As we careen towards the NBA All-Star break, the 2022-23 season has begun to take shape. The contenders have risen to the top as the pretenders (read: Lakers) have fallen towards the lottery. We can start to look back on how we got here and see which players stand above the fray.

None stand higher than Jayson Tatum.

After falling short in the Finals, the Celtics entered this summer with heavy questions surrounding their core. Can they win the title behind a Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown tandem?

After sweeping the broken Nets, beating the Khris-Middleton-less Bucks, and surviving the Three-Point Brick Heard Round The World, they lost to the thought-to-be-on-the-decline veteran Warriors, and many worried whether they'd get this close ever again.

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Jayson Tatum is proving last year was no fluke

Shortly after returning from The Bay empty-handed, Tatum spent seven weeks in Los Angeles with trainer Drew Hanlen focusing on the minimal holes in his game. "I think getting to the Finals and losing it when you're that close, it just refocuses you," Hanlen told the Athletic.

Tatum felt close to the top, even calling his shot to Joel Embiid near the end of 2021-22 season. Embiid was working with Hanlen, and Tatum told Joel on speaker phone that "he better win MVP this year, because it's mine next year."

Tatum held true to his promise

The hard work has once again paid off. The Celtics sit at the top of the league standings as we near the All-Star break. Newcomer Malcolm Brogdon has meshed perfectly with long-standing Celtics in Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown. Al Horford continues to drink from LeBron's fountain of youth and rookie head coach Joe Mazzulla has called all the right shots in his first year on the job.

Yet Tatum is the straw that stirs the drink.

He leads the team in points and rebounds and is second is assists and steals. The advanced metrics stans love Tatum as well as he leads the Celtics in Win Shares, PER and box plus/minus. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, he dropped 51 points against Charlotte, passing Larry Bird to have the most 50-point games in Celtic history. The dude is 24.

Also this game was supposedly on the road, but you tell the Hornets crowd that...

Tatum focus this summer on driving through contact and reestablishing his mid-range game has led to him averaging his highest points per game, 2-point shooting percentage and free throw rate of his career.

Yes, there are other guys in contention for MVP

Luka Doncic - Odds to win +430 (bet $10 to win $43)

The NBA leaders in points is certainly making a case to steal Tatum's thunder as he carries an otherwise play-in caliber roster to a top-4 seed in the West. But should this award go to a player whose team is barely above .500?

Nikola Jokic - Odds to win -110 (bet $11.10 to win $10)

The juggernaut. There's no denying that the captain of the West's No. 1 seed is deserving of his third straight MVP trophy, but will history hold him back? Only eight NBA players have ever won three or more MVPs, and only Bird, Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain have ever won three in a row. The committee might balk at letting Jokic into that esteemed group.

Giannis Antetokounmpo - Odds to win +1100

Arguably the most dominant force in the entire NBA has faced his toughest challenges this season, playing most games without All-Stars teammates Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday. How long can Giannis carry the load, or will he be Kawhi Leonard Load Managed as we near the postseason?

Joel Embiid - Odds to win +800

The 76ers have been a pleasant addition to relevancy this season, and Embiid is the sole reason why. He's flat out unstoppable when healthy and the Philly Sixers rarely lose when he is on the court. Having missed 12 games already hurt his chances early, but if he can stay healthy ,it will be quite difficult to stop the man who Tatum called nearly 10 months ago.

Who's the winner?

In such a tight race, it's difficult to predict who will come away with the honor. I think voters will be nitpicking resumes and splitting hairs with their picks. In the end, it could come down to which team sits atop the standings.

Especially if Tatum keeps winning as the Celtics injuries start to pile up.

And as Boston extends its lead in the East, it'll be tough to not rightfully place the crown on Jayson Tatum's head.

Jayson Tatum - Odds to win MVP +700 (bet $10 to win $70)

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