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CelticsBlog roundtable: our regular season MVP (so far)

Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have been Boston’s best players, but the Celtics success has been linked to the supporting cast.

Milwaukee Bucks v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Tim Sheils: Honestly, I’ve felt like Robert Williams has firmly cemented himself in the conversation this year. Robert Williams has continued to build upon the success of last season, but what’s most impressive has been his durability in comparison to years past. His minutes workload has jumped from 18.9 MPG to 30 MPG, and he’s started in all 47 games he’s played this year. If he plays five more games, he will surpass his season high for games played in a season, and he’s started almost three times as many games than his first three seasons combined. Before the very recent trade for Daniel Theis, Boston’s depth at center was paper thin besides Robert Williams and Al Horford; Enes Freedom was borderline unplayable, so any injury to Horford or Williams left Boston in a serious bind.

Williams is also currently ranked third among centers for Defensive Win Shares, third in total blocks among all players, and third in defensive rating among starting centers (minimum 30 games played). If defensive identity has been a major part of the Celtics’ turnaround, Rob Williams has been a crucial part of it and it’s impossible to not have him in the conversation for team MVP.

Bobby Manning: Marcus Smart’s mission to prove he’s the point guard of the Celtics is my favorite story this season. From saying he can do it, as he pushed Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum to pass more in crunch time after the Bulls collapse, to enacting it after his return from COVID and a lower-body injury last month, Smart’s commitment to shooting less, driving more and organizing the team on both ends of the court directly coincided with 16 wins over 20 games entering the All-Star break.

While Robert Williams III qualifies as the team’s defensive anchor, Smart even admitted at one point Williams III’s defense is on track to surpass his own. However, Smart’s disruptive play at the point of attack reflected and maybe even surpassed his play during his two First Team All-Defense seasons. He’s tied for fourth with 1.8 steals per game and opponents shoot 44.4% against him (41% since his return).

We talk constantly about Smart’s defense and it’s become cliché until you see him telegraphing Nikola Jokic passes and circling the big man like a shark to prevent the entry pass. His offensive impact has grown immensely, more surprisingly. It wasn’t clear if his finishing and shooting issues would allow him to be a play-in, play-out point man. He did his best to prove he could throw entry passes of his own, run clean pick-and-roll lobs to Williams III and find his scorers in their spots. The pace he played with caught Ime Udoka’s attention, even after Smart seemed to think he and others didn’t think he could be that point guard. Smart is in the 91st percentile of on-off players this year (+9.9 PTS/100) and it’s not because of his defense. The Celtics scored 5.1 PTS/100 more, shoot 3.2 eFG% better and turn the ball over 1.1% less with Smart on compared to off the floor. Those rank in the 84th, 91st and 77th percentiles of the league, respectively. The Celtics needed a point guard. Smart became one.

Atlanta Hawks v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images

Mike Dynon: With all due respect to Marcus Smart and the Jays, the pick here is Robert Williams III. Rob began to make an impact last season, and this year he’s elevated his game so much that he’s become one of the Celtics’ core four. “Can Rob stay healthy?” has been the main question in his four seasons, so it’s good news that Rob is on track to appear in his most games yet. So far, Rob has started all 47 games in which he’s played; the Celtics are 28-19 with him in the lineup and just 6-7 when he’s out. He’s had 19 double-doubles and a career-first triple-double.

There’s more to support his case. At this moment, Rob leads the NBA in offensive rating (142.9) and defensive rating (101.3) according to Basketball Reference. He’s shooting .732 from the field, which would almost top the league if he had taken enough shots to qualify. Rob is also 2nd in blocks per game, 14th in rebounds per game, 5th in total offensive rebounds, 8th in win shares and 5th in defensive wins shares. Simply put, what Rob gives the Celtics on both ends of the court cannot be matched by anyone else on the roster.

These achievements should merit Rob receiving votes for the league’s Most Improved Player award. He’s also earned serious consideration for NBA All-Defense. And he seems like a lock to win the Red Auerbach Award, given annually by the franchise to the player who best exemplifies the spirit and meaning of being a Boston Celtic. It all adds up to Robert Williams as the Celtics’ two-thirds-of-a-season MVP.

Jack Simone: While Marcus Smart and Ime Udoka would be valid choices for this award, I feel morally obliged to choose Grant Williams. He has been the most consistent presence on the Celtics during one of their most inconsistent seasons in recent memory. Williams’ three-point shooting has been a revelation, and his defense has improved tenfold from last season. If Williams weren’t on this team, the constant talk about Boston’s lack of shooting would be a million times worse than it already is. And now that he’s attacking closeouts, it might just be over for the rest of the league.

Boston Celtics v New York Knicks Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Neil Iyer: Although Robert Williams has turned into a defensive menace, Marcus Smart has proven he can lead a team as its primary ballhandler, and Jaylen Brown is the sparkplug that never stops sparking, Jayson Tatum is the clear MVP. He’s averaging 25.7 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 4.2 assists, and barring injury, he’s a lock for second team All-NBA. He’s only shooting 32.9 percent from three, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. He was bad in October/November (31.6%), good in December (35%), horrible in 10 games after a brief stint in health & safety protocols (24.3%), then solid over the last 13 games (38.1%). He’s shooting 35.6 percent on catch-and-shoot threes but only 30.1 percent on pull-ups.

Tatum has grown more comfortable slinging cross court passes, posting-up smaller defenders, and playing as the screener in the pick-and-roll. Their 114.4 offensive rating when he’s on the court would be a top-3 mark, and their 105.7 rating when he sits is slightly better than the Orlando Magic. His +12.3 on/off split is the best on the team by leaps and bounds.

He’s one of the league’s most gifted scorers and he guards players as quick as Trey Young and as burly as Julius Randle. Tatum’s outstanding interview with J.J. Redick on The Old Man & The Three contained everything you’d want to hear from your franchise player. When talking about players moving teams, he proclaimed “the grass is not always greener.” When asked about his partnership with Jaylen, he talked about their constant communication.

Admittedly, I’ve had doubts about Tatum’s mentality. I thought he might be more interested in endorsement deals and stats than winning. But this season has proven he’s undoubtedly a franchise player. The disheartening late-game losses earlier in the year would break most teams. But Tatum responded by trusting his teammates, making plays without the ball, and playing with energy every possession. The Celtics would be a much more forgettable team without Tatum, and he’s the obvious MVP over the first 60 games.