To frame this discussion, I’ll ask that you take a look back at the players who have won Finals MVP over the years. The vast majority of those players were either MVPs or widely considered one of the top 2-3 players in the game that year. For the most part, the outliers (for example Andre Iguodala, Tony Parker) were on teams that featured players who didn’t win Finals MVP but were clearly one of the premier players in the league (Steph Curry, Tim Duncan).
This isn’t to say that it is impossible for a team to win without a top-3 player in the league. The 2004 Pistons will always be the ultimate “well, actually” trump card in this discussion. However, historically speaking, the vast majority of NBA titles are won by super-duper-stars.
Last year, Jayson Tatum finished 4th in MVP voting and got no 1st place votes. Just being a top-5 MVP candidate is an amazing accomplishment that 99.9% of the league can only dream of achieving. However, it is pretty clear that Tatum was a step behind the top-3 of Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Obviously winning MVP doesn’t guarantee a title (just ask Joel), but the point here is that if the Celtics are going to win a title in the next few years, it will probably be in large part due to Jayson Tatum ascending that extra level into the top echelon of NBA superstars.
Don’t get me wrong, he’ll need plenty of help. Newly minted supermax guy Jaylen Brown needs to continue to improve and keep himself in the All-NBA discussion. Kristaps Porzingis needs to stay healthy and efficient. The Celtics as a whole need to defend well enough in big moments to put themselves in position to win. Then they need to execute on offense when pressure is at the highest. They also need good coaching and good injury luck and all the other little things that we obsess over twelve months a year on this blog.
Still, it boils down to Jayson Tatum leading the team with his unique all-around skillset. There really doesn’t seem to be a glaring weakness in his game at this point. The critiques of him tend to be picking nits and comparisons with historically great players. Tatum isn’t as good of a passer as Jokic (who is?). He’s not as dominant as Giannis. He hasn’t reached “I’m going supernova and taking over this Finals” level that Steph Curry can.
What he is, though, is a better defender than at least Steph and Jokic. He’s a better shooter than Giannis and has more playoff success than Embiid. He has the tools that can put him right there with those guys. There’s still another level Tatum can reach and I think he’s fully capable of getting there.
Consistency is a big thing for him. He has run hot and cold for most of his career but he has also progressively gotten more and more consistent over the years. To be at the top of the league, he needs to be on top of his game for just about every night (finding ways to contribute even on the occasions when the shot isn’t falling). That consistency needs to happen on both sides of the ball, too. Leading the offense is a big burden and he has to find ways to rest situationally in games, but not at the expense of the defense (if at all possible).
He’s gotten better at distributing the ball, usually making the right read and passing effectively out of double teams. He won’t ever have the innate feel that pure passers like Jokic or Luka Doncic have, but he can improve to the point where he’s dictating the flow of the game instead of reacting to what the defense gives him.
Jayson has proven that he can be an elite shooter but in the last couple of seasons his shooting percentage has slipped. If he can shoot closer to his career percentage of 37.5% from 3 (instead of hovering around 35%) that would be huge.
I’m sure that there are other nits to pick, but the point here is that Jayson Tatum has it in him to be an MVP (or at least be central to the heated debates over who deserves it more). If he can hit that extra level, the Celtics have as good a shot at the title as any team in the league.