Tatum regressed in 2018/19. An article from the offseason discussed Boston’s need for Tatum to take that next step up. He has done so. He has done so emphatically.
Fresh off a 41-point outing against the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday, Tatum is among the best players in the NBA right now. Only eight players are scoring more points per game over the last 15.
Tatum is at 28.1 points per night over his last 15 outings – that’s better than Devin Booker, Khris Middleton, Anthony Davis and LeBron James. He’s doing so on 49.1% shooting from the field and 46.5% from three. Only five players who have taken more than 75 attempts have a better percentage from deep over this span.
Shot selection has improved after a lot of misjudged attempts last season. Tatum is still taking mid-rangers, but he’s being more selective. It helps that he’s shooting a good percentage too, he’s just shy of 40% on shots between 10 feet from the basket and the three-point line.
The Celtics have been giving him more ball. Partly that’s because of injuries to Kemba Walker and Gordon Hayward at different points and the departure of Kyrie Irving, but it’s also a result of Tatum’s markedly improved handle. He’s getting 67.6 touches per game this season, over 22 more than last season.
Tatum was the pick-and-roll ball handler on 2.4 possessions per game last season. That has risen to 5.4 in 2019/20. The points per possession have increased from 0.91 to 1.06. To give some context: Kyle Lowry is at 1.06 and Luka Doncic is 1.05.
The progression offensively is remarkable. Tatum has an almost complete offensive game – he’s capable of attacking switches in the post, driving into the lane off a pick-and-roll and is an efficient pull-up shooter.
Defensive performances were up and down from Tatum last season. He switched off at times. That’s not been the case this season, he’s been locked in on that side of the ball and been an integral part of a Celtics defence that is among the best in the league.
Tatum ranks at the top of all power forwards in ESPN’s real plus-minus and third overall, behind James and Kris Dunn. He’s getting 2.8 deflections per game, the same as Davis.
Boston can switch everything when they want to. Tatum has shown the quick feet to live with trickier perimeter players and the has the frame to jostle with the remaining interior behemoths.
There were a couple of moments on Sunday that highlighted his excellent team defence, too. Jaylen Brown was duelling with Davis in the post, and Tatum executed some well-timed help defence, forcing Davis into errors.
There have been a lot of great defensive players this season. Tatum’s might not make the All-Defense teams, but he’s certainly playing at that level.
Passing will be key
As the playoffs near, teams are preparing their rotations and defensive patterns. Tatum was doubled often on Sunday, and he’s going to see plenty of that over the remainder of the regular season. His distribution is a work in progress.
Tatum is at 2.2 turnovers per game with just 2.9 assists. Like Kawhi Leonard, he doesn’t project to be a great facilitator, but this is the area of his game that needs the most work. Leonard has improved markedly as a passer over the last couple of seasons, and how Tatum deals with traps and double teams will go a long way to determining how quickly he becomes a legitimate superstar.
It’s a double-edged sword. Passing isn’t a priority when he’s scoring like this, but when he’s this red-hot, teams will look to make others beat them as the Lakers did. How Tatum sets up his teammates in those scenarios will be a key factor as the Celtics eye a deep postseason run.
Although the Boston Celtics have been elite at both ends all season, their postseason credentials have been uncertain. They are fifth in offensive and fourth on the other side of the ball right now. Having played most of the season without their core five guys, it’s impressive the Celtics are where they are.
Aside from interior defence concerns, their top-level talent has been an asterisk, too. Kemba Walker was not going to be the best player on the floor in a playoff series against the Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers or Miami Heat. Tatum might not be quite at Giannis Antetokounmpo-level either, but the way he’s playing right now, he’s on a par with Jimmy Butler and his complete game might make him more effective in the postseason than Joel Embiid.
With Tatum an elite force at both ends, and capable of getting a bucket from any situation, the Celtics are elevated from chasing pack to legitimate challenger.