Jayson Tatum’s $163 Million Contract Has Bought Him Overconfidence, Forcing His Underpaid Teammate to Keep the Boston Celtics Afloat

It’s already been an eventful season for the Boston Celtics, and not in a fun way. The Celtics are 4-5, last place in an improved Atlantic Division, and remain winless at home. Not to mention, star forward Jayson Tatum has been a major disappointment in the first season of his five-year, $163 million deal.

Boston’s struggles fall on the shoulders of more than one person. But Tatum’s performance thus far has sunk a Celtics team desperate to bounce back after last season’s 36-36 record. Fortunately, while the two-time All-Star has struggled to find his form, Jaylen Brown has managed to keep the Celtics from experiencing a total catastrophe.

Jayson Tatum is firing shots but not connecting

It’s fair to wonder what has gone wrong for Tatum in 2021-22. But we can effectively rule out a lack of confidence as a reason for his struggles.

Through nine games, Tatum has attempted a league-leading 201 field goals. He has 14 more than the next highest, Toronto Raptors forward OG Anunoby. However, he has made just 75 of them, placing him in a tie for 12th. His 126 misses, meanwhile, lead the league by a comfortable amount.

Taking more shots than anyone in basketball, Tatum’s scoring numbers have seen a solid decline. In 2020-21, the 23-year-old averaged a career-high 26.4 points on 45.9% shooting. This season, with around two more attempts per game, the St. Louis native is averaging 22.7 points on a career-low 37.3% clip. In addition, his 3-point percentage is now a poor 27.1%, while his free throws have fallen from 86.8% to 74.5%.

Tatum’s willingness to shoot the ball is a continuation of his performance in Boston’s playoff series against the Brooklyn Nets. In five games, #0 threw up 111 shots as well as 49 free-throw attempts. With Brown recovering from wrist surgery, Marcus Smart had the second-most shot attempts on the Celtics with 66.

Jaylen Brown has stepped up for the Celtics

As Tatum tosses up bricks, Brown is hitting the bottom of the net. Boston’s third overall pick from 2016 has been a huge life-saver for the Celtics early on.

The 25-year-old Brown has always shown flashes of dynamic scoring ability. But he has put it all together in each of the last two seasons. The former Cal Golden Bear averaged a career-best 24.7 points in 2020-21 on 48.4% shooting. This season, he’s improved to 25.6 points on 49.3% shooting, including a 39.7% clip from beyond the arc.

Headlined by a 46-point opening night against the New York Knicks, Brown has had 28 points or more five times in nine games. He’s also been held below 53.3% just three times. For reference, Tatum has one game where he finished above that percentage. And while Brown has tied Tatum with 75 field goals, he’s taken 49 fewer shots than his teammate to get there.

While Brown is nowhere near the poverty line, his contract looks like a bargain compared to Tatum’s. The sixth-year guard is in the second year of a four-year, $106.3 million extension. The money he’ll make in his final season ($28.5 million) is just a little more than what Tatum will make this season ($28.1 million), the first of his respective extension.

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It’s certainly better to go through a major shooting slump early in the season than around playoff time. But the C’s need their franchise centerpiece to break out soon.

During Thursday’s game against the Miami Heat, Brown suffered a hamstring injury that kept him out of the fourth quarter. While there was early optimism for a quick recovery, the Celtics already ruled the guard out for Saturday’s matchup against the Dallas Mavericks. Given the fragility of a hamstring and Brown’s checkered injury history, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Boston exercise extreme caution.

With no Brown, Tatum becomes the unquestioned number one option of the team. While that may make some fans nervous, there is a reason for optimism. While the 23-year-old finished Thursday’s game with just 10 points on 3-for-13 shooting, all 10 points came in the fourth while Brown was sitting. He went 3-for-6 during that stretch, which included a pair of threes.

Tatum is too good of a player to not break out of his funk. It’s why Boston felt comfortable committing over $160 million to him between now and 2026. But he also needs to rely on his teammates every now and again, as Smart pointed out after Monday’s collapse against the Chicago Bulls. If he can become an efficient scorer who doesn’t try to do everything himself, the Celtics can get back on track in no time.

All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference and contract figures courtesy of Spotrac.