Jayson Tatum isn’t just coming off a breakout season in which he posted career-highs of 23.4 points, 7.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.4 steals per game.
From February through Boston’s playoff run, the fourth-place finisher for Most Improved honors looked more comparable to an All-NBA First Teamer than the first-time All-Star he actually was. He was February’s Eastern Conference Player of the Month by averaging over 30 points a night. Only nine previous times this century has a player exceeded playoff averages of 25 points, 10 rebounds, and five assists. Tatum joined that group in getting the Celtics to within two wins of the NBA Finals.
In what was truly his first run as Boston’s leading man, Tatum cleared every hurdle the craze of the NBA bubble could throw at him. Considering the large developmental steps he’s taken in just three seasons, where he’s already scraping at the door of the top-10 list, it’s worth theorizing if the next one will be enough to make history with an MVP trophy.
Recent MVP’s have set quite the bar for statistical production, combining to average 29.8 points per game over the last five seasons. Tatum’s most recent scoring average falls well short of the near-30 mark, but within the makeup of the Celtics’ current roster and the circumstances they’ll have to deal with lies a path for him to inch closer to 30 ppg.
Boston was one of just two teams with a quartet of 17-point-per-game scorers last season. Only now, the reigning fourth-ranked offense enters the new season with a noticeably different look. Gordon Hayward’s departure removes a sizeable chunk of the offense. Kemba Walker is likely to scale back his involvement if only by a hair to better preserve that worrisome left knee that will keep him out until at least January.
Tatum won’t be asked to make up the entire gap created by the absence of Hayward and load management of Walker, but he will shoulder some of that shared responsibility. After ranking just outside the top-10 in usage rate among those playing at least 34 minutes a night, expect that number to increase and his counting numbers with it.
Some may raise concerns about how that bump in usage might negatively affect Tatum’s efficiency. We’re talking about the same person who managed to increase his volume of shot attempts from Year 2 to 3, only to just about maintain his 2-point efficiency while upping his 3-point proficiency. He’s earned that benefit of the doubt.
However impressive an individual’s statline reads, any legitimate MVP argument begins in the standings. Unless Tatum plans to average a triple double like Russell Westbrook in 2017 or simultaneously win Defensive Player of the Year as Michael Jordan did in 1988, he’ll need to push Boston into a top-two seed. Russ and MJ have been the only two exceptions to that rule in the last 35 years.
The Celtics were already the #3 seed in the Eastern Conference last season, five games behind the Toronto Raptors. Leapfrogging the Raptors will remain a challenge even after Toronto had to subtract key pieces of its frontcourt. The looming issue for Tatum and Boston, however, will lie in keeping those coming up behind them in the standings at bay.
Miami. Philadelphia. Brooklyn. All teams that finished no higher than fifth in the standings yet are likely to see drastic improvements on their record from a season ago. Enough to leap into the conversation for a top-two spot? Maybe yes, maybe no. The reigning conference champions are the best bet while the Sixers and Nets have to foster new identities amid fairly drastic roster overhauls.
Nevertheless, their presence will likely be felt as opponents Boston has to take seriously, especially after going 5-6 against that trio of teams during the 2019-20 regular season.
According to Sportsbetting.com, Tatum has the 12th best odds to claim MVP honors in 2021. By doing so, he’d become one of the five-youngest players to ever be named MVP at 23 years of age. He would also be the first Celtic to win MVP since Larry Bird won the last of his three straight in 1986.
Those are tough odds to overcome and rarified history to join. Enhancing Tatum’s case to pull it off is the realization that, despite what the oddsmakers say, there isn’t a definitive favorite heading into the season.
If we subscribe to the idea that a top-two seed is a prerequisite for MVP honors, Dallas won’t be good enough for Luka Doncic to bring it home, even though Sportsbetting gives him the best odds to do so. Voter fatigue could eliminate back-to-back winner Giannis Antetokounmpo. And do we really believe any of LeBron James, Anthony Davis or Kawhi Leonard will put forth the necessary energy in a 72-game season to break off from the crowded group of candidates?
Go further down the list and names like Nikola Jokic, Jimmy Butler and Damian Lillard all find themselves in the same boat as Tatum, trying to propel their respective teams to a top-two seed just to enter the conversation.
Tatum is no stranger to making history, constantly becoming among the youngest to surpass too many statistical thresholds to keep track of at this point. But those were individual accomplishments. The MVP says as much about the team as it is does about the player who claims it.
The task will fall heavily on Tatum to ensure both meet a certain standard. Everything he’s done so far in his short career, confidently stepping into the spotlight while seemingly getting better as his third season progressed, leads us to believe he can.
Stay tuned to see if that’s enough to bring the MVP back to Beantown.