Jayson Tatum is the best player on a good team at only 23. This sounds peachy but it also sets him up for daunting expectations. While the Celtics will probably make the playoffs, few picked them to emerge from the Eastern Conference this season. The hope, nay, expectation is that Tatum steadily improves for the next half decade and vaults the Celtics onto the short list of title favorites.
The best offensive players on title favorites almost always have one or two plays that they can spam. Their teammates magnify these advantages and make up for their shortcomings. Kawhi had an undeterrable mid-range game and Toronto surrounded him with high IQ play connectors. The Warriors gave Steph world class shooters and Draymond to assemble an unguardable Hydra. In order to determine how Tatum can elevate the Celtics through this lens, we must look at what he does well, what he does not do so well, and which play types play to his strengths. Let’s start with the spread pick and roll. The core competencies of this simple play highlight his strengths and weaknesses as a primary creator.
Spread Pick and Roll
Any discussion about Tatum’s pick and roll game should begin with his off-the-dribble shooting. His pull-up three is his closest thing to a calling card on the level of Kawhi’s mid-ranger. It was the driver behind his 2019-2020 breakout season, in which he made 40% of his off the dribble threes per NBA.com. As defenses have keyed in further on this shot, he has improved his counters at the level of the screen. His off-the-dribble gravity forces rotations and he has become adept at dissecting them with his passing.
In January, Tatum had a 40 point game and a 12 assist game in the same week. The 12 assist game happened against Detroit when they were hell bent on preventing his threes. Toronto instead decided to live with him shooting and he hung 40 on them. Later that week, the Heat combatted Tatum with switching and he was able to rise up over slower defenders. He has established a pick your poison situation for the defense at the level of the screen.
This may seem like an unsustainable proposition for the Celtics. Off-the-dribble shooting is an inherently fickle art. If he cools off, the points per possession may not justify jacking up attempts and the defense will stop worrying about this action. This was my initial concern when Tatum had his explosive stretch last year. Now, I am willing to believe he may be one of the exceptions to my off-the-dribble shooting heuristic. While he has cooled off from 40%, the value of this shot has stayed afloat in 2021. His 35% on 5.2 pull-up three attempts this year is still high enough to consistently force the defense’s hand. My trust goes beyond the numbers, though. It’s rooted in his unique biomechanical advantages that make rising up over the defense look effortless.
That’s right. Tatum has the strongest Latissimus Dorsi in the game. Notice how quickly his unique build lets him get into his shooting motion. Defenders usually do not have time to react unless they are specifically expecting this shot.
Most teams who have a dominant pick and roll player have the luxury of spamming this action to buoy their offense. According to Second Spectrum data provided by NBA.com, Tatum runs roughly half the number of pick and rolls of Luka Doncic and Trae Young per game. Either the Celtics do not prefer to lean on this play type, or Tatum is not quite the dynamic pick and roll weapon that those two are.
Surprise! It’s a combination of both. The Celtics have a multi-pronged offense and don’t need Tatum to direct traffic every play. However, Tatum himself is currently a flawed pick and roll creator. His pick and rolls yield an unremarkable 0.90 points per possession. If put in a heliocentric Luka-esque role, Tatum’s flaws would be exacerbated. I mentioned how the tug of war at the arc defines his pick and roll game. When he gets closer to the rim, Tatum becomes much less scary to the defense.
Tatum is converting 63% of his shots at the rim, which is decent for a wing creator. However, he only shoots 25% of his shots at the rim per Cleaning the Glass, 42nd percentile among all forwards. I attribute it to his shaky handle in tight spaces. Instead of taking one more dribble and shouldering through Denzel Valentine, he picks up his dribble and settles for a tough runner.
His lack of a consistent runner and floater game further limits his ability to apply rim pressure. Tatum is shooting 37% from 4-14 feet out according to Cleaning the Glass. While this is concerning, it is not impossible for creators to overcome lack of scoring punch at the rim. His teammate Kemba Walker is no better near the rim yet is still scary in the paint due to his passing chops. Tatum’s vision often breaks down when swarmed in the paint. Watch back the previous clip again, this time focusing on the other Celtics.
Defenses deep in the playoffs sent help from uncommon angles and it stifled Tatum. It took him a few games to adjust to Miami’s 2-3 zone in the bubble. Against New Orleans two weeks ago, Lonzo Ball roamed one pass off bothering Tatum, who did not detect the open Kemba.
To combat his suspect vision and handle when swarmed in the paint, Tatum regularly initiates pick and rolls a few steps behind the screen to get downhill. Once he has a full head of steam, he is more comfortable with the ball and gets to the rim more often.
This larger runway also gives him more space to interpret where the help is coming from and pass accordingly.
Initiating a few steps behind the arc solves some of the problems he faces in the paint, but makes his shot outside the arc less potent. He does not have Dame range, and does not have a shot that scales well to forward momentum; he prefers to rise from a standstill or drifting away from the hoop. When he stops on a dime to rise up, it results in some uncomfortable looking attempts that are vulnerable to rearview contests.
It’s unlikely the Celtics will morph into a heliocentric offense as Tatum enters his prime unless his handle, finishing touch, and passing vision in the paint improve substantially. The question then becomes what the Celtics should do with the remainder of Tatum’s possessions.
No matter the set, the primary goal of most Tatum-centric actions is to give him a pocket of space from three or a favorable switch. The most common mechanism the Celtics use for this outside of the spread pick and roll is the handoff. Not only do handoffs create a window for Tatum to get to his calling card, they allow Tatum to build up a head steam off-ball without having to start well outside the arc.
This action leads to decent results but would be better if the Celtics had a skilled handoff big who could handle, space the floor, and make quick decisions. If a big cannot impact the game 20-feet out, dribble handoffs are rarely the most efficient path to good offense. Recent Sense and Scalability guest/my new best friend Henry Ward explains in his spacing manifesto: “Dribble hand-offs minimize spacing unnecessarily … The advantage creation that occurs only involves one of the two players. Therefore they have a smaller amount of potential positive outcomes.” In the Celtics’ case, there is nothing Tristan Thompson does to benefit the team when he’s standing 20 feet from the rim to hand the ball off.
There are other ways to get Tatum downhill without dragging Thomspon or Daniel Theis out. One set they run often for Tatum is this curl off a down screen. The goal of this action is twofold: get Tatum that nice pocket of space for a mid-range jumper (an inefficient proposition, but a viable one if left open), or give him a lane to attack downhill.
This action often leads to quality shots for Tatum, but fails to utilize the multitude of co-creators that Tatum has alongside him. The best plays for the Celtics have a “plan B” option for one of his teammates to attack when defenses load up on Tatum. Let’s look at two of my favorite plays the Celtics run, both of which are early offense actions.
Boston occasionally breaks out “Away” which is used universally throughout the league. If you would like to spend eight, well worth it minutes learning the play and its counters, I recommend watching this video from Coach Daniel. If you are reading during your bathroom break and don’t want to sit too long and have your legs fall asleep, here is a basic outline of “Away”.
This play is usually — but not always — used in early offense. Teams like the Magic who have trouble attacking a set defense will run Terrence Ross through “Away” just to scramble the defense a little bit. Tatum’s skill set plays perfectly into this role. Much like with handoffs, he build up momentum and get to the rim when the defense leaves driving lanes open.
If the help comes from one pass away, Tatum will detect this instantly. Remember, he’s a maestro when manipulating the defense outside the arc.
Since the Celtics have multiple ball handlers capable of attacking a slightly tilted floor alongside an off-ball Tatum, “Away” becomes even harder to guard. Imagine the defense scrambling off-ball to cover Tatum and leaving a lane to the hoop open for Jaylen Brown. I could not find a clip of the Celtics doing this which only supports my belief that they should run it more.
Another quick action that makes use of Tatum’s skilled teammates is the ghost screen. Here, Tatum sets a ghost screen then fades to three. Oftentimes, this is enough for the ball handler to get downhill. Jeff Teague finds an easy floater after the threat of Tatum’s jumper parts the red sea for Teague.
The Celtics have been criticized for stagnating in a lot of their sets this season. Using Tatum off-ball in early offense to shake things up a bit before getting into another set is a great way to add some missing spice. Having multiple options to each play is important given that Tatum is not a skeleton key to positive offense unto himself. As a result, the Celtics have and must continue to construct their roster with offensive skill at almost every position.
The Ideal Tatum Squad
As I alluded to when discussing dribble handoffs, I want the Celtics to acquire a big man who can dribble, pass, and shoot. I outlined the value of this archetype, which I call Stretch Participator Big, in a previous article. If Tatum could kick the ball back to this type of big outside the arc after a handoff or a pick and pop, that would do wonders to keep the offense flowing. The closest player that the Celtics have to this archetype is Grant Williams. However, his shot comes and goes and Grant’s size will likely limit him from being a full-time center.
There are avenues to being a deadly handoff big without a three-point shot, they are just more difficult to reach. Bam Adebayo does not shoot threes, but is an outlier in how he impacts the game as a handoff big. He strikes fear in the heart of defenses at the elbows because of his elite court vision, dribble fluidity, and blistering roll gravity. It is probably a fool’s errand to compare other young bigs to Bam, but if I had to choose one who could be on a trajectory to possess these high-level traits, it would be Robert Williams III.
Time Lord’s athleticism is well documented but his ball handling and passing are surging this year. Ideally, he will be able to slip DHOs or fake the handoff like Bam and become a threat charging at the rim. From there Williams will ideally be able to power over the help defense or make a quick passing read. I am high on Time Lord’s potential long term fit with Tatum, but the Celtics have yet to feature him as a Bam-lite in dribble handoffs.
A Tatum-maximized squad must also have a solid table-setting co-ball handler. Kemba Walker’s skill set is an approximation of what this player ideally brings. Kemba’s shooting and willingness to work off-ball gives Tatum room to cook. He also provides a guiding hand to the offense that lets Tatum work off-ball.
I do not see a candidate to fill this position long term on the roster. Jaylen Brown might be the obvious complement in this regard for some. As rapidly as his scoring has progressed, I still do not see him as a regular initiator of sets to get Tatum off-ball. Most of Brown’s positive passes are limited to advantage situations when the defense helps off a teammate. Others may point to standout rookie Payton Pritchard as an eventual replacement. His burst, handle, and shooting are all impressive but he does not strike me as someone who is predisposed to making the advanced passing reads requisite of this position. Given he is already 23 I am unsure how much low hanging fruit there is for him to discover in this area.
Outside of finding stability at center and point guard, it will be important for the Celtics to surround Tatum with versatile advantage attackers like Brown and Marcus Smart. Tatum is not going to create swaths of space for his teammates like LeBron. He will more likely create a small opening that his teammate must capitalize on with a quick shot, drive, or pass. Brown only needs a sliver of space to get downhill and is a threat to score off the bounce from any spot on the floor. He might not be the secondary creator of the future for the Celtics but he will be their second leading scorer.
Marcus Smart’s ability to make sound, timely decisions to shoot, dribble, or pass off the catch has been sorely missed. Not only does he ease the context for Tatum’s heavy creation burden in the half court, he always keeps his head up in transition. As many sets as they have for getting Tatum to his spots, they are losing points every game if failing to find him small openings before the opposing defense is set.
Transition is also a good opportunity for Tatum to use his isolation game. He feasts on mismatches before the rest of the defense gets back.
You may have noticed that I glossed over his iso creation in the half court. According to NBA.com Tatum isolations yield 0.77 points per possession this season. To make matters worse, it is his second most common playtype behind pick and roll with a frequency of 18.6%. It has a place in semi-transition or as a bailout mechanism, but has been elevated to an uncomfortable degree.
There are multiple reasons for this. Tatum has ambitions to be a Kevin Durant-level isolation bucket getter. Brad Stevens does not seem to have the top-tier offensive coaching chops to prevent these isolations from happening. It does not rest solely on their shoulders, though. Tatum regularly buoys low-skill lineups and is forced to be the bailout guy far too often. The Celtics’ bench is by and large a mishmash of young players who may or may not be on the team in a few years.
This lack of clear long term direction around Tatum and Brown is the downside of the Celtics’ dual timeline. For now, Boston seems primarily focused on its short term window and still has the Hayward trade exception to fortify its playoff rotation. It’s not urgent that they pivot this season, but I do think it would be best to have a clear long term outlook in place well before 2024. Brown will become an unrestricted free agent that summer. Tatum can decline his player option and become one in 2025. The earlier Boston feels comfortable forgoing short term success to build a foundation around Tatum and Brown the better.