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The MVP and DPOY

With Jayson Tatum and Marcus Smart in place long term, the Celtics could have the championship recipe for years to come.

Boston Celtics vs Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Matt Stone/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images

Three times in NBA history has one player won both MVP and Defensive Player of the Year awards, most recently two seasons ago when Giannis Antetokounmpo was Mr. Everything for Milwaukee. Michael Jordan netted both the MVP and DPoY in 1988. Six years later, Hakeem Olajuwon completed the same feat and won the first of back-to-back titles with the Rockets.

If you don’t have one player that embodies, well, the Greatest Basketball Player Ever, two might even be better — shared responsibilities and all. That’s even more rare. Allen Iverson and Dikembe Mutombo repped the 76ers in The 2001 NBA Finals as the Maurice Podoloff Trophy winner and four-time winner of best defensive finger-wagger. In 1987, Magic Johnson and Michael Cooper raised the Larry O’Brien, completing the triumvirate.

This season, the Celtics have an outside chance to complete the trifecta that The Dream and Showtime Lakers did for basketball immortality with Jayson Tatum and Marcus Smart vying for both awards. However, they’re not the only young dynamic duo tearing up this season and paving a way to promising futures for their franchises. The Suns’ Devin Booker and Mikal Bridges and Memphis’ Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. should be dual candidates for seasons to come, too. For all three teams, that recipe has catapulted their youth movements to the top of their respective conferences and leaders in both offensive and defensive efficiency.

We’ve written extensively at CelticsBlog about Tatum and Smart and their respective candidacies. Adam Taylor didn’t just campaign for Smart to win DPOY, but waxed poetic about how he was ushering in a newfound respect for defensive guards:

The 28-year-old has built a career on blood, bruises, and a relentless will to compete at the highest level. He’s a culture setter, a leader, and the Boston Celtics warrior in chief. Those are all personality traits, they’re teachable trains of thought - if you’re hungry enough.

That’s why Smart’s push for DPOY this year is about more than recognizing the guard’s elite-level impact on that side of the floor. It’s about sending a message to a new generation of players, and showing those already in the league that there’s a blueprint beyond stacking box-score stats to get into a team’s rotation.

And before the season started, Daniel Lubofsky presupposed that for Tatum to be a legit MVP candidate, it would depend on the collective success of the Celtics with the team needing to finish top-2 in the East. That’s still a possibility, but right now, the odds are in favor of the frontrunners.

According to our friends at DraftKings, Booker is +7500 behind the trio of big man favorites (Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, and Antetokounmpo) to win MVP. Morant is 6th at +20000. Tatum trails behind, 7th in odds at +25000 (tied with DeMar Derozan and Kevin Durant). That tracks with the Suns far and away the best team in the NBA for the entire year despite the Celtics surge in 2022.

Most likely, Adam Silver is handing that award to a seven-footer this spring, but comparison being the thief of joy aside, let’s talk Tatum vs. Booker vs. Morant. It might be a matter of aesthetics on who is a better offensive engine when it comes to the three All-Stars. Prefer a highlight-a-minute point guard to lead your team? It’s Morant. Would you rather go with the bravado of one of the best scoring guards in the NBA? Booker is your guy. And If very recent history is a bellwether of future success, Tatum won Eastern Conference Player of the Week twice in March and will probably win the award for the month, too.

If we’re voting with the true spirit of the award in mind (remember: it’s “most valuable player” to his team, not necessarily best player in a vacuum), it has to be Tatum. Morant has certainly been electric this season, but without him, Memphis has managed just fine. He’s missed 23 games and the Grizzlies still excelled at 20-3. Grit n’ Grind is Grit n’ Grind with or without Morant. And as good as Booker has been, the Suns didn’t really rise and become contenders until the arrival of Chris Paul (who’s also a major contender for MVP this season, too). Before CP3, Phoenix was a scuffling, sub-.500 squad with Booker at the helm. He was still filling up the box score, but not exactly contributing to winning.

On the other hand, Tatum’s turnaround directly correlates with Boston's. Both he and the Celtics struggled early in the season and their meteoric trajectory since January 1st run parallel with each other. Had the Celtics played this well all season, he might be the MVP favorite rather than a dark horse making up ground in the second half of the year.

Ironically, it’s Smart’s campaign as Defensive Player of the Year that slightly dents Tatum’s MVP run. As mentioned, for Tatum to be considered a legitimate candidate, history suggests that the Celtics need to at least be a top-3 seed in the East. There’s no doubt that he’s a generational talent that could be the driving force to raise Banner 18 and would most likely raise the Bill Russell Finals MVP in doing so, but Smart has been the culture setter with the Celtics, particularly this season. Boston’s identity as a defense-first team under Udoka doesn’t take shape without Smart as the tip of that spear.

One of Brad Stevens’ first orders of business when he moved to the front office was locking in Smart (and the front court version of Smart, Robert Williams) to a four-year, $77 million contract. As his coach of seven years, he recognized that while you need cornerstones like Tatum and Jaylen Brown as franchise players, investing in the locker room and team accountability was equally important. This isn’t to say that Smart isn’t a skilled or talented player. He’s still a very versatile defender that can guard 1 through 5, and individually speaking, one of the best defenders in the NBA.

He’s the embodiment of Udoka’s switching scheme and after being slighted last season and being left off both All-Defense teams, Smart has campaigned vehemently on and off the court and is now the favorite to win Defensive Player of the Year. DraftKings has Smart as the favorite at -175 to take home the hardware. While other players might have higher stock (steals and blocks) numbers or better matchup analytics against elite offensive players, few can boast the influence that he’s had on the Celtics in 2022. Mikal Bridges (+600) may be the most intimidating lockdown wing defender in the league, but he’s not the middle linebacker of the defense, calling out coverages. Jaren Jackson Jr. (+900) may patrol the paint and prevent anything easy at the rim, but he’s more deterrent than defensive playmaker.

All odds updated as of April 8th, 2022 at 1 pm EST.

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