Is Celtics star Jayson Tatum a sleeper MVP candidate?
Pull up betting odds for the MVP of the upcoming 2021-22 NBA season, and you’ll find many of the usual suspects: young stud Luka Doncic is the betting favorite for the second year in a row on Fanduel, followed by Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel embiid, Kevin Durant and Steph Curry, three of whom have won the award before. But scroll all the way down to the thirteenth-best odds at +2900, and you’ll find an intriguing name that could force his way up the ladder: Jayson Tatum, a two-time All-Star for the 25/21 who, at just 23, has already bloomed into one of the more dynamic scoring wings in the NBA. If he follows his current trajectory, there’s no reason he can’t lift his Celtics to one of the best records in the East and win some lucky betters quite a bit of cash.
Tatum’s COVID recovery
Though he would ultimately finish the 2020-21 season averaging career-highs across the board (26.4 points, 7.4 rebounds, 4.3 assists), Tatum admitted he was struggling physically throughout the season after contracting COVID-19. He tested positive on Jan. 9, 2021, and in addition to missing nearly three weeks’ worth of games, Tatum said he felt the effects of the virus for months after he was cleared to play.
“I take an inhaler before the game since I’ve tested positive,” Tatum said back in April, three months after initially testing positive. “This has kind of helped with that and opened up my lungs and, you know, I never took an inhaler before. So that’s something different.”
It’s impossible to know how much this breathing difficulty affected Tatum’s play, but it’s safe to assume it wasn’t the most pleasant season for him last year. With a full offseason to allow his lungs to recover and work on his craft, it’s possible we could see the best version of Tatum yet to start the 2021-22 season.
What would it take to sway voters?
Tatum and his Celtics would need to exceed expectations record-wise if he is to have any case as a dark-horse MVP candidate. Oddsmakers currently project the Celtics to be the no. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference at 45.5 wins, falling behind the Brooklyn Nets, Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers, Miami Heat and Atlanta Hawks. If the Celtics can leapfrog three or four of these teams, his case becomes clearer.
It’s absolutely an attainable feat given the Celtics’ roster. They added significant veteran depth in Josh Richardson, Dennis Shroder and yes, old buddy Al Horford. Beyond that, their young core of Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Grant Williams and Robert Williams are all still on the upswing in terms of their aging curve, and could make significant strides. The Celtics are a deep, talented team without some of the injury-related question marks that many of the Eastern Conference contenders have. There’s no guarantee that they’ll reach their ceiling (they proved that last season, finishing a disappointing 36-36), but one easy way to maximize their wins is if Tatum becomes a full-blown superstar. He’s already proven to be one of the more unguardable players in the league, and he’s made significant strides as a lengthy, athletic defender that can guard multiple positions. If he can score at an even more efficient rate (perhaps get to that magic 60% true-shooting figure that only the best of the best attain) and continue to make strides as a distributor, his name will no-doubt begin to pop up in MVP conversations.
It’s also worth noting that the Celtics underperformed their point-differential last season, finishing with a +1.2 net rating despite going .500. Bad clutch-time luck seldom transfers from season to season, so perhaps the pendulum will sway the other way in 2021-22. Last year, they finished no. 10 in the league on offense and no. 13 in the league on defense. A sign of a contender is a top-ten finish in each category, and Boston isn’t too far off.
The Jaylen Brown conundrum
Is it absolutely insane to throw out the possibility that Tatum might not be the best player on the Celtics in a few months’ time?
At the very least, the argument will be made that Jaylen Brown is almost as important to the Celtics’ success as Tatum. He often guards the opposing team’s best player if Smart isn’t given the assignment, and last year he developed into an offensive stud all his own, earning his first All-Star appearance. It’s not out of the realm of possibility, given that they’re only a year-and-a-half apart in age, that Brown could establish himself as the co-no.1 option for the Celtics or even supplant Tatum as the go-to threat.
Many obstacles stand in the way of Tatum and an MVP. However, given the randomness of the post-COVID NBA and a historical precedent for stars to make a superstar leap around Tatum’s age, it couldn’t hurt to throw a few bucks his way as a sneaky MVP wager.