter.com/zk6Hr0PAIz— Wayne Spooney (@WSpooney) February 13, 2023
It’s nothing fancy, Tatum’s elite scoring requires defenses to double him fairly often, and when they do, he punishes it. This isn’t some crazy Nash style drive to the lane where he drives the entire baseline before finally hitting his big for a dunk, but it is extremely effective and gets his teammates involved. Draw two, make the right play, and go to the Winchester have a pint and wait for this to blow over. When your best player consistently makes the right play, it’s infectious, and this Tatum’s got this team playing unselfish basketball recently.
You’ll notice in this second clip that Tatum is again operating as the nominal point guard, a role he’s occupied often in Smart’s absence. He and White have effectively been co-primary handlers for the starting lineup (with Brogger running the bench). This play is fairly simple but is a good example of Tatum starting on ball, getting off of it and into an action, then getting it right back to make a play.
It starts with a simple pitch from JT to Al. Meanwhile, White sets a flair screen with the intention of forcing Royce O’Neal, guarding Tatum, to switch onto White and putting Curry on Tatum. O’Neal does a nice job of getting over a solid screen by White, but even that small advantage is enough for Tatum to blow by him. Once he’s past, he’s reading the weakside help, which will come out of either the corner or the wing. In this instance, it’s coming from the wing because Al is spotted just above the break, and Claxton, the Nets preferred help defender, is covering Al. Claxton realizes it’s a 5-alarm fire with Tatum on his way to the rim, helps off Al, which allows Tatum to make the easy read for the kick to Horford. On time, on target, that’s 3 points, and it starts with Tatum slicing the Nets defense off the bounce. By the time the help comes, it doesn’t take elite vision to see how open Horford is for 3.
While I said Tatum’s best attribute as a playmaker is his ability to draw two, I don’t want to take anything away from his vision and passing skill. He’s not Chris Paul, but he’s above average overall and borderline elite for his position.
He’s capable of manipulating the defense in the pick and roll and finding the roll man or shooters by reading the help, no matter where on the court the action starts.
While he’s very comfortable making reads and passes out of screen and roll/pop actions, he’s really started to flex his court vision muscles out of post as well. I mean look at this absolutely ridiculous dart to Blake Griffin.
He skips that thing backhanded, on a rope, right into the shooting pocket. He’s not even kind of facing that direction! Stewart isn’t even cheating off Blake that deep, but Tatum reads it so perfect and knows he’s got to put some stank on it to get Blake an open shot. Just beautiful.
As Tatum’s aged, he’s really gained an understanding of how he gets defended, and how to exploit it. Watch on this play how he subtly manipulates Bogdanovic and creates a wide open 3 for Grant Williams out of absolutely nothing.
That’s high-level basketball that I’m not sure Tatum was capable of even last year. As I said at the top, there’s three ingredients to playmaking, and I’d posit that Tatum’s biggest deficiency is the last one I mentioned, mindset. While it’s overstated, there are times Tatum eschews the simple, correct play for a “homerun,” as Brad Stevens might call it. Part of that is intentional, Tatum’s best offensive skill is still his scoring, and you live with a few bad shots a night (that he can still make) to ensure he’s staying aggressive.
Yet, when Smart went down, Tatum knew exactly what the team needed, someone to take the reins and get everyone involved. Tatum’s had 5 games this season where he’s taken 16 or fewer shots, 3 of them came during this stretch with Smart out. And that’s with the team missing many of its offensive weapons during this stretch.
It’s been fun watching Tatum flex an unselfish mindset without Smart, and the early signs as to whether his playmaking spree will continue with Smart’s return are promising. Tatum finished the Detroit game with a team high 7 assists despite the reentry of the starting point guard (and him scoring 38). If Tatum continues to develop his passing skills, and keeps this same mentality, there’s no limit to where he could go as a playmaker.