Each week during the 2022-23 NBA season, we will take a deeper dive into some of the league’s biggest storylines in an attempt to determine whether the trends are based more in fact or fiction moving forward.
The Boston Celtics are clearly the NBA championship favorites
In a hallway beneath TD Garden, following a recent win over the Miami Heat, Boston Celtics star Jayson Tatum raced his son Deuce from one end to the other, letting the 5-year-old beat him to the locker room, where the boy received more of a hero’s welcome than the father who just scored a season-high 49 points.
Deuce was born on the day his dad logged his first NBA double-double, seven weeks into his rookie year.
“That was the biggest year of my life, right?” Tatum said between games in the NBA Finals this past June. “Starting this new chapter in my career, I just had a child. My mindset was not to sacrifice either. I was going to be the best father I could, as well as the best basketball player. There was no guideline or exact way to do it. It was all about what was natural. … I’m around him every day. Being able to go through this journey together, because I was 19 when I got drafted, it’s like we’re growing up together. As he’s gotten older, I’m going through my career, sharing these moments, experiencing this together as we grow up.”
We should’ve known nine days later, when Tatum took the podium at the lowest moment of his professional career, that a season-ending Game 6 loss to the Golden State Warriors would fuel that growth, not inhibit it.
“It’s hard,” Tatum, as dejected as we had seen him in five NBA seasons, said at the time. “It’s hard getting to this point. It’s even harder getting over the hump and winning it. It’s been a long journey, a long process. That’s what I took from it: It’s tough. You’ve got to take it up another level to do what we want to do.”
Only the brashness of youth could convince Tatum that fatherhood and reaching the pinnacle of his sport are not separate burdens to shoulder but one purpose to fulfill. Only maturity and command beyond his 24 years fosters family and team at once, as one. Only greatness reserves seats for both at a podium in June.
Those traits do not wilt in the face of defeat. They thrive. We should have never questioned how Tatum’s Celtics would respond to their championship shortfall. He is the embodiment of the Kaizen growth mindset and sandcastle metaphor respectively preached by executive Brad Stevens and head coach Joe Mazzulla.
There are two ways a team can respond when their coach shows his players a picture of a sandcastle and asks them how they’re going to build theirs each day before the tide forces them to rebuild anew tomorrow. This is straight dad stuff, and you’re more likely to embrace the lesson when your best player lives it daily.
As Deuce prepares to enter kindergarten, his father is spreading his wings as a superstar. Tatum was a first-team All-NBA selection last season and returned a bona fide MVP candidate this season. Critics called for him to attack the basket and play through contact more often, and he has responded with a career-high 8.2 free-throw attempts per game. Tatum’s 30.5 points per game and 62.3% true shooting are a direct result.
You could argue he is the most complete player alive. There are no holes in his game. He can score from every level, create something from nothing for anyone and defend every position. More than his mastery of skills is the verve with which he plays. It is as contagious on the court as it is in the hallways of TD Garden.
It helps that the Celtics have surrounded Tatum with teammates equally invested in their growth together. Jaylen Brown has entered the All-NBA chat. Their backcourt is so deep that Payton Pritchard rarely ever plays. Bouncy All-Defensive center Robert Williams III has yet to make his season debut, and it hasn’t prevented their ascent one bit, because five-time All-Star Al Horford mans the middle, six-time All-Star Blake Griffin spells him on the second night of back-to-backs, and Luke Kornet backs up both admirably.
Tatum and Brown are the league’s best duo, and it’s not close. They are averaging 57.2 points per game combined, same as Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant on the vaunted 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers. When Tatum rested against the Washington Wizards, Brown dropped a game-high 36 points. In the two games Brown has missed this season, Tatum scored a total of 78 points. Beyond statistics, they have achieved the sort of understanding necessary to coexist like few teammates ever can — at a championship-worthy level.
Their investment in each other’s success has permeated every corner of the locker room. Tatum is setting more screens than any other star wing, and Brown has nearly doubled the number of screens per game he set last season. Teammates have followed suit, orchestrating a symphony of screens around them, and the Celtics are producing a league-best 1.121 points per chance on 54.1 off-ball screens per 100 possessions.
The space created by the attention paid to the two stars has Malcolm Brogdon, Grant Williams, Al Horford, Sam Hauser and Derrick White shooting a combined 46% on 20.5 attempts from 3-point range per game. All five rank in the top 16 among players who have attempted at least 80 3-pointers this season, and it feels sustainable, as NBA tracking data registers 94% of their 483 3-point attempts as either open or wide open.
In turn, the two star wings operate in the space Boston’s shooting provides, and the result has been 119.9 points per 100 possessions, an offensive rating that would obliterate the NBA record by almost a full point.
After a slow start that was expected in the absence of Robert Williams, whose return is imminent, Boston’s defense has climbed into the top five in non-garbage minutes (and top three in recent weeks), according to Cleaning the Glass. The defense with Williams led the NBA in 2021-22 and was nearly four points better than the next-best unit once they leveraged his roaming rim-protector role in the second half of last season.
If the execution on that end approaches the heights they have reached offensively, the 66-win pace they are currently tracking could approach 70, so long as they stay healthy and don’t release their foot from the gas. Their master class was already in session for a road victory on Wednesday, when the Celtics took a 94-89 lead midway through the third quarter against the Phoenix Suns, then the Western Conference’s top seed.
The New Orleans Pelicans are the only team within four points of Boston’s net rating in meaningful possessions (+10.5), and the Celtics had them beat with 15 minutes left at the Smoothie King Center.
Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Milwaukee Bucks (+5.9) are next closest and clearly the greatest threat to Boston’s title chances. The argument that Khris Middleton’s presence would have flipped last season’s seven-game Eastern Conference semifinals series is a sound one. It also ignores the continued rise of Tatum and Brown, the addition of Brogdon and how diminished Robert Williams was in that same series.
The Celtics get their first shot this season at the defending champion Warriors on Saturday night. It will be an aptitude test to see where each team stands six months removed from their last meeting. Golden State has been hovering around .500, feeling its age, the loss of its depth and the need for a roster shakeup. Boston had the Warriors on the ropes with five minutes left in Game 4 of the Finals, but Golden State taught the Celtics a lesson about the amount of poise it requires to graduate into a champion. Tatum took notes.
He is firmly on that next level he referenced in his exit interview from the Finals. Tatum has risen from precocious prospect to All-Star, fringe All-NBA performer, superstar and MVP favorite. His team has fallen in line behind, taking the necessary steps towards a championship in three conference finals appearances since his arrival in 2017. You can start etching Tatum’s Hall of Fame plaque now, and all he has left are the accolades he adds to the bio below his name. A first championship isn’t just on his horizon. It’s in full view.
We are witnessing a growing legend script the legacy he will leave to his son, who, after the recent win over rival Miami, bounded out of Boston’s locker room, bolting to his grandmother, as his dad got back to work.
Determination: Fact. The Boston Celtics are clearly the NBA championship favorites.
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