John Minchillo/Associated Press
After a 109-103 road victory Saturday, Jayson Tatum and Boston Celtics are now up 3-0 on the preseason title-favorite Brooklyn Nets.
Yes, the same Nets who, in 2019, added Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in free agency. The same Nets who, in 2020, traded for James Harden (who, as you know, was later moved for Ben Simmons).
During what feels like a possible twilight for the NBA‘s superteam era, Brooklyn has been perhaps the most high-profile example of that form of team-building (though, the Los Angeles Lakers might want a word on that front).
And that was good enough to get them the shortest title odds before this season started. But less than a year later, it doesn’t look like it will be good enough to beat Tatum and the Celtics, who are playing as much like a superteam as anyone.
Of course, this didn’t just start with the playoffs. Boston has been dominant for over half the season. Since Dec. 31, their plus-12.7 net rating (net points per 100 possessions) doesn’t just lead the league, it’s 5.1 points better than the second-place Memphis Grizzlies and Phoenix Suns (as wide as the gap between second and 12th).
The only team in NBA history that pulled off a net rating over 12.7 for an entire season? The 1995-96 Chicago Bulls. Yes, those Bulls. The ones who went 72-10 and featured Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman (all Hall of Famers).
No, these Celtics probably aren’t the peak-of-the-powers Bulls or the Lightyears-era Golden State Warriors, but at least statistically, they’re playing like them. And Tatum ascending to borderline top-five status (or perennial All-NBA selection, or MVP candidate, or however you want to classify it), has a lot to do with it.
|Jayson Tatum by 2021-22 Catch-All Metrics|
|Dunks and Threes’ Estimated Wins||16.3||3rd|
|FiveThirtyEight’s Wins Above Replacement||13.5||2nd|
|Basketball Reference’s Wins Over Replacement Player||13.0||6th|
|Dunks and Threes, FiveThirtyEight, Basketball Reference|
Over that same Dec. 31-on stretch, Tatum averaged 27.9 points, 4.9 assists and 3.2 threes, with a 61.6 true shooting percentage. After going for 39 and six in the latest outing against Brooklyn, he’s up to 29.7 points, 8.0 assists and 3.0 threes for the series.
In a matchup that includes KD and Kyrie, there’s really no argument that anyone else has been the best player through three games. And that’s not just because of Tatum’s counting stats.
One of the driving factors (maybe the driving factor) behind Boston’s dominance since Christmas is a defense so connected it seems borderline telepathic. And Tatum is a key cog on that end.
He finished the season as the league leader in defensive win shares, a stat historically owned by centers and traditional power forwards (each of the top 43 defensive win share seasons in NBA history belong to bigs).
And after swiping six steals on Saturday, he’s now averaging 3.3 stocks (steals plus blocks) for the series. He’s also a big part of why Durant is shooting 36.5 percent from the field (after Game 3, KD is now 2-of-15 when defended by Tatum).
In the mold of some of his superstar predecessors on the wing, Tatum has become a game-changer on both sides of the floor. And, as ESPN’s Jeff Van Gundy said following Saturday’s broadcast, he’s now in that “best player on a championship team” tier.
You can’t win it all by yourself, though (just ask reigning MVP Nikola Jokic). And like I said before, Boston is playing like a superteam.
That 2021-22 defensive win shares leaderboard? Robert Williams III, Al Horford, Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown are fifth, tied for sixth, tied for eighth and tied for 15th, respectively.
Brown just averaged over 20 points for the third straight season. Williams is a dynamic rim runner who forces defense to collapse when he’s the screener in pick-and-rolls. Horford is one of the smartest passing bigs of his generation. And Smart, finally empowered as the starting point guard, just averaged a career-high 5.9 assists.
They aren’t backed up by the deepest bench in the league, but Derrick White is a good ball mover and great defender (tied for eighth in the NBA in defensive estimated plus-minus) who fits schematically on both ends. Grant Williams and Daniel Theis have plenty of experience in the system. And Payton Pritchard has the ability to take over two- or three-minute stretches (as he did on Saturday, when he had 10 points on 4-of-5 shooting). In the playoffs, you don’t need much more than that from a backup guard.
That’s especially true with a starting five and first option as good as Boston’s.
The idea that you need a top 5-10 player to win a championship has persisted for years for a reason. It’s generally true. In a sport that only has 10 guys on the floor at a time, a single player can have a huge impact. And Tatum is now the kind of player who can be the best of the 10 in any series from now through the Finals.