Why Boston Celtics' Jayson Tatum's MVP odds have to surpass Mavs' Luka Doncic's

Boston Celtics v Dallas Mavericks
Boston Celtics v Dallas Mavericks / Tim Heitman/GettyImages

Four Boston Celtics players have won the league's Most Valuable Player award, with Jayson Tatum driving in the neighborhood on MVP Blvd as we speak. The 25-year-old superstar is coming off multiple top-six finishes in the race for the Michael Jordan Trophy.

Yet, he's failed to secure a single first-place vote. Recent odds from FanDuel suggest the wait may continue.

The sportsbook has Tatum heading into the All-Star break 5th in line at +6,000. Rarely does the best player on the definitive best team in the sport find himself so low on the pecking order. Nikola Jokic or Shai Gilgeous-Alexander having shorter odds than Tatum shouldn't raise any eyebrows. The name directly above him does warrant a visceral reaction: Luka Doncic.

The Dallas Mavericks guard has continued his meteoric rise in his sixth season in the league. Doncic is the central cog of the team's offense, averaging career-highs in points, assists, and effective field goal percentage. Doncic's individual brilliance and undeniable charisma culminated in his fifth straight All-Star selection and fourth time starting. His playing aesthetic and global appeal have clouded public perception, elevating the 24-year-old a smidge too high in the NBA hierarchy.

The case for Jayson Tatum over Luka Doncic

As Doncic's reputation soars, Tatum's gets overshadowed by the abundance of talent he shares the floor with. It's almost a detriment to Tatum that he plays alongside four respected stars in league circles. Being on a "super team" has set unrealistic expectations for him compared to his peers. But Tatum's numbers stagnating are not a sign of weakness but a prime reason the media should take his candidacy more seriously.

For the last few years, the narrative surrounding the Boston Celtics revolved around the cohesion of Tatum and running mate Jaylen Brown. Add an expanded role for Derrick White and the additions of Kristaps Porzingis and Jrue Holiday—it seemed the C's had too many mouths to feed. So, on the surface, Tatum is outputting similar offensive efficiency on a team with more star power, which means regardless of the roster, he will operate on a plane beyond everyone else.

Tatum's elevated playmaking has been his secret superpower. The traditional assist numbers are relatively the same but lack context. Boston has had large stretches of running teams out of the gym, limiting Tatum to reduced minutes in many second halves. His poise has jumped off the screen, expanding his role as point forward and having the offense run through him at critical junctures.

The individual numbers for Doncic are gaudy. He's dropping 34.2 points per game, dishing out 9.5 assists, and shooting a career-best 36.5% from beyond the arc. Doncic leads the league in usage rate by a comfortable margin—if the season ended tomorrow, he'd be in the top-25 all time. Allen Iverson is the only player with a season on that list to have ever made an NBA Finals, proving that style of basketball is essentially a gimmick.

The argument that Doncic has a more significant offensive impact and elevates a lesser collection of talent has merit. Yet, Doncic persistence with heliocentric basketball comes with some apparent limitations. His greatest strength and weakness is that he always needs the ball, and every action has to run through him. But if you're an MVP, you must be a complete package, and basketball is a two-way sport.

At this stage in his career, Doncic's defensive deficiencies are becoming increasingly concerning. Isolation stats paint Doncic as a decent defender, but he often gets the luxury of guarding the opposing team's weakest link on offense. It doesn't take a basketball savant to see he's hidden on that side of the floor, which is a factor in Dallas ranking 19th as a team in defensive rating. When he has to come out from concealment and guard fellow stars, the results speak for themselves.

Jayson Tatum takes on toughest defensive assignments for Boston Celtics

Tatum has blossomed into one of the best wing defenders in the league. The added off-season muscle combined with the ideal frame gives him the physical traits no training could compensate for. His versatility has seen him effectively guard anyone from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to Paolo Banchero. Late-game pressure brings out the best in Tatum defensively. He relishes the opportunity to shut down the opposition's top weapon, a rare commodity in the modern NBA that exemplifies his value.

No player has the same two-way prowess paired with team excellence as Tatum. The Celtics are six games clear of the second-place Cavaliers in the East as of this writing, and is the only team in the league with at least 40 wins at the All-Star break. The fact that Tatum hasn't cemented himself as a top-three MVP candidate in the eyes of the media and oddsmakers is a direct indictment of the award's criteria.