The 2019–20 NBA season has set a new bar for midseason award angst.
dew3Jaxson Hayes of the New Orleans Pelicans posted a profanity-laced video after not making the rising stars game. Eric Goodwin, agent of Philadelphia 76ers forward Matisse Thybulle, released an angry statement in response to his client not making that same, irrelevant game. Brooklyn Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie is cursing in interviews and grumpy over not making the utterly forgettable skills competition. Washington Wizards star Bradley Beal, now recruiting his entire family to bash the voting process, did not make the all-star game despite averaging 27 points per game. This seems to have most fans upset as well. How could somebody who averages 27 points per game not be an all-star?
Most fans are asking how Beal can miss out on the team while somebody like Jayson Tatum makes it, but I argue it is because Tatum plays on a winning team.
Fans seem to have a hard time grasping that line of reasoning, and I think it has to do with a misunderstanding of what exactly I mean by it; I am not punishing Beal for having bad teammates. I am accounting for it.
Despite the perception amongst fans, it is actually easier, not harder, to put up gaudy numbers on a bad team. There are more chances to take pressure off an individual player on a well-coached team like the Celtics, but that is precisely why scoring averages in the high twenties are so hard to achieve on good teams.
A great basketball team requires multiple high level talents, usually two or three all-stars. These players have to play in a way that maximizes each other’s talents in order to play at their highest level. If the whole offense revolved around one player, there would be little difference between its offense and the offense of a bad team. Good players can act as overqualified role players better than bad players can, but there is still a limit on how far a team can go when its offense is built around one player.
There is a historical example of this phenomena. In 1992, the Philadelphia 76ers traded Charles Barkley to the Phoenix Suns. Two years earlier, in the 1990-91 season, Barkley averaged over 27 points per game as the lone star on a solid Sixers team and finished fourth in MVP voting that season. In his first season in Phoenix, he scored about two points less per night, but he won the MVP award. Though Barkley’s scoring average dropped, voters decided he played markedly better than two seasons prior. The Suns had the best record in the NBA and made the Finals that season.
Similar to Barkley, Jayson Tatum plays with other players who can take control of the offense—Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, and Marcus Smart. He could easily average more points if the offense ran solely through him, but then the Celtics would look more like the Wizards.
Defense is also important. The Wizards have an abysmal defense, and Beal is part of the problem on that end. The Celtics have a great defense, and Tatum is a key reason why.
This also brings me to another problem I have with these awards. Kemba Walker is the Celtics’ best player and was rewarded accordingly with a starting spot on the all-star team, but the biggest reason why the Celtics are winning is not because of Kemba Walker. They are winning because they have three two-way wings in Tatum, Brown, and Smart, who lock things down on defense. But it is hard to account for this three-headed monster when the award is centered around the individual. Trae Young, another all-star starter, is a better player than Marcus Smart in a vacuum, but if I am trying to assemble a championship team, I would rather have somebody like Smart.
Tatum earned a spot on the team because of his ability to defend, coupled with the way he can prop up mediocre lineups as the lone star on the court. This honor is well deserved. Brown, unfortunately, is not as lucky, but he told NESN he is not discouraged.
“It is what it is… [Just] keep working and getting ready for the playoffs. Thats the stage you want to be on,” Brown said.
I’ll take that player on my team any day.