Boston Celtics

NBA history says it's Jayson Tatum's time to make championship leap

It's time for Tatum to take the next step and reach championship status.

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When do the best NBA players become champions? When do superstar players realize their full potential, take their game to a higher level and lead their team to a title as the No. 1 option?

For a lot of players -- at least in recent memory -- it begins in their sixth, seventh or eighth seasons. This is often the sweet spot when elite players are at their physical prime and have the experience needed to successfully navigate the mental challenges of postseason pressure.

Boston Celtics star Jayson Tatum, who could make his third consecutive All-NBA first team this season, is at the point in his career (Year 7) where stars often take that next step toward finally becoming a champion.

Tatum's path is not an unfamiliar one. In addition to the enormous individual and team success he has enjoyed over the first seven seasons of his career, he has also endured his share of playoff disappointments. The Celtics have reached the conference finals four times and the NBA Finals once since Tatum was drafted in 2017, but the franchise is still searching for Banner 18.

This happens to almost every star player. Very rarely do we see hyped young players enter the league and win right away. Sure, it's possible. Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Tim Duncan and Dwyane Wade are good examples of players who won rings right away. But they've been exceptions to the rule.

Some of Tatum's stats took a bit of a dip this season, but that's because the Celtics have a better and deeper roster thanks to the offseason acquisitions of Kristaps Porzingis and Jrue Holiday, as well as the emergence of Derrick White as an All-Star caliber guard. Tatum has done a better job this season making his teammates better and improving defensively -- two steps we often see the greatest players make.

Even though Tatum does have some great postseason moments -- like Game 6 against the Bucks in 2022 and Game 7 vs. the Sixers in 2023 -- he still hasn't reached that elite level of playoff performance on a consistent basis yet.

The list of top-tier players who failed multiple times in the playoffs before finally reaching that championship level is a long one. Below is a list of notable examples from the last 35 years. Will Tatum join this list in a few months?

Isiah Thomas, 1988-89 Pistons

The Pistons had some really good teams in the 1980s but couldn't get past the Celtics, losing to Boston in 1985 and 1987 playoffs. They finally eliminated the Celtics in 1988 but weren't able to get past the Lakers in the Finals. Thomas had some good playoff moments during that run -- including Game 6 of the 1988 Finals -- but he really hit his stride in the 1989 and 1990 playoff runs.

Thomas scored 33 points in Game 6 of the 1989 Eastern Conference Finals as the Pistons eliminated Michael Jordan's Bulls. The Pistons went on to sweep the Lakers in the 1989 Finals for the franchise's first title. Thomas went up another level in 1990 in helping the Pistons win back-to-back crowns. He averaged 27.6 points per game (his highest in any of the 23 career series he played in) against the Trail Blazers as the Pistons won the series in five games.

First championship: Year 8

Michael Jordan, 1990-91 Chicago Bulls

Jordan lost two playoff series to the Celtics (1986 and 1987) and three playoff series to the Pistons (1988-90) before finally breaking through in 1991 when the Bulls swept Detroit to advance to the franchise's first NBA Finals. Jordan and the Bulls then beat the Lakers in five games to win the 1991 Finals.

One of the differences for Jordan in getting over the hump was making sure his teammates were involved. Instead of trying to do everything himself, he used his teammates to take some of the pressure off of him.

One of the best examples came in the clinching Game 5 of the 1991 Finals. Jordan consistently found an open John Paxson, who scored 20 points on 9-of-12 shooting. Jordan also talked about this during the Last Dance documentary released in 2020.

First championship: Year 7

Hakeem Olajuwon, 1993-94 Houston Rockets

Olajuwon enjoyed some early success in his career by helping the Rockets upset the Lakers and reach the 1986 NBA Finals, where Houston lost to the Celtics. The Rockets were expected to be in the mix every year with such a strong core, but injuries and other factors contributed to Houston winning just one playoff series from 1987 through 1992.

The Rockets broke through in 1994, beating the New York Knicks in the only seven-game NBA Finals of the 1990s. Olajuwon averaged 28.9 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks during the 1994 playoffs. He averaged 34 points and 11 rebounds in the Finals and outplayed Knicks superstar center Patrick Ewing en route to winning series MVP.

Olajuwon took his production to an even higher level in 1995 when he embarrassed MVP winner David Robinson with a historically dominant performance (35.3 points, 12.5 rebounds per game) in the 1995 Western Conference Finals. He outplayed Shaquille O'Neal in the 1995 Finals as the Rockets swept the Magic to complete back-to-back titles.

First championship: Year 10

Shaquille O'Neal, 1999-00 Los Angeles Lakers

O'Neal joined the Lakers before the 1996-97 season in free agency, teaming with Nick Van Exel, Eddie Jones and a rookie Kobe Bryant. The Lakers were very good early in O'Neal's tenure, but playoff success was a little hard to come by. L.A. lost to the Jazz in the 1997 conference semifinals and 1998 conference finals, and then the Blazers in the 1999 conference semifinals. The Lakers were swept in each of those three series.

O'Neal played well despite those losses, but he took his production to an even higher level in the new millennium. The Lakers won three consecutive NBA Finals from 2000 through 2002, and O'Neal won Finals MVP each year. He averaged 35.7 points and 14.9 rebounds per game in those three Finals.

It was one of the most dominant three-year stretches in playoff history. O'Neal was pretty much unstoppable at his apex.

First championship: Year 8

Dirk Nowitzki, 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks

Nowitzki won his first title a little later than other Hall of Famers. It took him 13 years, but the wait was worth it for Mavericks fans who watched Nowitzki and their team come up painfully short many times in the playoffs, including the 2006 NBA Finals and the 2007 first round (got upset as the No. 1 seed).

Nowitzki and the Mavs returned to the Finals in 2011, where they met the Miami Heat and their new Big Three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Dallas trailed 2-1 in the series but won three straight to claim the franchise's first title. Nowitzki averaged 26 points and 9.7 rebounds per game in the Finals, and he scored 10 points in the fourth quarter of the Game 6 clincher.

After years of being viewed as a great player who couldn't come through in clutch moments, Nowitzki went toe-to-toe against a team loaded with Hall of Famers and emerged a champion and Finals MVP.

First championship: Year 13

LeBron James, 2011-12 Miami Heat

Perhaps no player in league history had more pressure to win a title than James, especially after he left his hometown Cavaliers to join the Heat in a nationally televised free agency decision during the summer of 2010. James lost to the Celtics in 2008 and 2010, and also lost to the Magic in 2009 despite the Cavaliers owning the league's best record.

Moving down to South Beach didn't yield immediate dividends for James. His lackluster performances in the 2011 Finals against the Mavericks fueled the view that he didn't have what it took to win at the highest level. Not until Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals when the Heat trailed the Celtics 3-2 did James become a dominant player in clutch moments.

He helped the Heat avoid elimination with 45 points (19-of-26 shooting) and 15 rebounds. It's largely considered the most important performance of his career. The Heat won Game 7 to reach the 2012 Finals, where they defeated the Thunder in five games as James finally won his first title. The Heat won again the following season in a thrilling seven-game Finals series versus the Spurs. James was awarded Finals MVP both times. He now has four rings after also winning with the Cavs (2016) and Lakers (2020).

It's hard for some younger fans to imagine a period where James couldn't win in the playoffs, but it did take him a while to become a championship-level player.

First championship: Year 9

Stephen Curry, 2014-15 Golden State Warriors

The Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green trio became a playoff team in the 2012-13 season. The Warriors won their first playoff series since 2007 but ultimately lost to the Spurs in the conference semifinals. Golden State won 51 games the next season -- its first 50-win campaign since 1993-94 -- but lost to the Clippers in Game 7 of the first round.

Curry went to a higher level in 2014-15. He won his first of two straight league MVP awards and raised his playoff scoring average from 23 points per game in 2014 to 28.3 in 2015. He shot 42.2 percent from 3-point range in the 2015 playoffs and helped lead the Warriors to an NBA title, defeating the Cavs in six games.

The 2014-15 season was the beginning of Curry not only becoming a perennial top-five player, but also someone who would transform the sport with his entertaining outside shooting. The 3-point craze seen in today's game is largely a result of Curry (and analytics).

First championship: Year 6

Giannis Antetokounmpo, 2020-21 Milwaukee Bucks

Antetokounmpo lost the first three playoff series of his career. He reached the conference finals in 2019, which also was his first of two straight league MVP seasons, but the Bucks were eliminated in six games by the Raptors despite jumping out to a 2-0 series lead. The Bucks were the No. 1 seed in the East during the COVID bubble playoffs but lost in disappointing fashion to the Heat in five games during the conference semifinals.

Antetokounmpo reached a new level during the 2021 playoffs, especially in the Finals against the Suns. He averaged 35.2 points, 13.2 rebounds and five assists per game as the Bucks won the series in six games for their first title since 1971. Antetokounmpo was named Finals MVP after scoring 51 points with 14 rebounds and five blocks in the Game 6 clincher.

First championship: Year 8

Nikola Jokic, 2022-23 Denver Nuggets

Jokic had won two league MVPs entering the 2022-23 campaign, but playoff success had mostly eluded him to that point. The Nuggets lost in the conference semifinals twice, the conference finals and first round over the previous four years.

Jokic absolutely dominated during the 2023 playoffs, helping the Nuggets reach the Finals for the first time. He averaged 30.2 points, 14 rebounds and 7.2 assists as the Nuggets defeated the Heat in five games. Jokic was named series MVP.

The 2014 second-round pick is the favorite to win MVP again this season, and the Nuggets have a great chance to become the league's first repeat champion since the Warriors in 2017 and 2018.

First championship: Year 8

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