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Jayson Tatum and the great passing problem

With Marcus Smart out the door, the Celtics lost their best passer and replaced him with a high usage star. Who will pick up the playmaking slack?

NBA: Playoffs-Miami Heat at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

It’s very difficult to identify a weakness in Jayson Tatum’s game. Yes, there are things he could improve on, but like pizza, even when it’s not amazing, it’s still pretty good. If you’re going to glom on to something though, the place you’d start is his mindset. No, I’m not talking about the “dawg” mentality, or the “will to win” or other made-up things we take hold of to make us feel better when the shots don’t fall. Tatum may not be traditionally intense, but he’s got so much dawg in him I wouldn’t be surprised if he chewed up Deuce’s toys that get left on the floor, or maybe that’s just my dogs.

Instead, I’m talking about a much more tangible type of mindset — those times when an opportunity is created, and you’ve arrived at the intersection of choice. Cause and effect manifested in real time. A distinct moment where you have to select a path. I’m talking about decision-making.

Individual decisions add up to something more. Over time, the preference for one choice over another reveals trends and tendencies that we can use to evaluate players. Taking a step-back in lieu of making the easy, quick pass is an independent decision every single time he takes one. When it’s carried out repeatedly until it becomes ingrained in his behaviors. A permanent part of his mindset.

For the Celtics to be successful this season, Jayson Tatum needs to change his. He needs to alter his basketball DNA and maybe have a radioactive spider bite him to speed things along. Tatum has long been asked to score first, score second, and play-make third, a role he’s ridden to back-to-back All-NBA First Team honors.

It’s a role Marcus Smart enabled him to play, but the passing version of pepperoni pizza, the safe choice that keeps everything moving, isn’t on the team anymore.

2023 NBA Playoffs - Boston Celtics v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Missing Marcus and the passing problem

Marcus Smart’s passing ability is probably underrated at this point. He led one of the best offenses in the NBA in assists, assist percentage, potential assists, and assist points created. He was second behind Tatum in passes made per game, a mere 0.3 behind him despite receiving 3.8 fewer passes and having 15.3 fewer touches. Smart has his faults, but he knew his role: get the ball to the Jays.

He’s been replaced by a man who is his opposite in many ways. A pass first point guard turned into a shoot first center. Kristaps Porzingis is a wonderful basketball player, a borderline All-Star that can hang 30+ on any given night, but he’s not Marcus Smart. Smart’s usage rate last season was 17.6%, which is a rough estimate of how many possessions a player uses for their team. Kristaps Porzingis’ was 27.2%. Even when KP was on Dallas, playing next to notorious ball-hog James Harden... I mean Luka Doncic, his usage rate dwarfed Smart’s at 25.9%. In other words, KP demands a lot more of the ball than Smart, and he play-makes for others a lot less.

Swapping your very best passer — unselfish to his core — for a high usage star that needs touches and shots could be recipe for a sticky ball. It plays into the Celtics’ very worst inclinations: isolation basketball where the defense is permitted to load up and make things difficult. Tatum has the ability to avoid it, if he chooses to do so.

The frustrating reality of Tatum’s passing proclivity

The ability to adopt a larger play-making burden is within Tatum, which is the frustrating part. There’s very few passes he doesn’t have in the repertoire. Tatum’s got more variety than the toppings at Antonio’s Pizza in Amherst. From your standard variety kickouts to open shooters:

To punishing doubles and traps:

To weakside skips:

To hitting the roll man:

To pump-fake swings:

To one-handed quick hitters (although I take issue with the clown that tweeted this pass calling it a “bullet”):

The maddening problem with Jayson Tatum’s passing isn’t an issue of skill, it’s one of will. It’s true that he doesn’t read the floor quite as quickly or quite as well as some of the true, elite playmakers in NBA history, but he does both of those things well enough to take on a larger playmaking burden than he has. He’s flashed this in spurts, like in the playoffs where he led the Celtics in passes, assists, assist points created, and potential assists.

Thanks to Marcus Smart, Tatum has always had the choice as to whether he wanted to take on a larger play-making role. He could let the game come to him, play off-ball, and focus on scoring. Or, if the reads were easy and the passes obvious, he could whip the ball around like a 6’8” (or 6’9” or maybe 6’10” who knows anymore) point guard.

Brad Stevens has eliminated Tatum’s options. The Celtics can’t afford a Tatum that’s locked in on getting his, taking shots like these over making the Smart, simple play.

In that first clip, it’s not a horrible shot, but Jaylen Brown is on his way to the rim wide open. In the second, instead of shooting over Mo Bamba, who is approximately 11 feet tall, sometimes you just need to swing the ball, reset the offense, and try again. Those aren’t offense killers when you are sharing the floor with two unselfish guards like White and Smart, but what about when you’ll only ever share the floor with one?

In order for the Celtics to take the next step, to elevate beyond the wall they’ve repeatedly found themselves bashing into, Jayson Tatum needs to change. Instead of being a primary scorer, he needs to be a primary decision maker. Regularly, that decision will be to get himself a shot, but sometimes the best play is the one you don’t make. In the absence of Smart, the Celtics lack players that consistently make the decision to get their teammates involved, often at the expense of their own scoring load. Jayson Tatum needs to become that type of player or we could be in for a long, frustrating season.

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