Jayson Tatum is an MVP candidate and one of the most dangerous offensive talents on the planet. He has one of the deepest bags in the league with the ability to score from all areas of the floor with an endless array of moves. Catch and shoot threes? Check. Off-the-dribble pull-ups or step-back threes? Affirmative. Midrange pull-ups, floaters, and high post game? You bet. On-the-block post game? Thank you, sir. May I have another? Dribble penetration and finishing at the rim? He’s him. Getting to the line at high volume and knocking them down? All night long.
He packs all of those skills into a chiseled 6’8” frame with a 7’ wingspan. Good luck, defenders.
Despite Tatum’s embarrassment of offensive riches, the other team is trying to win too. Opposing coaches pore over his game film looking for minute flaws that they can exploit. With the information they have gleaned, those coaches deploy their own elite athletes to try to slow Tatum down and force him into mistakes when possible.
The easiest adjustment a coach can make to try and limit a star player is to double him. For a perimeter-oriented player like Tatum, that double would usually come in the form of trapping his ball screens to get the ball out of his hands and make it impossible for him to target mismatches. While coaches have certainly tried that strategy against Tatum at times, he has largely neutralized its effectiveness in the last year or two with his exponential growth as a passer and decision-maker.
Tatum has become significantly more skilled at making the passes necessary to beat traps, from early pocket bounce passes and mini-lobs to a short roll to more advanced cross-court skip passes with either hand to hit shooters on the weak side. Perhaps more important than the technical skill development has been Tatum’s growth and willingness to get off the ball on time against doubles. He no longer fights the trap or tries to force his own offense. With increasing frequency, he recognizes traps, manipulates the defense with a drag dribble when necessary, and then makes the right pass at the right time. It probably doesn’t hurt that the rest of the roster is stacked with versatile offensive players that can drive or shoot effectively in order to punish the 4v3s that arise when Tatum draws two defenders.
While coaches risk unlocking the rest of the Celtics’ offense by trapping Tatum, they have to do something to slow him down. Any defensive game plan will start with an initial matchup. Some defenders that have done an admirable job making Tatum work for his scoring opportunities over the last few years include Dillon Brooks, Wesley Matthews, PJ Tucker, Kyle Lowry, Jrue Holiday, and Andrew Wiggins. I am not saying these players are “Tatum stoppers” or anything like that, but they do a good job of competing and making him uncomfortable at times. What qualities do these defenders have in common that help them present challenges to Tatum?
- Lower center of gravity with a sturdy base: There are only a handful of athletes in the entire NBA that can match up with Tatum’s height, length, strength, and mobility. Most of those players (Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Giannis Antetokoumpo, etc.) are offensive stars in their own right and try to limit the energy they have to expend on the defensive end of the floor rather than checking the top option on the other team. Consequently, coaches usually have to give up something when they choose a matchup for Tatum, and that something is usually size. A player in the 6’3” - 6’6” range can at times get underneath Tatum on the perimeter, challenge his catch points, and swipe at his dribble from a lower stance.
- Physicality and veteran savvy: While Tatum has improved his own strength and physicality with each passing year in the league, consistently physical defense can still wear on him at times and force him into poor decisions. As an opposing coach, I would sacrifice some footspeed here for increased physicality and strength. Younger players might have more speed, but they generally can’t match Tatum’s athleticism, and their inexperience allows Tatum to shake free with his endless array of footwork, dribble moves, and shot variety. Veteran players are more experienced in working the margins of what is allowed defensively. Off the ball, they clutch, grab, and bump to make Tatum work harder to come off screens or catch the ball further away from the hoop than he would like. On the ball, they swipe, nudge, and flop (*Kyle Lowry*) their way into being a nuisance on Tatum’s drives.
- Andrew Wiggins: There is a reason Tatum struggled to unlock his full scoring arsenal against the Warriors in last year’s NBA Finals. Yes, he was exhausted from a long playoff run and dealing with a troublesome wrist injury. Yes, the Warriors have one of the most connected team defenses in the league quarterbacked by Draymond Green’s Mensa-level defensive basketball IQ. But they also have potentially the most ideal Tatum defender in the league in Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins is one of the rare players who can match up with Tatum’s athletic profile. But, unlike a Paul George, Wiggins is his team’s 3rd or 4th option offensively and can afford to exert the energy it takes to wrestle with an offensive superstar all game long.
As with any offensive star in the NBA, causing them problems is often more reliant on team defensive schemes than one defensive player trying to lock them down. So, what schemes can present challenges for Tatum’s skillset and force him into less efficient play?
- Ball screen coverage: I already covered why I would be hesitant to trap Tatum on ball screens. Switching ball screens presents issues as well since Tatum would then be able to select his preferred defender to target in isolation. Not many teams have the defensive versatility of the Celtics who can frequently turn to lineups full of plus defenders, allowing them to switch screens with confidence. I would lean towards a slight drop coverage against Tatum while instructing the defender guarding the screener to stay within a step of the 3 point line to challenge pull-up 3s. This coverage would task Tatum’s defender with fighting through, over, or around the ball screen to get back into the action from behind. While Tatum is more than capable of walking into a pull-up 3, he generally shoots from right at the 3 point line (as opposed to someone like Steph Curry or Dame Lillard who will pull from 30+ feet with no conscience). Additionally, while Tatum knocks down catch-and-shoot 3s at a 42.4% clip, his percentage on dribble pull-ups drops to 28.6%.
- Late but consistent help on Tatum’s dribble penetration: I would be asking my primary defender on Tatum to be physical and aggressive with him, work constantly to challenge his catch points, force him further away from the basket, and harass him with ball pressure at the point of attack. That strategy of extended pressure means it will be difficult for the defender to stay in front of Tatum when he puts his head down and drives to the rim. At this point, it would be up to help defenders to support the man guarding Tatum as he drives to the basket. While NBA teams do not typically dig in from the strong side since they do not want to give up a kick out pass to a corner three, I would be willing to dig in on Tatum starting on his second dribble. Tatum has gotten much better at finishing at the rim on his drives, but he still prefers to finish off one foot rather than coming to a two-foot jump stop. A late dig from the wing can catch Tatum after he has committed to a gather into a finishing move, making it less likely that he creates an open catch-and-shoot three for a teammate on a kick out pass. Additionally, the interior rim protector needs to rotate to challenge Tatum at the rim with length. Again, Tatum has become adept at making the right read (a lob to Rob in the dunker spot or a weak side skip pass to a corner 3) if he sees the help early, so it is important for that rim protector to have a strong sense of timing when they contest.
If opponents marry these defensive strategies together (intense ball pressure from the primary defender, slight drop coverage on ball screens without giving up uncontested pull-up 3s, and late help from multiple directions on drives to the paint), Tatum would essentially never see a comfortable catch-and-shoot look throughout the game (barring a defensive breakdown) and would be constantly induced to drive into traffic. By playing with consistent physicality and forcing Tatum to drive into traffic in the paint, the defense would likely run the risk of fouling Tatum and sending him to the free throw line frequently. However, that might be a beneficial trade off if it kept Tatum from reaching a comfort level with his shot making from the floor. I took a look at some of Tatum’s worst shooting performances from this season and selected four games against playoff caliber opposition when Tatum struggled.
Tatum Poor Shooting Games
|Game||FGM/A (%)||3PM/A (%)||FTM/A (%)||PPG|
|Game||FGM/A (%)||3PM/A (%)||FTM/A (%)||PPG|
|vs. Golden State 1/19/2023||9/27 (.333)||4/13 (.308)||12/12 (1.00)||34|
|vs. Phoenix 2/3/2023||3/15 (.200)||3/10 (.300)||11/12 (.917)||20|
|vs. Philadelphia 2/8/2023||5/15 (.333)||1/5 (.200)||1/3 (.333)||12|
|vs. Memphis 2/12/2023||3/16 (.188)||1/8 (.125)||9/12 (.750)||16|
|4 Poor Shooting Games Averages||5/18.3 (.274)||2.3/9 (.250)||8.3/9.8 (.846)||20.5|
|Season Averages||9.9/21.4 (.464)||3.3/9.3 (.357)||7.4/8.6 (.864)||30.6|
What jumped out to me was that in several of his poorest shooting games, Tatum still got to the free throw line at a high frequency with 12 attempts in three of the four games I spotlighted. However, these teams were able to limit the frequency of Tatum’s 2-point field goal attempts and force him to shoot significantly lower than his season average percentages from both 2 and 3. Those stats bear out the potential impact that consistent defensive physicality can have on Tatum, even if it ends up with him shooting a few more free throws than average.
Both Tatum and the Celtics are certainly very aware of what opponents may try to do to disrupt Tatum’s rhythm offensively. While Tatum was ridiculously productive during last year’s playoffs, he also had the most turnovers ever in one playoff run as the Bucks, Heat, and Warriors consistently employed some of the strategies I have outlined here. Tatum got in the lab with his trainer, Drew Hanlen, last offseason to add to his offensive toolbox, and the Celtics have also introduced some new wrinkles into the offense to help Tatum counter the defensive attention he garners.
- Using Tatum as a screener with increased frequency: The Celtics have clearly emphasized incorporating more sets and actions in which Tatum serves as a screener early in the shot clock. Celtics Blog’s own Adam Taylor recently did a film breakdown on Tatum’s effectiveness as a roll man when he sets ball screens. Using Tatum as a roll man leverages the defensive attention he receives to free up his teammates while also allowing him to receive catches at the elbows or on the move rolling or diving into the paint when the help will not have time to react to him at the rim. In addition to using Tatum as a ball screener more frequently, they also use him to set double stagger pindown screens, an action that allows him to slip down to the block at times for paint catches. Sets like these have seen Tatum’s screen assists nearly double from 0.5 per game in 2021-22 to 0.9 per game in 2022-23. But the screen assists are only half the story as Tatum actually creates better catch points and shots for himself the more effectively he screens for others.
- Tatum’s increased options to score in the post against smaller defenders: Since we discussed earlier the benefits of guarding Tatum with shorter personnel, it stands to reason that Tatum should be able to use his height advantage in the post. In the past, Tatum has not always been able to take advantage of smaller players like Kyle Lowry or Jrue Holiday. They have been able to use their low center of gravity to stonewall him on the block or poke his dribble away if he puts the ball on the floor. Tatum has added some simple but effective post moves this year to use his size to make him more dangerous in these situations.
Here, we see Tatum keep two hands firmly on the ball as he brings his arms up into the chest of Brown, a sturdy defender. Tatum’s two hand grip allows him to absorb and finish through the contact from the defender.
In this play, we see a very similar move where, after facing up and giving Murray a jab step, Tatum sweeps through strong with two hands on the ball into Murray’s chest and once again absorbs and finishes through contact. This time, against a slighter defender, Tatum earns an And-1 opportunity.
On this post catch against Zach Lavine, Tatum sees Nikola Vucevic lurking in the paint, and Patrick Williams is starting to shade over towards a double team. Rather than putting the ball on the floor and driving into traffic, Tatum uses his superior length to simply rise and fire over the top of the defense.
These types of moves allow Tatum to punish smaller defenders in the post, and they give him an alternative where he can generate interior paint shots (and the free throw attempts that come with them) without having to constantly drive into a thicket of help defenders.
As we approach the playoffs and the stakes for each game and possession grow higher, it will be fascinating to watch Tatum continue to evolve to meet the defensive challenges thrown his way as he elevates to the highest levels of superstardom.