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Sayre's law dictates that "in any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake." This is the essence of virtually every argument surrounding Jayson Tatum's individual standing within the NBA

Critics in the past have pointed to his limitations as a playmaker (though he has improved on that front), his high-jumper shot diet and the low-usage role he is able to play in a well-spaced offense relative to other superstars as evidence that he isn't a top-tier player. Supporters have gone the other way, arguing his status as the best player on the best team should afford him far more respect. In a February discussion about the MVP race on The Draymond Green Show, the Golden State star used this stance to argue that Tatum has been held to a higher standard than his peers.

"Clearly the goalposts have shifted dramatically, because in this guy's case, he's fifth? And [his team] has a 7.5-game lead in the conference? The goalposts have moved on Jayson Tatum," Green said. "I know what JT has to do. JT will not be taken seriously for MVP until he wins a championship, and it just hasn't been that way for everybody else, I must say. It wasn't that way for Nikola Jokic. It wasn't that way for Giannis Antetokounmpo. It wasn't that way for Joel Embiid. It just really hasn't been that way for everybody else, so I don't know how it ended up that way for JT."

Well, there's a pretty simple explanation for what's gone on here. Tatum has played for better teams than players like Jokic, Antetokounmpo and Embiid. Therefore, he has been asked to do less in service of carrying those teams than they have, and as a result, has fared worse when it comes to individual accolades. This is a concept that drives a significant amount of basketball debate, because, as Sayre's law dictates, it ultimately isn't that important. Tatum's individual standing has never mattered, and Tatum's own performance reflected that. "We're so close to what we're trying to accomplish, why would I let my ego or my need to score all the points gets in the way of that?" Tatum said after Boston's Game 2 victory over the Mavericks.

He recognized what did matter: the Celtics were building a one-of-a-kind championship roster, one that hinged on having a superstar that didn't play for recognition. Boston's formula worked because Tatum was comfortable ceding shots to Jaylen Brown, who won Finals MVP, or Jrue Holiday, who had already won a championship with the Bucks, or Derrick White, who became Boston's analytics darling during the season. Everybody could score. Everybody could handle. Everybody could defend. The wrong personality atop the locker room pecking order could have ruined that entire concept. Tatum embraced it.

And now, Tatum is where Green said he needed to be. He's a champion. Standard operating procedure within NBA discourse is to crown the reigning champion as the league's new king. This isn't just a media exercise. The very best players in the sport engage in it as well. In the fall of 2022, for instance, Giannis Antetokounmpo anointed Stephen Curry, the man who had just beaten Tatum in the 2022 Finals, as the league's alpha. "The guy who wins is the best," Antetokounmpo claimed. One year earlier, that title was his. A year after that, it moved on to Jokic.

The idea that the NBA gets a new best player each year is a bit nonsensical. Two weeks ago, the basketball world appeared ready to move on to Luka Doncic, whom Tatum vanquished in the Finals. If Tatum wasn't in the conversation for the title of "best in the world" then, should four team-centric wins really change that? Of course not.

Curry represents the other side of the coin here as well. He didn't win his first Finals MVP award until 2022, seven years after his first championship. It was unfairly treated as his scarlet letter throughout that entire period, a ridiculous stain on an otherwise sterling resume. Tatum is going to hear some of that too now that Brown holds the Bill Russell trophy. Even if it was meant as a mind game, Mavericks coach Jason Kidd started the narrative down that road after Game 1. "Jaylen's their best player," Kidd said

Tatum, again, refused to take the bait. "This is a team sport. We understand that. We wouldn't be here if we didn't have JB on our team, and we could say that for a lot of guys," he said. "We all played a part in getting to where we're at. We understand that people try to drive a wedge between us. It's a smart thing to do, or try to do, but we've been in this position for many years with guys trying to divide us, and say that one of us should be traded, that one's better than the other. It's not our first time at the rodeo."

There are going to be people that argue that Tatum is the league's new king. There will be just as many who push the notion that Brown has usurped Tatum in Boston, which is just as silly. Brown hasn't averaged more points per game than Tatum since the latter's rookie year. Tatum has similarly out-rebounded and out-assisted Brown in all seven of their shared seasons. Brown has been a shade more efficient, but on lower volume. The advanced metrics all point to Tatum. The individual accolades do too. Tatum was just named First-Team All-NBA. Brown, perhaps unjustly, missed out on All-NBA entirely. A couple of strong series doesn't change Tatum's seven-year track record as the slightly superior Celtic.

There's a middle ground here, as there usually is. For the last handful of seasons, Tatum has hovered around the same point within the NBA's hierarchy: safely within the top 10, safely outside of the top three, somewhere closer to the latter than the former, but not in a single, defined slot. You can say Tatum's the fourth-best player in the NBA. You can say he's the eighth-best player in the NBA. You're somewhere in the right ballpark. At times, he's probably been both.

His career usage rate is more than seven percentage points lower than Doncic's and Embiid's. They are asked to do far more, and they have largely succeeded, at least on an individual level. They've scored more efficiently and at higher volume, at least. Doncic has done so as one of the league's best passers. Embiid has done so as one of the league's best defenders. Could Tatum carry their burdens? We may never know. Common sense is to assume that anyone that hasn't actively done so probably can't. The ability to do so is rare.

He isn't quite as definitional to the Celtics as Jokic is to the Nuggets or Antetokounmpo is to the Bucks, either. Denver gets to run a beautiful, high-motion, high-ball-movement offense because Jokic's playmaking is at the center of it. The Bucks have designed a team around rim-pressure that only Antetokounmpo can create. They've surrounded him with shooters and have put defenses in the impossible position of deciding which to prioritize. Tatum doesn't have such a signature skill. He's good at everything, better than a jack-of-all-trades, but still a master of none.

Even Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was more impressive individually against these same Mavericks. He averaged over 32 points on 51-55-83 shooting in the second round. His teammates weren't as ready to share the burden as Tatum's were. But no player in all of basketball is better at getting to his spots than Gilgeous-Alexander. He's grown substantially as a defender, much as Tatum did at around the same career point. Tatum has led younger Celtics teams to top seeds and deep playoff runs before. Gilgeous-Alexander was at the front of the youngest No. 1 seed in league history.

These are the players Tatum will be compared to atop the NBA. They are the cream of the crop. You can argue that Embiid's health makes him too great a risk to place above Tatum. You can argue that Gilgeous-Alexander still has more to prove on the playoff stage. But this is broadly where Tatum should wind up, outside of a clear Jokic-Doncic-Antetokounmpo top three, but still right there, near the top. That's as high as Boston has ever needed him to be. It might even be as high as the Celtics would ever want him to be.

Tatum has virtues that the others lack, after all. He may not be quite as productive, but he's significantly more malleable. You don't have to build a specific sort of roster to cover for any weakness of his, as you do with Antetokounmpo's shooting or Doncic's defense. 

Nate Duncan made a great point on a recent episode of his Dunc'd On podcast that displays this principle: Tatum has spent this postseason mostly guarding centers. How often do we hear about other stars—actual big men like Anthony Davis, for instance—wanting not to do so? Tatum doesn't quite bring as much to the table as some of these other players, but he takes nothing off of it. You can play any style, build any roster, work with any coach if your best player is Jayson Tatum.

That is what ultimately matters here. Whether or not he's been the MVP or the best player in the NBA is immaterial. What was important for the Celtics, what allowed them to become the juggernaut they became, was that Tatum grew into this, specific kind of superstar. Tatum is one who transcends individual achievement and contorts himself into whatever role they need him to play on any given night. That might sound like standard, sacrificing for the team, "player finally becomes a winner," stuff, but I promise it isn't. 

NBA champions typically adopt the identity of their stars. Jokic and Curry teams move because Jokic and Curry themselves encourage it. Michael Jordan and LeBron James teams pounded the rock and played methodically because that's what they preferred. There is sacrifice involved in winning, though it usually comes from everyone else. But the Celtics never adopted Tatum's identity because his identity is and always has been a willingness to accept theirs. That may not make him the best player in the NBA, but it makes him the perfect player for this best team, and based on everything he's done to grow into that role, he's probably just fine with that, even if the basketball discourse community won't be.

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