Boston Celtics: It’s time to address Jayson Tatum’s struggles

Jayson Tatum #0 of the Boston Celtics (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
Jayson Tatum #0 of the Boston Celtics (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images) /

The Boston Celtics have had a shaky start to their 2021-22 season. Through 14 games, they hold a 7-7 record, which just isn’t good enough considering the level of talent on this roster. While the team seems to have figured things out on the defensive side of the ball recently (Boston’s opponents are averaging just 92.6 points per game over their last seven games), the offense just can’t seem to find any sort of rhythm.

The face of Boston’s offensive struggles this season has to be none other than Jayson Tatum. The star forward looks lost on the offensive end of the court, and the Celtics are stuck as a result. Missing Jaylen Brown for an extended period of time has certainly not helped, but that doesn’t change the fact that Tatum has been extremely underwhelming so far this season.

Tatum has shown signs of life recently, but it’s still a far cry from what he has showed us previously. After all, this is the guy that scored 40+ points six times over Boston’s final 24 games last season. Unfortunately, that version of Tatum has been missing for pretty much the entirety of the Celtics first 14 games this season, and until he solves his scoring woes, the Boston Celtics are going to continue spinning their wheels offensively.

The Boston Celtics will continue to struggle offensively as long as Jayson Tatum does

We all know Tatum is an extremely gifted basketball player. He is a threat to score at all three levels of the floor on offense, and when he gets hot, there are probably only a handful of players better than him in the league currently. But so far, this season has been full of a lot of clanks and airballs compared to the swishes we have become accustomed to seeing from Tatum.

Let’s start with the basic stats. Through the first 14 games, Tatum is taking 22.2 shots per game, which is the most of any player in the league. In a way, it makes sense; Tatum is Boston’s best scorer, and with Brown missing time, that has forced him to take a larger role in the offense.

The problem is that Tatum is only averaging 23.5 points per game, which is far too low considering the amount of shots he’s taken. Basically, Tatum is averaging one point for every field goal he attempts. See the issue with that?

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As you can probably concur, Tatum is shooting career lows across the board out of the gate this season. He’s shooting just 38.6 percent from the field, 31.6 from behind the arc, and even at the free throw line, he is shooting just 76.8 percent. All these numbers are well below the standard that Tatum has set for himself.

To show just how ugly these shooting splits are for Tatum, let’s take a look around the rest of the league. There are 10 other players in the NBA currently taking 20 plus shots a night. Of those ten, Tatum is the only one shooting below 40 percent from the field. Taking a large volume of shots isn’t necessarily a bad thing for Tatum, but if you are taking 20 shots a night, you better be hitting more than 38.6 of those shots.

So what gives? Why has Tatum suddenly turned into the most inefficient player in the league? The answer to the question is probably one Boston Celtics fans are familiar with, and it isn’t a good sign for Tatum’s development.

Throughout his career, Tatum has fallen in love with taking a myriad of difficult shots that he ends up missing more often than not. It’s been well-documented that Tatum idolized Kobe Bryant during his childhood, and he has certainly taken a liking to taking the types of shots Bryant became renowned for hitting. Tatum goes through streaks where he settles way too often for these types of shots, and so far that appears to be one of the main reasons for his scoring issues.

Remember earlier in Tatum’s career where he went through a phase where he simply refused to drive to the basket? We seem to be in that stage yet again. Tatum is driving to the basket, but not as much as he should be. Once again, he’s settling for far too many pull-up midranges and side-step three pointers that he loves taking, but doesn’t often hit.

Last season, Tatum seemed to find the sweet spot between his love for tough shots and getting to the hoop. The more Tatum drives to the hoop, the more it opens up his midrange game, as defenders will have to play him as if he’s driving to the paint. Instead, defenders are pressing Tatum further away from the hoop than last season, because he simply isn’t attacking the rim as often as he should.

Perhaps the most enlightening piece of evidence that supports this theory is Tatum’s expected field goal percentage, which measures exactly what you think it measures (the percentage of shots that a player is expected to make if you weren’t entirely clear on that). Tatum’s expected field goal percentage sits at a miniscule 44.4 percent. So what that means is Tatum isn’t even expected to hit half of the shots that’s he taking, which is quite a large issue.

The numbers paint the picture of Tatum as a player who basically treats NBA games as his own personal shootaround. While his effort to improve other areas of his game (his rebounding and overall defensive skillset have shown great improvement thus far) Tatum is still way too nonchalant on the offensive side of the ball. It’s hurt his game before, but now he’s doing it to an extent that we have never before seen.

Tatum spent most of the offseason bulking up, and he reported to training camp looking a lot bigger than he did the last time we saw him. Yet Tatum has reverted back to his old ways rather than taking his game to the next level. When Tatum wants to get to the hoop, he does so most of the time with ease. He’s so big now he can often just overpower his defender with a couple of steps.

That’s how the Boston Celtics need Tatum to play. The problem is that’s not how Tatum wants to play. Tatum seems enamored with the highlight reel shots that don’t often fall, but when they do, they look awesome. But that’s how you win basketball games.

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Questions have almost constantly been raised about Tatum’s commitment to winning games rather than making a couple of flashy plays, and maybe those concerns have some weight to them. We’ve already seen Tatum get criticized for constantly complaining to the officials about calls he’s not getting, which in turn impacts his ability to get back on defense. Maybe this is just how things are going to be with Tatum.

What’s clear though is that until Tatum decides to start driving to the paint again, the Celtics offense will continue to struggle. Maybe the return of Brown will change things, but that seems unlikely. Tatum’s struggles can only be fixed by one person, and until that person realizes it, the Boston Celtics will continue to exasperate themselves and their fan base.