Jayson Tatum's MVP path, Kemba Walker, and a Danilo Gallinari conundrum
Forsberg: Thoughts on Tatum's MVP path, Kemba, and a Gallo conundrum originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
Some stray thoughts on the Boston Celtics after the team righted a rocky ship on Thursday night in Dallas:
Jayson Tatum’s MVP path
The NBA has seen some absurd stat lines over the past couple weeks. Donovan Mitchell put up 71. Luka Doncic had that 60/21/10 game, then went for 51 a couple days later. Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 55. Nikola Jokic finished with 40/15/15 on Christmas and followed up with 30/12/12 against Boston on New Year's Day.
All of which has only supercharged an already way-too-early conversation around the MVP race.
But since that conversation isn’t going away, here’s something we keep coming back to: Tatum’s path to MVP is all about winning.
Doncic and Jokic are going to keep putting up absurd numbers. Giannis is going to do all the usual Giannis things. The road map for Tatum is to average 30+ points, make his teammates better, be a legitimate two-way force, and lead Boston to the best record in basketball.
Maybe he’ll have a loud game or two along the way, too. But he doesn’t have to because he’s got a quality running mate in Jaylen Brown. But the Celtics likely have to finish with the best record in basketball to really accentuate Tatum’s impact.
Even if Tatum’s final stat line isn’t as gaudy as some of his competition, his overall resume could shine. Tatum has routinely outdueled fellow MVP candidates this season — that loss in Denver on January 1 and a dud in Golden State the rare outliers — and all this before his usual second-half surge.
Kemba and khemistry
Tatum created some social media buzz when he quote-tweeted news of Kemba Walker’s release in Dallas with three emojis — a set of eyeballs and two shamrocks.
Look, Walker fits none of Boston’s most pressing needs. The Celtics, if they add over the next few weeks and especially after clearing a spot by trading Noah Vonleh, should prioritize size and defense at the wing position.
But we’re admittedly suckers for nostalgia. So the idea of adding Walker to a team already overflowing with good chemistry is admittedly fun to think about. Of course, why stop there and add Isaiah Thomas, too.
Alas, the Celtics are hunting a title and the priority should be on players that can actually help beyond the locker room.
We’ll say this though: Walker deserves a ton of credit for not only being the much-needed palate cleanser after the Kyrie Irving experiment ended with the severely vibe-deprived 2019 team. And we remain convinced that Tatum and Jaylen Brown don’t blossom in their superstar roles as quickly as they did without Walker supporting them at every step.
The Gallo conundrum
Speaking of emotional attachment, Stevens could have a somewhat unique decision to make before the trade deadline. The Celtics don’t have a lot of tradable assets, as we suspect they’d prefer to keep Payton Pritchard for guard depth and the team has utilized a lot of future firsts to build the current team. The easiest path to adding an impact player without disrupting the current chemistry would be moving offseason signee Danilo Gallinari.
That’s a somewhat prickly thought. Gallinari has been a consistent presence around the team, including on the road, while rehabbing from an offseason ACL tear. Gallinari has expressed appreciation for finally getting a chance to wear green after growing up idolizing Larry Bird. It might be somewhat cold to trade him as he rehabs without having never played a minute in a Celtics jersey.
Alas, it goes back to the bottom line: The Celtics are on a quest for a title and you have to use every asset available. Gallinari’s $6.5 million salary creates avenues for adding talent that might preserve a diminished draft stash and potentially keeps from adding to a stiff luxury tax bill.
Can’t spell Derrick without a D
The Celtics are in San Antonio on Saturday, which offers a chance to put Derrick White in the spotlight. It’s been 11 months since Boston acquired White in a trade that sent Romeo Langford, Josh Richardson, a 2022 first-round pick (Blake Wesley), and a 2028 pick swap to the Spurs.
Good things tend to happen whenever White is on the court. The Celtics own a team-best +11.6 net rating in his 1,015 minutes this season (Robert Williams III is at +11.7 but in just 153 minutes since returning from offseason surgery).
Tomase: Luka is proof that Larry Bird would dominate today's NBA
Even though his shooting has been streaky, White has consistently impacted the team in a positive way, particularly on the defensive end. His recovery block on Spencer Dinwiddie on Thursday night was a thing of beauty.
Boston’s defensive rating is 106.7 in White’s floor time, which is 4.4 points better than the Celtics’ seventh-ranked rating for the season. What’s more, Boston’s defensive rating spikes to a team-worst 112.6 when White is on the bench.
White held the Mavericks to 1-of-7 shooting on Thursday when he was the primary defender. The only bucket that went against White came when was slow getting over a Christian Wood screen and watched the big man finish an alley-oop from Dinwiddie in the third quarter.
Luke Doncic was 0-for-3 when White was the primary defender with White pestering the MVP candidate into two misses in the first 65 seconds of game play.
For the season, White is holding opponents to 45 percent shooting while defending 11.8 shots per game. That’s 2.1 percent below expected output, a solid number for a guard. What’s most notable is that opponents shoot nearly 5 percent below expected on all shots within 6 feet, something that defies logic when you consider White is only 6 foot 4 and spends 6.6 percent of his time defending centers in Boston’s switch-happy scheme.
He’s not perfect on the defensive end and is susceptible at times but more often than not White really accentuates the way the Celtics want to play on both ends of the court.