DETROIT — He wasn’t making some emotional, “I dare you to defy this” statement, but Jayson Tatum didn’t back down from the notion of being the NBA’s Most Valuable Player to this early point of the season.
“I mean, I think I am,” Tatum told Yahoo Sports late Saturday night at Little Caesars Arena. “It’s a long season. Every time I step on the floor, I feel like I’m the best player. But it’s a lot of talented guys in this league.
“You want to play at an MVP level. Usually if you play at an MVP level, [you’re on] one of the best teams playing efficiently. The team is winning, and on the right path to go back to the Finals.”
Check, check and check. He’s tantalizingly close to 50-40-90 territory (50-39-87), averaging 32.3 points (third in the league), 7.2 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.3 blocks (double his career mark). He’s tied for third in win shares, and his win shares per 48 minutes is seventh.
The night after Tatum put up 43 with 10 rebounds on 28 shots to help the Boston Celtics pull away from a young but game Detroit Pistons team, Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid assaulted the record books with a 59-point, 11-rebound, eight-assist and seven-block performance on the Utah Jazz.
So Tatum isn’t wrong.
Stephen Curry has had his moments in keeping the champions from capsizing early, Luka Doncic is carrying Dallas and Giannis Antetokounmpo continues to be the most irresistible force in the game, with the Milwaukee Bucks being a half-game ahead of the Celtics in the East at 10-2.
Golden State looks closer to Lakerland levels of struggle rather than the penthouse of the West, and Dallas is staying afloat rather than taking that leap after its surprising conference finals appearance last spring.
It’s not uncommon to see teams with long playoff runs from the season before easing into the next season; but the Celtics are the lone team from last season’s final four who’ve seemed to find an identity in the early weeks of the season.
“I think he put in a lot of time to become a better player, investing in other areas,” Celtics interim coach Joe Mazzulla said. “And so he made a conscious effort to really kind of stay on the defense and figure out how the defense is guarding, how we can take advantage of those situations. That’s number one. And I think number two is, the guys around them. They all want to make each other better.”
The continuity between Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart helped prevent the slow start the Celtics had to rebound from last season. Tatum, steady and quiet-ish, is perhaps the top reason, and admits the thought of winning MVP was “subconsciously” in his head coming into the season.
“It’s [MVP] measured by team success. We have 69 games left,” Tatum said. “The key is staying healthy, keep playing the way we’re playing and see what happens.
“I say it all the time, getting to the Finals and losing really, you know, f***ed up my whole summer. It was like, how hard you work to get to that point individually and as a team. And to not get over that hump, it was tough.”
He knows it’s a cliche thing to say, the loser of the Finals coming into the next season being more focused and determined to get over the heartbreak. But then his late summer was impacted when head coach Ime Udoka was suspended for multiple team violations following an investigation from an outside law firm.
It put more pressure on Tatum, perhaps more than just subconsciously, to get off to a better individual start, to be a stabilizing force for a team that could’ve very well have been teetering internally.
Mazzulla was unexpectedly thrown into this spot to fill Udoka’s place. Smart is wild, emotional and colorful. Brown puts his voice to matters almost every day, most recently on former teammate Kyrie Irving’s suspension from the Brooklyn Nets.
Tatum isn’t intentionally looking around and deciding to be that quiet force, it just seems to be in his nature and the next step in his maturity. He did take stock during training camp and knew center Robert Williams was going to miss time and Danilo Gallinari tore his ACL in early September, so more was going to be required.
And he knew he was best equipped to deliver.
“Obviously, the head coach situation, it’s definitely not the start how we envisioned coming back from the Finals,” Tatum told Yahoo Sports. “I told the team, ‘Nobody’s gonna feel bad for us.’ We have that target on our back, we went to the championship, that we're gonna get everybody’s best shot.”
Tatum took a moment to reflect, realizing he’s five years removed from the “he’s only 19” joke that seemed to permeate for a long while. On Saturday, he had Pistons rookie Jaden Ivey coming at him aggressively and scored a career-high 26 points, helping keep the underdogs within reasonable distance. Ivey’s mother, Niele, coaches Notre Dame’s women’s basketball team, and shares Tatum’s hometown, St. Louis.
“Six years [ago], he probably was in high school watching me play,” Tatum said in his news conference. “I guess I’ve kinda reached that point. I still feel young, I’m only 24. I’ve known him for a little while. Super dynamic guard, great body. Super athletic. I’m excited to see how he keeps improving, I like that he takes on the challenge.”
Tatum used to be the one getting the compliments from older players when he was a rookie, and now the circle of life is moving in the direction where he is co-signing the potential of players looking to make a name for themselves.
Tatum is still making a bigger name for himself, reaching All-NBA first-team status for the first time and winning the inaugural Eastern Conference finals MVP in their seven-game triumph over Miami.
Winning the regular season MVP would seem to be the natural next step.
“As a kid, was one of my dreams winning MVP? Sure,” Tatum told Yahoo Sports. “If it happened, it would be a dream come true. But it wasn’t, like, ‘Come back, win MVP.’ It’s like, ‘Come back, get to the championship.’ ”
The expectations for Tatum entering the NBA were sky high. Funny enough, it’s fair to wonder if he’s exceeded them already, with still more room left to grow.