After a sensational rookie campaign that included a blistering playoff run, Jayson Tatum, the young Celtics Phenom that was the talk of the NBA for the entire summer, has had a very blah sophomore season. Many people around the NBA and fans alike proclaimed him as the next great bucket getter. In fairness, the combination of Tatum’s silky smooth game, advanced scoring arsenal, and the fortitude to go toe to toe with LeBron James in an Eastern Conference Finals game seven, was good enough reason to believe he would in fact make a leap this season. That same silky smooth game that made Tatum the prized piece of the Brooklyn Nets pillaging, also happened to distract us from some of the short comings that has led to his perfectly fine but not spectacular year two.
Now I don’t want to make excuses for him, but the Celtics have had a pretty tumultuous year that has kind of made everyone on the team sans Kyrie struggle on the court at some point. From Brad Stevens and Danny Ainge on down, the team has been a mystery. I wrote earlier this season about how the loaded roster was a “Good Problem” to have (https://www.hardwoodherald.com/blog/celticsgoodproblems), but as we’ve seen bare out, good problems have become bad problems. Sometimes too much depth has consequences. Stevens has tried to appease everyone and it has caused some, um, issues. Add in some murky leadership from its star player and some trade rumors and you have the recipe for a contentious mixed bag of a basketball season.
Ainge is aware of the too much talent problem, which is why he tried convincing the Pelicans to wait until the off season to trade Anthony Davis. What we still don’t know, is if Ainge is willing to put Tatum on the table to get the deal done. There have been rumblings going both ways and Kyrie’s potential exit in free agency has made the situation even murkier. If Kyrie does in fact leave, the question becomes should the Celtics put Tatum on the table? It’s a tricky question and one we may be able to answer by looking to the not so distant past.
In the late 2000’s the Chicago Bulls had been going through a similar rebuilding effort that involved another one and done Duke small forward who loved the mid-range shot and a trade involving the robbery of a New York basketball franchise. The Duke forward was Luol Deng, and Deng similarly had a superb playoff run very early in his career that gave the NBA community the impression that he was destined for greatness.
Deng was a monster in his year two playoff run, averaging 23 points and 9 rebounds, with a PER of 22 and a 58TS% (which was especially impressive because of all of those long two’s in the video! Analytics nerds are cringing hard at the shot selection in 2007). The Bulls swept the defending champion Miami Heat before losing to the Billups led Pistons in a competitive six game series. Nobody had any expectations for that young Bulls team but on the backs of its young core they were able to make an unexpected competitive playoff run. A playoff run similar to that of the 2017-18 Boston Celtics. When the Celts lost Hayward and Kyrie nobody really had any reason to expect the Celtics to even get by the Bucks, let alone go on such an impressive playoff run.
With unexpected success comes expectations. The summer following the Bulls 2007 playoff run ended up full of trade rumors built on the back of Luol Deng’s unexpected playoff jump. From Kobe Bryant to Pau Gasol to Kevin Garnett the Bulls failed to include Deng in trade packages to bring in a superstar player to add to their core. Deng was young and had come off of a playoff run that could have convinced you that the combination of his age, contract, and untapped potential was worth more than the established superstars who were already in the prime of their career. That line of thinking was very obviously wrong as we know how the rest of the story goes. All three superstar players went on to win championships, the trade rumors messed with the young Bulls heads and they missed the 08 playoffs, they were fortunate enough to win the Rose lottery, and then unfortunate enough to deal with Rose’s knee issues from which they have yet to fully recover.
Tatum has dealt with similar expectations this season that he has failed to deliver on. Deng never took that next step as a player; for Tatum, there’s still time to salvage a season in which many of his draft class contemporaries may have matched or surpassed him as a prospect. If Tatum delivers another deep playoff run in which he displays an assertiveness and willingness to attack the basket, then he can regain the momentum and value he entered the season with.
And that scenario leads Ainge to the toughest decision he’s had to make since 2007. If Kyrie leaves, does he still pursue Anthony Davis and put Tatum on the table? It’s tricky because of Davis’ contract status, but history says that he should. Even with a playoff run that brings back the Tatum hype, there’s a more than good chance that Tatum never impacts the game the way Davis can. This is the moment that Ainge has been waiting for. The Bulls fell in love with Luol; a valuable piece and a beloved teammate, but ultimately a player that the organization failed to capitalize on his max value. That hesitancy may have caused the Bulls a championship. When Ainge ruthlessly moved Isaiah Thomas he showed a willingness to move a beloved player for the betterment of the franchise. This summer we’ll see if he has the stones to do it again with his prized jewel.