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Carpenters and toolboxes: the Jayson Tatum / Lauri Markkanen debate

How Taco Jay sets himself apart.

NBA: Utah Jazz at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Lauri Markkanen scores at nearly the same rate as Jayson Tatum - 26.8 points per 36 minutes vs. 29.1 (per Basketball Reference), and he does so more efficiently, sporting an absurd 64.3% true shooting as compared to Tatum’s 60.1% mark.

Each player’s overall effect on their respective team’s offense has been similar this year. The Utah Jazz have averaged 119.3 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions with Markkanen on the court, 5.6 points better than when he sits (per Cleaning the Glass). The Boston Celtics have scored 120.2 points per 100 in Tatum’s minutes, for an even more impressive +7.5 offensive on/off split.

Despite their statistical similarities, no one of sound basketball mind would be likely to suggest that Tatum and Markkanen are the same class of players. Big Deuce is a better defender and plays a more central role in Boston’s offense than The Finnisher does in Utah’s. He’s capable of creating off the bounce in ways that Markkanen can’t match, and he’s increasingly capable of leveraging the attention he draws to create offense for his teammates.

Tatum has posted a 20.7% assist percentage this year, more than double Markkanen’s 8.5% rate, per Cleaning the Glass. That difference in facilitation ability is probably enough to overcome Tatum’s deficiency in comparative individual scoring efficiency, but he’d still stand a cut above Markkanen even if the margin was closer.

If constructing an NBA roster is like building a house, then Markannen is a really nice toolbox. Tatum is a carpenter, and a good one.

There are plenty of theoretical carpenters in the NBA, but having the skill set to function as an offensive focal point doesn’t automatically mean you have more value than players without that ability. Having a great toolbox may be preferable to employing a low-tier carpenter.

Markannen is, for example, a more valuable player for a contender than DeMar DeRozan, another carpenter in our house-building metaphor, but one who only knows how to build you a nice sturdy duplex and not your dream home. There’s nothing wrong with that.

The things that DeRozan does for an offense - efficient isolation scoring, solid facilitation, and tough shot-making - are all incredibly impressive, and arguably more difficult to pull off than Markannen’s bread and butter (spot up shooting, attacking closeouts, mashing mismatches, and finishing on rolls and cuts).

The threshold for being the offensive centerpiece on a title team is just incredibly high. In the past decade that mantel has been worn by Steph Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Kawhi Leonard.

That’s the whole list.

Whether or not Tatum has the ability to join such a prestigious group of champions is an open question. At the moment, he lives in a purgatory of potential lead dogs on a title team with the likes of Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, Devin Booker, Donovan Mitchell, and Luka Doncic.

Tatum benefits from the fact that he could turn himself from a carpenter into the nicest toolbox imaginable if needed. Scale back his creation burden and he’d transform into an even better version of Markannen. The whole point of a lot of his peers’ games is to be the sun around which their teams’ offenses revolve. Tatum fills that role, but has a malleability to his game and the defensive chops to be a high-end contributor without needing the ball to flow through him at all times.

The Celtics are hoping they won’t need to ask him to take a backseat to anyone, and they may not. Tatum led Boston to The Finals just last year, and he’s been the primary engine for an offense that is currently the fourth best in the NBA. It’s possible he’s an elite-level carpenter. We’ll find out soon enough.

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