Jayson Tatum

NBA Rumors: Execs believe this dynamic 'upended' Celtics last season

NBA Rumors: Execs believe this dynamic 'upended' Celtics last season

Why did the Boston Celtics' 2018-19 go off the rails? ... How much time do you have?

Here's the prevailing theory: Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, who both missed the 2017-18 playoffs, struggled to assimilate into a roster that reached Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals without them, creating deep chemistry issues on a roster supposedly brimming with talent.

According to Bleacher Report's Ric Bucher, executives around the league apparently buy that theory, but more specifically believe the contract structure of the Celtics' most important players also played a role in their demise.

"A player salary structure that doesn't reflect the pecking order in value and contributions can cause dissension," Bucher wrote Tuesday. "Several executives believe that is the dynamic that upended the Boston Celtics last season."

As Bucher points out, Hayward was Boston's highest-paid player last season at $31.2 million but was far from its best player, averaging just 11.5 points per game as he recovered from a serious ankle injury.

Meanwhile, players earning a fraction of that salary on their rookie contracts -- namely Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier -- either outperformed Hayward or believed they could after the success they found in the 2017-18 season.

"In that situation you have Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum and Terry Rozier making names for themselves and hadn't got paid yet," one "player-turned-executive" told Bucher. "They got a taste of the Eastern Conference Finals, they go seven games, and all of a sudden Kyrie and Gordon Hayward are back the next year and everything changes. It's a tricky situation."

Compensation rarely is an accurate reflection of talent on any NBA roster, as players often get big paydays as a result of success they had while earning less money. (Just ask Rozier.) But Bucher points out that players are "keenly aware" of what their contemporaries make and that disproportionate salaries can affect locker room dynamics.

There obviously were other factors at play for the Celtics last season, but with Kemba Walker coming to Boston on a four-year, $141 million maximum deal, they'll need to set egos aside to avoid more drama in 2019-20.

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Celtics need Tatum to become a no-questions-asked superstar in Year 3

Celtics need Tatum to become a no-questions-asked superstar in Year 3

A couple of things happened this week that made me think of Jayson Tatum. 

First, the Sixers signed Ben Simmons to a five-year max extension ahead of the final year of his rookie contract. Then, Bleacher Report put out its list of five breakout stars for the coming season, defined as players who had yet to become All-Stars but could in 2019-20. A command + F of "Tatum" yielded zero results. 

Both things should jump out at you with regard to Tatum. If he plays his cards (basketball) right, he's getting a contract like Simmons', either next summer or at the conclusion of his deal. 

But that list tells you at least some NBA observers don't see that happening, because that contract doesn't come unless Tatum ascends to the upper-echelon of NBA stars. We've assumed he would since his promising rookie season and subsequent playoff run, but Year 3 is the time for Tatum to actually start reaching for that ceiling. 

What if it doesn't happen? 

For starters, I'll cry myself to sleep every night, but this isn't about me. It's about the Celtics, who had one of the best players in the league and saw him mess up the team while he was here and the cap situation when he left. 

The Celtics more or less need Tatum to become that level of star, minus the headache. They need a peer for Kemba Walker, one who could even surpass the UConn product in the prime years of his career. 

That it didn't happen in Year 2 was frustrating. Tatum's points went up from 13.9 to 15.7 and his rebounds went from exactly five a game to six. Yet his player efficiency rating went down from 15.29 as a rookie to 15.13 in his second season, the latter of which ranked 138th in the league. The eye test didn't do major favors relative to expectations either, as his propensity for long 2s left everyone quick to angrily point to his offseason workouts with Kobe Bryant. 

In the end, Tatum's second year looked more like Jaylen Brown's second year than most probably anticipated. He scored more, but Tatum's .450 field goal percentage and .373 clip on 3s were lower than Brown's marks (.465, .393, respectively) in his second year. 

So, now the Celtics, having experienced a net loss of one star (Kyrie, Horford out; Kemba in), need another star. Ruling out Brown would be shortsighted, and I'm still not sure why so many have jumped ship completely on Gordon Hayward. 

Yet, Tatum is the one that seems like the sure thing, and it hasn't happened all the way yet. If he doesn't become an All-Star-caliber player this season, what was once considered the luxury of Brown and/or Hayward becoming great will become a necessity if the Celtics want to make any sort of noise this season. 

I think Tatum makes that step and becomes a fringe All-Star. Between his pedigree and his talent, it's seemingly within his grasp, but if he doesn't make that leap, it will hurt a hell of a lot more than it would had the Celtics been able to secure a multi-year commitment from Anthony Davis and/or Irving. 

That longterm plan took a big hit this summer. Tatum's the guy who can put it back on track. If he does and the Celtics find any frontcourt help, the Celtics can set themselves up to be one of the top teams in the East for years. If his development stalls, the C's could be looking at either continued roster shakeup or years in the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. 

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Kemba Walker's first challenge in Boston: Leading this Celtics team back on track

Kemba Walker's first challenge in Boston: Leading this Celtics team back on track

The Kemba Walker Era begins, in earnest, on Wednesday afternoon when the Celtics formally introduce their latest maximum-contract signing at the Auerbach Center.

Walker won’t inherit quite the same burden of expectations that some of Boston’s previous big-ticket splurges did upon their arrival. When Al Horford and Gordon Hayward signed on — the latter’s entry coupled with the offseason acquisition of Kyrie Irving — the Celtics’ ceiling raised a bit and the team was perceived closer to title contention.

Walker arrives to a somewhat flawed roster, one that still doesn’t feel quite set even after a busy summer. There are question marks in the frontcourt with the departure of Horford, Aron Baynes, and Marcus Morris, and the team’s younger players must reassert themselves.

The more immediate pressure on Walker is leadership. As the Celtics attempt to wash the bitter taste of last season out of their mouths, Walker must prove he is the palette cleanser. And while those that have spent time around Walker have gushed about his by-example leadership, his biggest task might essentially be doing what Irving couldn’t last season: Getting the best out of those around him.

Walker is no stranger to being the face of a franchise. That’s been his role the better part of the past eight seasons in Charlotte. In Boston, the three-time All-Star will face a harsher spotlight, but one that will also bathe him in affection if he is to get the most out of his new teammates.

By all accounts, Walker is eager for the challenge. In the goodbye he penned to Charlotte, he was emphatic about a desire to show that he is a winner. In an arena with 17 banners, there’s always a pressure to compete — regardless of the varying heft of expectations — and the quickest path to endearment is simply winning.

What Walker says at Wednesday’s introduction will set the tone for his tenure as the new face of the franchise. That’s a spotlight he should be able and willing to share if Hayward reverts to his old form, or if Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown make the leaps that many have been waiting for. Walker can expedite all of that, both with his play and his words.

Jim Calhoun, Walker’s college coach at the University of Connecticut, was emphatic that Walker would make his teammates better. After the Celtics emerged as frontrunners for Walker last month, Calhoun gushed about the way he could lead.

"I think the big thing is that he makes Tatum, he makes Brown, he helps Gordon Hayward come back. He makes a lot of terrific players be exceptional players,” said Calhoun. "There are very few guys you're going to get in basketball -- not only are they really good, but they make others better both psychologically, winning-wise … He's a special talent who can make other players better.”

Added Calhoun: "He brings special things to his teammates. Trust me, I was always amazed at how much his teammates loved him and followed him.”

Walker will be quizzed Wednesday about his leadership. He’ll be asked for his opinions on his new teammates. There is no reason to think he won’t say all the right things and, soon, he’ll get the chance to prove he means them.

A year ago, Celtics fans were clamoring for nothing short of a trip to the Finals. Now, it feels like most would sacrifice some wins for a spike in likability. Expectations can surge again if the Celtics show potential on the court but, right now, Celtics fans yearn for a team they can simply wrap their arms around (hence the lovefest that enveloped the spunky summer league squad in Vegas).

Walker can start the healing process from last season on Wednesday. After two stars exited, he can emphasize his desire to be here. He can express excitement about the potential of this group, while noting all the things he plans to do to help the Celtics reach it.

Walker formally receives the leadership baton on Wednesday and he needs to be ready to run with it.


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