Maybe the most notable line from Brad Stevens’ 21-minute confab with reporters Monday in the aftermath of last week’s Kemba Walker trade came tucked midway through a glitchy Zoom call when Boston’s new president of basketball operations was discussing the sudden glut at the big-man spot.
"The ability to make our wings better is going to be a huge part of the people that will be around them,” said Stevens.
Said another way: The Celtics are officially all-in on building around the All-Star wing tandem of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Just about every decision the team makes moving forward -- whether it’s the next head coach or the teammates who will play alongside the Jays -- hinges heavily on who can best maximize their talents.
This is hardly surprising but it was good to hear it formally declared. For the past two seasons, Celtics brass have routinely lumped Walker and Marcus Smart into the conversation about the team’s core. And while Smart may be vital to whatever comes next -- his ability to thrive alongside the Jays will dictate his own future in green -- it’s clear Boston has recognized that the key to building a legitimate title contender revolves around getting every drop out of Tatum and Brown.
We already spotlighted Brown’s progress last week, so now it’s time to focus on three ways that Tatum can make the Celtics better moving forward.
1. The magic touch(es)
The Celtics moved on from Walker last week in large part because of the flexibility it provided moving forward with chasing a new third star. But part of what made Walker’s fit here clunky -- beyond his sporadic availability since January 2020 -- was that he was a ball-dominant guard who needed touches to thrive.
As Tatum and Brown blossomed, they required more touches to maximize their own potential and it became clear that finding a pass-first point guard who had better spot-up potential would be a better fit moving forward.
Whether it’s as point forward or otherwise, the Celtics absolutely have to put the ball into Tatum's hands more this season. Tatum ranked 19th in the NBA in touches per game last season at 77.7. Many of the names ahead of him are point guards who have naturally inflated touch numbers, but there is no league in the world in which Dennis Schroder should play nearly four fewer minutes per game and touch the ball more often than Tatum.
The top seven finishers in the MVP balloting touched the ball an average of 81.9 touches per game (that number, too, is slightly juiced by winner Nikola Jokic’s triple-digit touches). But the point here is simple: The best player on your team should touch the ball a whole lot and Tatum needs to touch it a whole lot more moving forward.
Just because he’s touching the ball more doesn’t necessarily mean Tatum's shot totals have to inflate dramatically, though as a scoring champion in the making, that wouldn’t be the worst thing. The Celtics need to put the ball in Tatum’s hands and Tatum has to more often make good things happen. That includes ...
2. A passing fancy
Part of what makes guys like LeBron James and Jimmy Butler so good is that they don’t just get their own points, they manufacture for everyone around them. This past season, James averaged 14.4 potential assists on 59.7 passes per game. That translated to 7.8 assists per night.
One of Boston’s biggest problems this past season was that Boston’s primary ball-handlers didn’t create a high enough volume of opportunities for others. In a league where 35 players created 10 or more assist opportunities per game, the Celtics didn’t have anyone inside the top 50. Marcus Smart topped the team at 8.6 potential assists per game (for 5.7 assists overall). Tatum and Walker both created 8.5 potential assists per game.
If we use the Clippers as a potential prototype for what the Brown/Tatum combo should be striving for, the duo of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George combined for 17.9 potential assists per game (and both players averaged 5.2 assists overall). All that on 78.4 passes per game. Tatum and Brown are at 14.2 potential assists per game (7.7 actual assists between them per game) on 80.2 passes per game.
Tatum and Brown need to learn how to maximize each other, and Stevens putting more ideal players around them can only aid that cause.
3. Recruitment mode
Tatum reportedly is heading to the Summer Olympics in Tokyo this summer. It’s a chance for him to step into a global spotlight and compete for his country. For the Celtics, the biggest benefit could be Tatum actively recruiting his favorite summer co-workers for the new third-star void in Boston.
With Walker’s departure, the Celtics have positioned themselves with increased flexibility to add a third star. There’s a (somewhat prickly) path to cap space after the 2022-23 season, and maybe even earlier depending on Boston’s ability to avoid splurges and maybe move Al Horford before the final year of his pact. Still, Horford’s deal gives the team an ability to make a pick-heavy offer for any disgruntled star that comes on the market as early as next season.
Oh, hey there Bradley Beal! If Tatum gets in the ear of his St. Louis pal and stresses that Boston is well-positioned to make a play for him if he ever wanted to move on, then Beal could power-play his way from Washington to Boston around the 2022 NBA trade deadline.
Maybe Beal isn’t even the player that Tatum (and Brown, too) want to play with most. There will be no shortage of talent around Tatum in Tokyo and we all know now that many super teams have been born on Team USA’s watch.
Stevens yearns to put players that accentuate the talents of the Jays around them. But he should want to put players who make the Jays most happy around them, too. Tatum the recruiter can do his part to aid that cause.
Editor's Note: We'll spotlight a different Celtics player every day by breaking down their 2020-21 campaign and what may lie ahead next season. Next up: Marcus Smart.