Thirteen games into the new season and Jayson Tatum still hasn’t broken free from a flummoxing slump.
Only one time in the past nine games has Tatum shot better than 41 percent from the floor. He’s shooting 36.9 percent overall in that span, including 31.3 percent beyond the 3-point arc, all while averaging 21.8 points over 37 minutes per game.
It’s hard to put a finger on what exactly is ailing Tatum, who has typically rocketed out of early-season slumps. He could be feeling the effects of an Olympic-extended summer. A more physical brand of NBA ball could be complicating matters. A roster thinned by injuries and an offense thin on weapons even when healthy hasn’t helped either.
What’s frustrating is that Tatum has occasionally found ways to impact the game even when his shot is not falling. His rebounding numbers have been excellent and he’s been a willing passer at times. But his assist percentage has fluctuated wildly and his turnover percentage has crept too high at times.
Tatum had a monster 41-point, eight assist game in an overtime win over Charlotte last month in which he played like a legitimate MVP candidate. But that particular Tatum has gone missing and his frustration with his shooting woes has too often led to defensive lapses in critical spots.
To be clear, Tatum is far from Boston’s only problem amid a disappointing 6-7 start. But as an All-Star and face of the franchise, his struggles draw a harsher spotlight.
Take Saturday night’s head-shaking loss in Cleveland. As the Celtics came unglued while coughing up a 19-point lead, Boston desperately needed Tatum to glue them back together (especially considering the veterans the team were missing due to injury). Instead, Tatum had more fourth-quarter turnovers (three) than field goals (two).
Twice Tatum gave the ball away trying to throw crosscourt passes to Romeo Langford, including an ambitious left-handed toss that Cedi Osman intercepted and turned into a layup that broke a tie at 81 with 4:10 to go.
Thirty seconds later, Tatum tried to drop off a pass on the baseline to Robert Williams and lost it out of bounds. Tatum also airballed a late-clock 3-pointer with 1:15 to go that led to a shot clock violation with the game tied at 87.
On the final play of the game, coach Ime Udoka drew up a play for hot-handed Dennis Schroder -- whose baseline fadeaway off an underwhelming isolation charge missed as the Cavaliers escaped with a win -- instead of going back to Tatum (one night after Tatum missed a chance at a winner at the end of regulation against the Bucks).
Tatum’s usage rate is a career-high 31.5 percent but his points per shot attempt is a career low 97.6 (down from a robust 116 last season). After a summer in which playmaking was the buzzword in his quest to expand his game, Tatum's assist rate has dipped this year (down nearly 4 percent to 15.8 this season, per Cleaning the Glass data).
Tatum entered Saturday’s game shooting just 51 percent at the rim and 37 percent on all midrange shots. A ghastly 24.4 percent of his shots are coming out of isolation (up from 18.6 percent last year) and he’s averaging just 0.84 points per play, per Second Spectrum data. He’s shooting a meager 33.8 percent in those instances. He’s had more success as a pick-and-roll ball-handler and yet only 16.7 percent of his offensive plays are coming in that play type. His transition opportunities have taken a dive, too, as has his production in those instances.
Maybe most glaring, Tatum has really struggled in the clutch (game within five points, final five minutes). He’s shooting just 38.8 percent in those instances but the numbers really dip in the biggest moments. A jumper over a fallen Osman on Saturday was Tatum’s first bucket in the last 30 seconds of a game within three points (it tied Saturday’s game at 89 with 29.4 seconds to go). He had previously been 0-for-7 shooting in the final minute of any game within five points. He’s missed three shots in the last 10 seconds of a one-possession game.
It’s all very un-Tatum like. Some of his struggles fall back on Udoka, who has to put him in the best spots and actions to thrive. It’s on Tatum’s teammates to knock down shots that can pry some of the attention away from him when he’s routinely seeing double teams or worse.
Tatum has chided himself about his struggles on social media, suggesting it’s all part of his growth. There’s a good chance he’ll break out loudly soon enough and we’ll look back at this as some sort of strange blip.
But we also thought that after five games. Now we’re creeping up on 15 games.
Asked about Tatum’s slump and how he might be able to help him, Schroder stayed positive about his teammate after Saturday’s collapse.
"He is one of the best players in this league,” said Schroder. "I mean, he's five years in, he's got this figured out. At the end of the day, he's doing everything right. He's working. He's doing everything, every day -- going into the gym, being the first guy in, last guy out.
"At the end of the day, you're taking him all day. I’m taking him all day. I'd go to war with him. At the end of the day, he's going to figure it out, whatever it is, what he's gotta do. So I guess I'll talk to him. Like I said before, take it to the basket little bit more, put the pressure on the refs. But at the end of the day, he's doing a great job and we're just going to keep getting better.”
Udoka was a bit more pointed with his assessment after a reporter noted Tatum’s frustrated body language.
"A little frustration on missed shots, letting it affect him on the other end," said Udoka. "Just got to play through that. Having some tough shooting nights, and we talked about him impacting the game in other ways. But got frustrated, played in the crowd a little bit, had some turnovers there late, some sloppy ones, and like I said, he has to be able to impact the game when he’s not scoring in the ways he has in the past, which he can do."
Tatum is going to make shots soon enough. The more important progress will be improving his decision-making and continuing to find ways to impact the game even beyond scoring.
The Celtics' offense is not good enough to waste possessions. The defense is too good to allow teams to generate easy chances because you didn’t get back fast enough. No amount of complaining to officials is going to get whistles the way that consistently attacking the basket will aid that cause.
It’s all part of evolving into a superstar player. The sort of top-10 player that Tatum yearned to be entering the year.
The slump will end. The growth, beyond shot-making, needs to be a priority for a long time after.