Hollinger: How the Tatum-led Celtics could be a sign of a larger NBA trend

Hollinger: How the Tatum-led Celtics could be a sign of a larger NBA trend

BOSTON — So … can we talk about Jayson Tatum for a minute?

Look, this is a sensitive topic for fans, and it sounds like I’m raining on the parade to bring it up, but I think it’s an important thing to discuss because it says a lot about where the NBA is right now.

So let me start this off by saying that Tatum is an awesome player, a first-team All-NBA selection who finished sixth in the MVP voting. He’s well on his way to Springfield regardless of how this series turns out. As a player archetype, he’s one of the rare, coveted, big, ball-handling wings every contender needs to have on its roster.

And yet … Boston’s run to the NBA Finals hasn’t exactly been a tour de force from the team’s best player. His 26-point, nine-assist effort in Wednesday’s Game 3 win against Golden State was fine and all — he shot 9-for-23 — but he’s made barely a third of his shots in the series (20-of-59) and is closing in on a postseason record for turnovers.

Overall, his playoff PER of 18.6 ranks 21st, not only behind luminaries like Luka Doncić and Giannis Antetokounmpo, but also behind Jalen Brunson, Jordan Clarkson and Kevon Looney. One can make a strong argument Tatum hasn’t been the best player on the court in any of Boston’s four playoff series. In fact, he hasn’t even been the best player on his own team in these finals. (Jaylen Brown would seem a more probable winner of NBA Finals MVP if you held a vote today.)

I say this not to dump on Tatum. Being the best player on any team at this level is an insanely high bar. Instead, my point is that Tatum this postseason hasn’t been that dude, and the Celtics are two wins from the championship anyway.

And that, in turn, is a rather violent departure from how things have worked out in recent postseasons. The list of NBA champions without a top-three player in the league, or at least an alpha dog on such a heater that he momentarily ascends to that level (say, Dirk Nowitzki in 2011 or Dwyane Wade in 2006), is an amazingly brief compendium, particularly in recent times.

It’s a once-a-decade phenomenon, if that. From LeBron to Durant to Curry to Kawhi to Giannis, to Shaq and Kobe and Duncan before them, to Hakeem and Jordan in the ’90s and Bird and Magic in the ’80s, the alpha dogs have owned the postseason. Teams built around players even one tier below that have come tantalizingly close — think of the 2000 Blazers, 2002 Kings, 2020 Heat and countless Suns teams — but rarely have they broken all the way through.

We’ve had only rare exceptions to that rule of thumb: the 2004 Pistons, the 2014 Spurs and the 1989 and 1990 Pistons. Four teams in four decades, basically.

In fact, go back through that history since 1980 or so and ask yourself this question: On how many of those teams would Tatum be the best player? The four teams above, and … that’s probably it, right?

But there’s a larger point here, about the Celtics and the league. Not since the 2014 Spurs have we seen a team cruise to the championship without having a superduperstar at its core. (Tim Duncan was an all-time great player, of course, but by 2014, he was 38 years old and averaged 15 points per game. Kawhi Leonard was at the opposite pole, just 22 years old and scoring 12 a night.)

Even those Spurs won partly because of a once-in-a-generation life hack: the realization that going all-out to win road back-to-backs in January didn’t matter, and they could have much fresher players by June if they selectively rested players. They ran circles around the weary Heat that spring, and the rest of the league quickly emulated them.

These Celtics, on the other hand, are winning because of the depth of talent on their roster, an eight-deep collection of good-to-excellent players who provide an opponent with few weak links to attack.

They may not have a Giannis or a LeBron, but they have two All-Star-caliber wings, seven All-Defense-caliber defenders in their top eight and the ability to play big or small depending on the opponent. The roster has enough resilience to survive injuries to Robert Williams and Marcus Smart; enough defensive flexibility to have rock-solid schemes for Kevin Durant, Giannis and Steph Curry; and enough offensive pressure points to attack weak defenders anywhere on the floor.

This, in turn, may be more of a sign of the league’s evolution than any unique element of this particular Celtics team. A year ago, for instance, Phoenix nearly pulled off a similar feat, finishing two wins from the title with a similar setup. The Suns followed that up with a league-best 64 wins this season. Devin Booker is great, but he’s in a similar class with Tatum — a top-10 guy, but not quite in the league’s uppermost crust. Yet Phoenix won big by offering opponents few weaknesses to probe.

Also, while I’m focusing on the Celtics since they’re ahead in the series, this same idea applies to nearly the same extent if Golden State wins. Yes, it would be another crown for Curry, but this would be the 34-year-old version coming off a down year by his standards. Sans Durant and no longer at the mid-decade apex of his powers, Curry is much closer now to Tatum territory in the league’s hierarchy — second-team All-NBA, eighth in MVP voting. But he’s surrounded by a more flexible, deeper, switchier supporting cast.

Zooming out to the bigger picture, we’re used to the NBA being a superstar-driven league. But by and large, the superstars haven’t been around for a while this spring. Of the league’s current consensus Mount Rushmore (Giannis, Durant, Nikola Jokić, Joel Embiid, Doncić and arguably LeBron James), only Doncić played in the conference finals.

And I think there is something telling and significant about that. In the switch-heavy, supermax-paying, 3-point spacing NBA of 2022, a team’s postseason success is driven more by the strength of its weakest link and less by the greatness of its best player.

Let’s not overstate this: Stars matter and are always going to carry the mail to a certain extent. They often define the terms of who else is playable. You’re not a “switchable” big if you can’t switch onto a Curry or Doncić in a playoff series. You’re not a playmaker if you can’t playmake against the Marcus Smarts and Draymond Greens on the other side. You’re not a shooter if you can’t shoot with Robert Williams or Jaren Jackson Jr. flying out in your face.

But the NBA is changing. The rise of switching defenses, spacing schemes and high traps has made the game more “weak-link” dependent than arguably any time in its history. Switching leans on the idea that a team’s worst defender can still hold his own better than a scrambling help-and-recover approach … but that means the worst defender still needs to be good enough to check the other steam’s superstar. Enter the Celtics, who are so rock solid from top to bottom that the Heat often found themselves targeting Derrick White in the conference finals. Derrick White!

Yes, the Celtics aren’t switching quite as much against Golden State, but they’re still counting on their bigs to contain the best shooter of all time at or above the 3-point line. Moreover, one can’t help but notice the larger trend line running throughout this postseason. The Celtics feasted on the shortcomings of the back end of the Nets roster, had more injury resilience than the Bucks in a series where both teams lost key players and preyed on Miami’s weakest links at both ends.

It wasn’t just them. Miami picked apart a Philly team featuring Embiid and James Harden, the Durant-less Warriors made the finals thanks to a much deeper, more varied roster, and Golden State’s toughest test in the West came from a ridiculously deep Memphis team that had the league’s second-best regular-season record.

Of course, you can argue this is all just a blip in the larger course of basketball history. Perhaps this “trend” I’m arguing wouldn’t be a trend at all if Khris Middleton had been healthy and Kawhi Leonard didn’t need knee surgery. We could just be in a window between dominant teams, one that allows a 51-win team to play a 53-win team in the finals. But I don’t think that’s what is happening here.

If so, it has a lot of implications: for how teams build their salary-cap profiles, for what skill sets and positions teams choose to draft and pay and even for how the league markets itself and its biggest games. (Maybe selling everything as a one-on-one battle between superstars isn’t the way to go?)

In the big picture, then, Tatum’s unremarkable finals as the best player on a potential eventual champion may be the most interesting thing to come out of this postseason. It might be an outlier, but it feels more like the start of a trend.


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(Photo of Jayson Tatum: Kyle Terada / USA Today)

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