John Tomase

Could Tatum be the best player in the world if Celtics win a title?

The All-Star forward at least should be in the conversation if Boston wins Banner 18.

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I'm stealing this question from our very own Phil Perry, who posed it on Early Edition the other night: If the Celtics win a title, will Jayson Tatum deserve consideration as the best player in the world?

The knee-jerk reaction is no, because Nikola Jokic hasn't gone anywhere except home to his horse farm in Serbia, but we shouldn't be so quick to wave away the question, because that does Tatum a disservice.

He's been First-Team All-NBA three years running, which clearly establishes him as a top-five player. Outside of Jokic, who is obviously better? If Tatum beats Luka Doncic head to head in the Finals, it would be hard to argue for Dallas' offensive maestro. Tatum has already beaten Milwaukee MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo twice in the playoffs, and even if he's not a singular physical force like the Greek Freak, he's a better all-around scorer, thanks to his 3-point range and free throw proficiency.

I'd make a similar argument against Philadelphia's Joel Embiid, a dominating center in a league where that's not really an advantage anymore. Embiid has yet to advance beyond the second round, and he's 0-3 vs. Tatum in the playoffs. Before anyone claims that's because of the respective supporting casts, Embiid lost to the Celtics with Ben Simmons when he was an All-NBA player, James Harden when he averaged a double-double, and Tyrese Maxey when he was on the verge of becoming an All-Star – not to mention when Al Horford briefly switched sides.

Oklahoma City's Shai Gilgeous-Alexander just finished second in the MVP voting, but come on. How many GMs are really starting a team with the silky-smooth SGA over the rugged and battle-tested Tatum? If anyone wants to advocate for New York's undersized but tough-as-nails Jalen Brunson, knock yourself out. Minnesota's Anthony Edwards could conceivably get there, but not yet.

Tatum gets no love because we obsess over his faults, credit the considerable talent surrounding him, and dismiss the relatively easy path the Celtics have taken to this year's NBA Finals. But what we really do, of course, is blame him for not winning a championship.

Never get particularly close, and you can still be a player on the rise. Doncic benefits from this narrative, even though the Mavs missed the playoffs as recently as last year. SGA just took the Thunder from nowhere to the No. 1 seed in the West. Embiid won an MVP despite the aforementioned lack of an Eastern Conference Finals on his resume.

None of them has failed on the biggest stage yet, which incongruously works in their favor.

But Tatum? His Celtics have been knocking on the door for so long, we can't believe he hasn't just kicked it in already. Constantly being in the mix hurts him, and it doesn't help that Tatum played poorly in his lone Finals, running out of gas against the Warriors while shooting just 36.7 percent from the field and committing a series-high 23 turnovers.

For his part, Tatum knows what's what.

"I understand that, no matter what I do in the regular season, I'm at that point where people just judge me off whether I can win a championship," he told The Athletic in February. "I realize that, and it's like, all right, I just gotta do it."

If he does, perhaps fans and media will recognize the unique skills that annually make him a threat to win a championship. He's long and strong, second perhaps only to Antetokounmpo when he rolls downhill and shoulders a defender's chest. He has become a much better facilitator, even if he's never going to approach the brilliantly creative Doncic. And he may not do it to Jokic levels, but he has absolutely owned the defensive glass, which might be his most underappreciated skill, averaging 10.4 per game in these playoffs.

Watch highlights from Jayson Tatum's best passes of the 2023-24 season as the Celtics gear up the the 2024 NBA Finals.

Compared to Embiid, Doncic, and Antetokounmpo, he's as durable as a superstar gets, appearing in all 108 possible playoff games since he entered the league and averaging 39 minutes a night. Are Doncic's 65 games a year really more valuable than Tatum's 75?

The answer to all of these questions will be answered by the third week of June. Hang Banner 18, and Tatum is in all of the conversations.

Or as he put it when asked earlier this year about possibly becoming the face of the league: "We win a championship, I got something to say about it. I know that."

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