For someone who didn’t play in Sunday night's main event, Jayson Tatum sure made the most of All-Star Weekend.
He left us aww-ing when he brought his young son onto the court after the Rising Stars practice (with Danny Ainge joking he’s looking for an extra 2035 pick to select Deuce) and Tatum left us ooh-ing after his midcourt heave won the Skills Challenge. He erupted for 30 points in the Rising Stars game, playfully lobbied for a Taco Bell sponsorship after winning the skills competition, then boldly suggested the Celtics will deliver Banner 18 in June.
Alas, the Anthony Davis drama dominated the news cycle yet again. And Tatum’s name is never far from that conversation with the belief that Boston can put together the best package for Davis’ services this summer if it’s willing to include Tatum in a deal. For his part, Tatum has routinely shrugged off the trade chatter, stressing he can only control what he can control.
But Tatum did offer one other bold decree.
"I love being on the Celtics. I want to play there my whole career,” Tatum told ESPN during an on-camera interview at All-Star Weekend.
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Tatum has at least 28 games to force that issue. If he truly wants to be with Boston deep into the future, he could potentially play himself into the “off limits” category with a strong performance over the final 24 regular-season games and into the postseason.
Ever since Jan. 30, when Tatum first got asked about being dragged into Davis trade rumors, Tatum has played like someone with extra motivation. Over Boston’s last eight games, Tatum is averaging 18.3 points per game on 48.2 percent shooting while adding 7 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.1 steals, and 1.1 blocks per game. Tatum is plus-54 in plus/minus in that span (second best on the team, trailing only Gordon Hayward at plus-86).
Tatum put up 20 points and 10 rebounds in Boston’s win over the Philadelphia 76ers in the final week of the first half and has scored 20 points or more in four of his last eight games.
These glimpses leave Celtics fans leery of whether the team should include him in any deal for Davis, though most recognize it might simply be the cost to acquire an elite NBA talent. There’s a line of thought, though, that the steep price tag that will be required for Davis’ services might not be worth it if the Celtics put together another long playoff run, particularly with Tatum on the books at team-friendly money for the next couple years.
Tatum can make Ainge think harder about any Davis pursuit, and just how much the team would be willing to give up for him, by emerging an impact player during Boston’s stretch run and into the postseason. The more success the Celtics have in the playoffs, the more likely the team might be to simply allow this young core to develop together (and the team could still seek outside help with its other assets, including a bevy of future first-round picks).
MORE CHRIS FORSBERG
Tatum hasn’t made the sort of leap that many expected in Year 2, in part because of the absurd expectations established from the very moment he dunked on LeBron James in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. In the absence of that sophomore surge, it’s been easy for some Celtics fans to justify including Tatum in a deal that would land a certified top-5 talent like Davis.
But Tatum continues to show flashes of his future potential, all while Davis’ camp postured like the player didn’t envision a long-term future in Boston (even if that was just spin in hopes of forcing a deal to the Lakers before the deadline).
Tatum is having a solid season and it can be argued that he was Boston’s best option for an All-Star behind Kyrie Irving. Yes, he had a propensity for ill-advised long 2s early in the season — and Celtics fans are still blaming his offseason sessions with Kobe Bryant for his poor shot selection — but he’s attacking more often now and getting the charity stripe more frequently. His 3-point shot has defied him after a brilliant rookie season behind the arc and his scoring averages would pop a bit more if that shot became a more consistent weapon moving forward.
The Celtics have leaned heavily on Irving to carry them at times this season but their postseason success might hinge on the likes of Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Gordon Hayward being able to shoulder the load when teams try to bottle up Irving.
It’s not hard to see a correlation between Tatum’s success and that of the team. The Celtics are 23-0 when Tatum is +9 or better in plus/minus, and 29-2 when he’s +6 or better. They are 2-14 when Tatum is in the negative for plus-minus. This shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise considering Tatum plays the second most minutes on the team (31.2) but it’s still reflective that, if Boston wins his floor time, they put themselves in position to win the game.
A. SHERROD BLAKELY
For the season, Irving owns the best net rating on the team among all high-volume players (700+ minutes) at plus-8.9. Tatum sits right beside him at plus-8.8. Tatum has the best defensive rating among all of Boston’s starters at 103.2, or 2.5 points lower than Boston’s season average (which ranks fifth overall in the NBA). Tatum still has strides to make as an individual defender and must make defense a priority on every possession, but he clearly has the length to consistently disrupt on that end of the floor.
Tatum’s future is tantalizing to think about and the Celtics will certainly do all they can to make a Davis deal without having to include him. It’s simply hard to see any path to that possibility. Even if Brown has a great postseason, Boston’s pick stash might not be quite bountiful enough to sway the Pelicans without the inclusion of Tatum. The team must hope there’s only a small market of bidders to force New Orleans’ hand a bit.
What the team does might also hinge on the desires of Irving, who can opt out of his deal and explore free agency. If dealing for Davis could secure a commitment from Irving, the team has to consider it harder, despite the pain point in dealing a young talent like Tatum. Complicating matters: Tatum and Irving share an agent and have a strong relationship (Irving’s demands for more from the young players, notwithstanding).
As Tatum admitted: He can only control what he can control. A strong finish to the season gives Ainge more to think about. If Tatum wants to be here for his entire career, he has to play like a player that Ainge can’t deal.
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