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The Celtics stumbled their way through a trying regular season on several levels, but Jayson Tatum submitted another impressive campaign worthy of a closer look as voters consider their awards.
Tatum missed time with a case of COVID-19 so severe, he now uses an inhaler before games. When he returned, he struggled initially. In February, Tatum shot just 39.7 percent from the field and 31.6 from deep — down from season averages of 45.8 and 38.6 respectively.
Overall, however, Tatum put together one of his best seasons to date with career-highs in points (26.4), rebounds (7.4) and assists (4.3). Last season, he made his first appearance on an All-NBA team, earning a third-team slot.
If he does the same this year, Tatum is due for a major raise. Will he make it? Let’s take a closer look.
The league’s shifting designation for All-NBA selections makes this a complicated conversation.
Technically, voters can call Tatum a guard or a forward. That doesn’t really improve his chances, however, since plenty of other players have fluid positions as well. Per the NBA, Luka Doncic can be classified a guard or a forward. Joel Embiid can be a center or a forward as well.
Tatum isn’t going to make the cut as a guard with the likes of Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving, Chris Paul and others on the table.
The locks ahead of Tatum at forward seem to include Embiid (who voters can designate a forward so he and likely MVP Nikola Jokic can both make first team), Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James. James played just 45 games, but after yet another 25-7-7 season — his 11th — his lack of games likely won’t keep him out.
That leaves two slots and a lot of questions. Is Luka Doncic a guard or a forward? How about Jimmy Butler? Does Butler beat Tatum? Is Julius Randle a lock? How about Paul George? Zion Williamson was great, but his team isn’t even in the play-in game — will that be held against him?
Comparing Tatum and any of those players is an interesting exercise. Tatum scored more points more efficiently than Butler, but the Heat were better than the Celtics and Butler averaged nearly seven assists. Tatum outscored Randle as well, but Randle’s overall production combined with New York’s surprise success likely vaults him up. Statistically, Tatum and George had similar seasons (Tatum scored more, George was more efficient), but George and the Clippers won more games. Tatum and Williamson had nearly identical counting numbers, and Williamson was more efficient, but Tatum and the Celtics made the playoffs.
Statistically, Tatum’s season deserves a hard look from voters. He was 10th in the NBA in scoring on relatively efficient shooting. His usage was 98th percentile among forwards at 31 percent. He continued to improve around the rim, where he shot 68 percent (although he still only took 28 percent of his shots there — just 41st percentile league-wide).
Meanwhile, Tatum’s playmaking spiked. He assisted on 19.6 percent of Celtics field goals, which is in the 91st percentile among forwards.
With Tatum on the floor, the Celtics outscored opponents by 3.4 points per 100 possessions. Without Tatum on the floor, opponents outscored them by 2.1 points.
The case for Tatum is simple: He had a really good season, and he was crucial for a playoff team even though he struggled for nearly a month due to COVID-19. Will that be enough?
The early returns are split.
ESPN’s Zach Lowe listed Doncic as a first-team forward, which pushed James and Leonard to his second team and George and Randle to third. Lowe wrote that Zion Williamson was his final cut, but “you can’t go wrong with any of [Paul] George, [Bradley] Beal, [Kyrie] Irving, Williamson, [Donovan] Mitchell, [Devin] Booker, and maybe Tatum” for the final slot.
The Ringer’s Dan Devine left Tatum out as well. On Devine’s ballot, Randle moves up to second team while James falls to third team with Williamson. Devine pointed out that players like Tatum have performed well and played more games than James. However, Devine made a strong case for picking James over Tatum: “I don’t think any of them have played better; there are worse ways to resolve issues than by holding to the precept that, when in doubt, and if he’s an option, you should just go ahead and pick LeBron James.”
The Washington Post’s Ben Golliver included Tatum on his third team, noting (quite accurately) that “in a welcome development, Boston’s two-time all-star has flashed takeover ability in clutch situations more often since the all-star break.” Tatum beat Randle and Williamson on Golliver’s ballot.
Sport Illustrated’s Chris Mannix was undecided, but he said All-NBA third team is Tatum’s “sweet spot.”
If Tatum makes any All-NBA team, he qualifies for a greater percentage of the Celtics’ salary cap under a CBA provision known commonly as the “Rose Rule.” As previously noted, Tatum made All-NBA third team last season. Tatum signed a five-year, $163 million extension of his rookie contract — worth 25 percent of the salary cap.
Under the Rose Rule, however, Tatum is eligible for 30 percent of the salary cap if he makes a second All-NBA team in the past three years. His new number would be five years and roughly $195 million.
The Celtics can pay Tatum his new raise, but since they are over the cap, any extra dollar he earns is taxed. If Tatum makes All-NBA third team, offseason moves such as re-signing Evan Fournier will become very expensive.
The Celtics’ disappointing season seems likely to cost Tatum his award, even though his stats place him right at home among fringe All-NBA candidates.
That would be unfortunate for Tatum. The Celtics’ young superstar has a lot of All-NBA appearances in his future, but this would be the most lucrative one.
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