Celtics forward Jayson Tatum is in the midst of another strong season and was nearly named a starter in next month’s All-Star Game, finishing fourth in a loaded Eastern Conference frontcourt group behind superstars Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, and Joel Embiid.
It would seem, then, that Tatum is a lock to be selected as one of seven All-Star reserves for the second consecutive year. But two of the NBA’s more prominent voices do not feel that way. During Thursday night’s “Inside the NBA” broadcast on TNT, Hall of Famers Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley both left Tatum off their lists of reserves.
Both chose Celtics wing Jaylen Brown, Knicks forward Julius Randle, Pacers forward Domantas Sabonis, Nets guard James Harden, Bulls guard Zach LaVine and Sixers guard Ben Simmons. And Barkley finished his group with Heat forward Jimmy Butler while O’Neal went with Hawks guard Trae Young.
“I didn’t see that,” Tatum said Friday night. “I mean, I’m sure some people last year didn’t have me on there ... But, I mean, everybody has their own respective opinion. I mean, I didn’t see it. So everybody has their opinion on who they think should make it. There’s a lot of guys that deserve to make it. And we’ll see.”
TNT analyst Kenny Smith and studio host Ernie Johnson both selected Tatum, and it should be noted that none of their crew has a vote. The reserves will be chosen by Eastern Conference coaches. But Barkley and O’Neal are two of the NBA’s more prominent and candid voices. So, do they have a point?
The case for Tatum:
▪ In the past, Celtics coach Brad Stevens has said his All-Star voting choices are influenced by the “fear factor.” In other words, what players on opposing teams keep him up at night as he tries to design ways to stop them? While Brown has been excellent this season, it is obvious that Tatum remains the one that defenses keep 10 eyes on at all times. He faces constant traps and double-teams and has done well to make the right play out of them, averaging a career-best 4.8 assists.
▪ The ballot returns offer the best tangible evidence that the opinions of Barkley and O’Neal are outliers. Tatum finished fourth among frontcourt players in the fan vote, and fifth in both the player and media votes. There are 12 players selected, so do the math.
▪ Yes, Tatum’s production dipped in the weeks after he returned from his bout with COVID-19, but it’s hard to hold that against him. He’s said that he continues to deal with some respiratory side effects, but the last two games might have provided evidence he has finally bounced back: He averaged 30 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists and shot 50 percent from the field.
▪ For the year, Tatum is averaging 25.8 points, 7.0 rebounds and 4.8 assists. Those are simple metrics, but they are All-Star numbers. He also remains a sturdy defender. With Tatum on the court, the Celtics have a 108.5 defensive rating, putting him ahead of both Brown and All-NBA defender Marcus Smart in that category. Lastly, Tatum was an All-Star and an All-NBA selection last season, so that gives him some equity.
The case against Tatum:
▪ Coaches tend to value winning, and the Celtics have not won very often this season. Their victory over the Hawks Friday night kept them from slipping below .500 for the first time this year, but they entered Saturday just a game and a half ahead of the eighth-place Hornets.
The Celtics’ record (15-14) isn’t bad, but it’s possible that coaches could decide that the team deserves one All-Star rather than two, and if that’s the case, Brown probably deserves the nod. On the other hand, aside from the 76ers and Nets, no team in the East has won much this season, and the 9-17 Wizards had Bradley Beal voted in as a starter. Also, O’Neal and Barkley combined to include Randle, LaVine, Young, and Butler, who all play for teams with losing records.
“Maybe in the past, it stands out when the top four, five, six teams have two or three players that are really carrying a load,” Stevens said. “Those people are in the highest contention for All-Star spots. This year, it’s a little bit more difficult to discern that just because … being at .500 or a couple games below .500 with all that some of these teams have gone through is pretty damn impressive. And I think that I have to weigh that in when voting and when looking at it.”
▪ Yes, Tatum’s numbers are generally impressive, but it’s partly because he’s just getting more opportunity. His minutes per game (35.3) and usage rate (29.9) are both career highs. The Celtics are outscoring opponents by 4.5 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, the lowest net rating of his career.
▪ While it’s hard to fault Tatum for his production dip after battling COVID-19, he did miss five of Boston’s 29 games, or 17.2 percent, so a coach could factor in the absences.
The verdict: Tatum has yet to take the next step to super stardom some were expecting this year, but he has been one of the 12 best players in the East. He should be among the All-Star reserves when they are announced Thursday.