The never-ending campaign exists not only as a feature of American politics; it has trickled over to the parquet. Every Celtics game features the perpetual campaign to crown Jayson Tatum as the NBA’s Most Valuable Player.
Preferential facts, endorsements, and campaign-rally-style chants bombard you or get shoehorned into seemingly every contest and conversation.
Promoting Tatum for MVP has gone into overdrive and overboard, every statistical measure pumped, plumped, or portrayed to declare him the clear-cut choice in a compelling race for the newly named Michael Jordan Trophy.
Let’s get this straight: Tatum is a more-than-worthy MVP candidate. He will win the hallowed hoops hardware if the voters prioritize the combination of the best player on the best team. That’s Tatum. This is not an anti-Tatum MVP polemic. It’s an appeal to let his candidacy be promoted organically, instead of excessively and incessantly.
We’re not even at the halfway point of the NBA season or into the New Year. We can take a beat from pounding the proverbial drum for Tatum as MVP. Plus, the most compelling arguments for his campaign don’t come from bending over backward to buttress his case. They come from his play.
I was fortunate enough to cover his 44-point, 9-rebound, 6-assist masterpiece in the Celtics’ return-from-the-grave overtime win over LeBron James and the Lakers Dec. 13. That was an MVP performance if I’ve ever seen one.
JT was magnificent, hitting 15 of a season-high 29 shots, including a jaw-dropping turnaround jumper over LeBron with 16.6 seconds to send the game to OT.
“I saw a great player hit a great shot and a guy that wanted the moment,” said Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla.
The inimitable and estimable Bob Ryan anointed Paul Pierce the best all-around pure scorer in Celtics history. Tatum is coming for that crown. He could become the first Celtic to average 30 points per game (Larry Bird averaged a franchise-record 29.9 points in 1987-88).
JT’s six 40-point games this season were tied with Joel Embiid for second in the NBA through Tuesday. Only Luka Dončić, he of the historic 60-point, 20-rebound, 10-assist triple-double Tuesday night, had logged more with seven, although Embiid has played eight fewer games than Tatum.
Embiid, who should’ve won MVP last season, leads the league in scoring if you go by points per game (33.7), which is how every scoring champion in the history of the league has been crowned.
However, there is a Green grassroots movement afoot to label total points the proper measure of the scoring champion, adopted by erudite and always edifying play-by-play announcer Sean Grande and NBC Sports Boston.
It’s hard to think this isn’t tied to Tatum’s MVP candidacy, and the desire to funnel or finesse all stats in his favor.
Usually among the league leaders in points, Tatum ranks fifth in points per game. However, he stands second to Dončić in total points; Luka has 1,076, Tatum has 1,026.
This stat also favors Tatum because he is able to pile up points in garbage time, as Mazzulla has been slow on the draw to remove his starters.
This has been a recurrent theme. Tied for the league lead in minutes per game (37), Tatum stayed in to finish the third quarter of a blowout win over the Suns in which Boston was up 45. In the Celtics’ largest loss of the season, a 20-point defeat to the Clippers, he wasn’t removed until there was 3:16 remaining with the Clippers leading by 21 when he should’ve been bubble-wrapped on the bench on the first night of a back-to-back.
Isn’t the ultimate goal to have Tatum lifting the Bill Russell Trophy as Finals MVP? All these extra point-padding moments add up when you played in the Olympics in 2021 until August, then went to June 16 last season in the NBA Finals, and are expected to play into mid-June in 2023.
Stat-polishing Tatum’s MVP candidacy should take a back seat to Banner 18. The Celtics’ organizational ethos is about elevating team accomplishments over individual ones, which is why the team has never boasted a scoring-title winner.
Another argument for Tatum disseminated lately is him outshining fellow MVP candidates head-to-head, such as Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Bucks during a Tatum 41-point Christmas Day tour de force.
I never thought of measuring the MVP this way. It’s a great campaign talking point for Tatum. I dig it. Pump this one.
However, there needs to be some context to these conquests, like versus Dončić.
Luka was the most unstoppable player on the floor (42 points, 8 rebounds, 9 assists on 17-of-28 shooting). The Celtics put six players in double figures, and Brown scored 31 points while Tatum went off for 37 points, 13 rebounds, and 5 assists.
As Brown pointed out following the win over Houston Tuesday, he and Tatum don’t really get double-teamed because of the presence of the other one.
Yes, Tatum is a superior defender to Luka, but no one here was measuring MVPs by on-ball defense when Bird won three straight MVPs from 1984-86. Like Bird, Luka is an excellent help defender; he’s tied for fifth in the league in steals at 1.7 per game. (For reference, defending Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart is averaging 1.4).
But, suddenly, we are implored to treat the NBA MVP as if it’s Bruins stalwart Patrice Bergeron chasing another Selke Award — voters must choose the best two-way player.
Look, Tatum has a very compelling argument without the politicking, some of which admittedly is necessary to sway voters who don’t see him every night.
However, folks around here are fond of pointing out how many players the Celtics possess that impact winning, starting with Smart and including Rob Williams and Grant Williams, not to mention Brown, a bona fide star.
You can’t trumpet the Celtics as the deepest team in NBA title talk on one hand and then on the other stump for Tatum in the MVP race by giving him sole credit and turning his teammates into basketball background singers.
We can stop metaphorically stuffing the basketball ballot box for Tatum this early and just let NBA nature and the season take their course.