The Bigger Picture of the Celtics Problems
The Celtics second quarter versus the short-handed Phoenix Suns last night is a good summary of their season thus far. With 8:00 in the second quarter Jayson Tatum was subbed out leaving the Celtics with just a 32 to 30 deficit. At the 5:43 mark of the second quarter, not even three minutes after being subbed out, Tatum would enter that game down 45-33. That blundered second quarter would cost the Celtics the game as the Suns outscored them 32-15 creating a 20 point cushion the Celtics couldn’t recover from.
So what is the problem for the Celtics who have lost three straight and dropped 6 of their last 10 games? Well the problem is also the solution, Jayson Tatum. The Celtics kept it close in the first quarter versus the Suns finishing the quarter up 24-22 behind 12 first quarter points by Jayson Tatum. But in the second quarter with Tatum sitting a few minutes and having a slow quarter only scoring three points the Celtics would fall behind. With Jaylen Brown out this Celtics roster isn’t constructed to survive a slow quarter from their star player. Of the possible 751 minutes the Celtics have played this season Tatum has played 651 of them, an astounding 89% of Celtic’s minutes. Even with the heavy minute load Tatum is taking on he’s barely keeping them above water with just a +2 net rating this season. This heavy load is also causing a dip in Tatums efficiency, shooting just 41.4% from the field and 32.7% from three, both career lows. Right now the Celtics find themselves in a position a lot of teams find themselves in with a player of Tatums caliber. Think about the Bulls before hiring Phil Jackson or Lebron’s first stint with the Cavaliers. Both of those teams found success but not championship level success which is expected when you have MVP level talent.
So what got those teams over the hump? Surprisingly the answer is getting the ball out of their stars hands. Bull’s coach Doug Collins once said his plan at the end of a playoff game was, “Get the ball to MJ and get the f**k out of the way.” Phil Jackson, the coach who replaced Collins, brought the triangle offense which emphasized ball movement leading to the offense being more democratic than in years past with Collins. The result was Jordan still playing at an MVP level alongside the Bull’s supporting cast fire on all cylinders as well. When you have a 6’6” athletic freak that can score on all three levels it’s really easy to fall into the, “Get him the ball and get the f**k out of the way,” mantra. When you do that though it makes it really easy for other teams to load up on one guy, and if that one guy has an off night that results in the whole team having an off night. When Kevin Durant was asked about his controversial decision to join the Golden State Warriors he said, “It was a basketball decision...I felt like I was the absolute perfect fit with what you guys were doing on both ends of the ball. And I knew my game had reached a point where I really needed to see what that looked like.” Durant often explains that in Oklahoma City he played with a lot of athletes and not a lot of shooters leading to a packed paint and a lot of double teams. A lot of people believe Durant’s decision was fueled by championship aspirations and there’s definitely truth to that, but Durant’s main reason for leaving the Thunder was the crossroads all players of his caliber must eventually face, getting the ball out of their hands. For Durant it was joining up with the Warriors, for Lebron it was forming a big three in Miami, and for Jordan it was a new scheme that took pressure off his offensive load. Even the Cleveland Cavaliers who completely blundered the first 8 years of Lebron's career, learned from their mistakes and surrounded Lebron with two all-stars in his second stint in Cleveland.
So with that being said how does this relate to Jayson Tatum and the Boston Celtics? While not on the level of the players above, yet, in Tatums short career he’s proven to be a generational type talent with MVP and championship aspirations in his future. His team however has been mediocre for two seasons now and it is clearly because of the over reliance on Tatum because of the lack of talent on the roster. Celtic’s new head coach Ime Udoka came into the season trying to make Tatum more of a facilitator, but that has yet to come to fruition this season with Tatum averaging just 3.6 assists on 2.8 turnovers with the 7th highest usage rate of 31.9. Luckily for the Celtics I believe they’re in a situation closer to the Bull’s rather than the Cavaliers or Thunder. The Bull’s had a second star that fit next to Jordan in Scottie Pippen and once he and the rest of the roster were properly utilized Chicago had a championship core. The Celtics are in a similar situation with co-star Jaylen Brown. Brown has proven to be a capable number two next to Tatum averaging 24.6 points last season on efficient splits while fitting next to Tatum on both sides of the court. The problem with Brown over the last two seasons has been availability. Brown played just 58 games last season and has played just 13 of the Celtics first 27 games this season. Once Brown is fully healthy and Coach Udoka has his full roster I think the Celtics have a chance to be good this season. Before that can happen though the Celtics need to find a way to survive without their stars firing on all cylinders because the return of Jalen Brown alone won’t fix all their issues. The Celtics have the top end talent to win in the playoffs and enough depth to carry them through the regular season. This is a talented roster that is already a top ten defense this season, the question is can they evolve past the mantra of, “Get Tatum the ball and get the f**k out of the way.”