Tomase: Has Jayson Tatum risen past Nikola Jokic in NBA hierarchy? originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
Two-time defending MVP Nikola Jokic isn't just a unicorn, he's a Pegasus eating a rainbow, a 6-foot-11 center with a feathery shooting touch and a point guard's vision. His passes alone fill highlight reels, and that's before he drops 28 and grabs 14 in warmups.
Celtics fans get their lone live look at Jokic on Friday when the Nuggets visit for an East-West showdown. But more than a battle of title aspirants, the game offers an opportunity for Jayson Tatum to state his case as the league's best player.
Fresh off winning a head-to-head showdown with explosive Grizzlies guard Ja Morant on Monday, Tatum can bag an even bigger fish on Friday. Since arriving in 2017, he has steadily morphed from holding his own, to All-Star, to First-Team All-NBA. Now he's ready to make the leap to legitimate MVP candidate, and what better way to take those reins than versus the man who wears the crown?
Jokic may own the hardware and deliver the flashier no-look highlights, but Tatum is the future of the NBA, and I suspect that most GMs would choose the Boston forward if starting a team from scratch.
That's partly the direction of the league, with its focus on athletic wing players, but it's also a testament to Tatum's inexorable growth into unstoppable offensive force with the potential to be an all-NBA defender, too.
There are no holes in Tatum's game, and watching him find yet another level has been breathtaking. He might be the most complete player in the NBA, even when compared to other MVP favorites.
Whereas Jokic's lack of foot speed can be exploited on defense, Tatum showed during last year's playoffs that he can lock down Kevin Durant. Giannis Antetokounmpo still can't make a 3, and Tatum routinely drills them in the face of defenders. For all of his highlight-reel step-back-jacks, the otherworldly Luka Doncic is actually a pretty pedestrian 3-point and free throw shooter. Tatum, meanwhile, could conceivably join Larry Bird, Dirk Nowitzki, and Kevin Durant as the only forwards to post a 50-40-90 season.
The opening five minutes of the third quarter on Wednesday in Detroit showed Tatum at his scintillating best. A layup, four 3-pointers, and an isolation jumper gave him 16 points in a blink en route to a game-high 31.
That same night, Jokic delivered only 24 points and four rebounds in 20 foul-plagued minutes vs. the Pacers, but he made the go-ahead jumper with 30 seconds left and then disrupted Myles Turner's game-tying 3-point attempt at the buzzer.
Both guys made winning plays, but it feels like Tatum has more of them in his future, whereas the Nuggets under Jokic may have already peaked.
Both players were shown the door in the playoffs last year by Steph Curry and the Warriors, the Nuggets in a five-game first-round series, and the Celtics in six games in the Finals. But whereas the Celtics feel like they're just getting started, the Nuggets have backslid from putting a scare in the Lakers in the conference finals in the bubble, to getting swept by the Suns in the conference semis two years ago, to last year's meek exit.
No doubt, the torn ACL that sidelined sharpshooter Jamal Murray played a role, but it seems teams built around centers can only fly so high in today's NBA, whether it's Jokic's Nuggets, Joel Embiid's Sixers, or the Jazz for all those years with Rudy Gobert.
The days of Shaq or even Tim Duncan winning it all are over, replaced by dynamic tweeners like Kawhi Leonard and Tatum -- guys who can play anywhere from shooting guard to power forward and do a lot of ball-handling, too.
That's not to detract from Jokic's greatness. He will undoubtedly fling a pass that makes your jaw hit the floor tonight, and the Celtics will probably struggle to contain him in the post, especially without Robert Williams.
It's just to say that no matter the disparity in MVP trophies, as we stand right now, Tatum is better.