Jayson Tatum joined a Celtics team brimming with possibility.
Boston had just become the first playoff team to win the lottery. Even beyond a roster good enough to make the Eastern Conference finals and the No. 1 pick, the Celtics had a treasure trove of assets and flexibility. By trading down for Tatum, Boston got the draft’s best player and another valuable-looking pick.
The Celtics, it seemed, could contend for championships for the next decade.
Nearly four years later, Boston is 15-17, expensive and devoid of extra first-round picks.
Suddenly, it’s time to do what we do with stars on losing teams – speculate about their future. It’s now even more conspicuous Tatum negotiated a 2025 player option into his max rookie-scale extension last offseason.
“Obviously, I don’t want to leave Boston,” Tatum said. “I don’t have any intentions on that. It’s just more of a flexibility thing. But I love being here. I love this organization. I love the city. So, I don’t want people to view it as I’m trying to leave a year early. I don’t have any plans of that.”
Though Tatum’s 2025 player option feels ages away, you better believe the Celtics are considering how they’ll put their best foot forward with him and other teams are plotting how they can poach him. Even if Tatum intends to opt in or opt out to sign a new deal with Boston, this can’t be escaped: The player option allows him to leave sooner than he could otherwise.
The Celtics have suffered an stars/near-star exodus in recent years – Kyrie Irving, Al Horford and Gordon Hayward. Now, Boston must hope that doesn’t lead to Tatum and Jaylen Brown (whose contract expires in 2024) following out the door in an even larger unraveling.
“Here’s the biggest thing about Jaylen and Jayson is,” Celtics president Danny Ainge said on 98.5 The Sports Hub, “They’ve been shielded before because they’ve had other really good players and veterans around them.
“Now, it’s on them. Now, they’re the stars. And they’ve got the big contracts. And they got the All-Star nods. So, the microscope is on them.”
Make no mistake: This is a first-world NBA problem, one that appears worse only because Boston was in such good shape just a few years ago. Tatum (22) and Brown (24) are the youngest All-Star teammates since Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook with the Thunder and Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway with the Magic. Tatum and Brown are also wings, the NBA’s scarcest position. Many teams would love to trade their problems’ for the Celtics’.
Still, Boston has problems.
Kemba Walker – who’s due $73,669,500 – over the next two seasons is looking less like a star and more like an impediment. He’s a small guard on the wrong side of 30 with nagging knee issues. His situation has been heading south, and it’s hard to reverse the trend.
The Celtics’ other rookie-scale players – Robert Williams, Grant Williams, Payton Pritchard, Romeo Lanford and Aaron Nesmith – carry varying degrees of uncertainty. None have proven to be reliable high-level contributors, though they’re all young enough to get there.
Marcus Smart‘s injury has further exposed a team lacking sufficient depth.
“This is a me problem,” Ainge said on 98.5 The Sports Hub. “And I’m saying that I love my two young guys. They’re not perfect, and they’re learning, and this adversity is part of their growth and development. Not intentionally. It’s just the nature of the beast.”
Boston can still fulfill its championship promise. The Celtics still have all their own future first-round picks. Their young players can develop or maybe be traded. The $28.5 million Gordon Hayward trade exception is a valuable tool – if ownership is willing to add salary.
But the unending optimism around Boston is done. Building up will be far more difficult than it previously seemed.
Tatum insists he’s unfazed.
“That’s not really my job to kind of worry about trades or assets or things like that,” Tatum said. “I think my job is to go out there and perform.”
It’s a healthy attitude.
Similarly, Tatum downplayed money as a motivation for making an All-NBA team this season. If he makes one, that’d increase his compensation a projected $25,180,781 over the first four seasons of his extension:
Tatum soundly trails LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo in the race for the six All-NBA forward slots. That leaves two spots up for grabs between Tatum, Brown, Anthony Davis, Paul George, Zion Williamson, Zach LaVine, Julius Randle, Jimmy Butler, Khris Middleton and Bam Adebayo (most of whom could slide to other positions).
Tatum correctly recognizes he’s more likely to make an All-NBA team if the Celtics are winning. So, it’s an easy goal to pursue for the “right” reasons. Despite Ainge taking blame for Boston’s current struggles, Tatum isn’t running from responsibility.
“You want to be somewhere where they believe in you and they want you there, but it’s all of our fault,” Tatum said. “Myself, J.B., the team – we’re all in this together. So, I don’t think anyone is exempt.”
If Tatum – who has battled lingering effects from coronavirus – and the Celtics get everything together the rest of the season, he could get that super-max windfall. And his player option could allow him to earn far more money on his next deal.
In the 2024 offseason, Tatum would be eligible for a veteran super-max extension if he does any of the following:
Makes an All-NBA team in 2024
Makes All-NBA teams in both 2022 and 2023
Wins MVP in 2022, 2023 or 2024
Everything could fall into place for Tatum and the Celtics in the coming years. Again, those honors are more likely to come as the team is winning.
But there’s also a theory NBA salaries have gotten so high, stars have more flexibility to pick their teams. The league’s system is designed to give incumbent teams a financial advantage with their own players. But when players will earn hundreds of millions of dollars regardless, they’re more likely to consider factors other than where they’ll get 10s of millions more.
Tatum also has a growing endorsement portfolio, including an ad campaign with Ruffles.
His future looks bright. So does Brown’s.
And that’s a great start for the Celtics.
But the team is closer to square one of a rise than anyone would’ve expected.