How an NBA title could impact Ant, Luka, Tatum and Haliburton

How much pressure is on Jayson Tatum to lead the Celtics to a title? (1:28)

Alan Hahn and Austin Rivers discuss the pressure Jayson Tatum is under to produce a championship for the Celtics. (1:28)

Even before the Boston Celtics and Indiana Pacers tipped off their series at TD Garden on Tuesday night, the 2024 NBA conference finals had already made league history.

For the first time, zero current or former Most Valuable Players -- the award was introduced before the 1955-56 season -- have reached the NBA's final four, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

Welcome to the next-gen conference finals, which present a massive opportunity for four young stars looking to take the next step in their careers.

Celtics' forward Jayson Tatum, who at 26 is already a grizzled playoff veteran, has yet to capture a ring, unlike the Boston legends of the past. The Pacers, meanwhile, feature one of the league's most exciting and dynamic young guards in 24-year-old Tyrese Haliburton, who has led Indiana to a surprising run.

Minnesota Timberwolves' 22-year-old superstar guard Anthony Edwards could be on the fast track in becoming the next face of the NBA and is already receiving comparisons to Michael Jordan. His counterpart with the Dallas Mavericks, 25-year-old guard Luka Doncic, has become the do-it-all engine for one of the most exciting teams in the league.

How would an NBA title impact the trajectories and narratives surrounding their young careers? ESPN's NBA Insiders examine what a Finals win would mean to each team's superstar.

Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

Nobody within the Mavericks organization batted an eye in late January when coach Jason Kidd declared that Doncic, a month shy of his 25th birthday, was already the best player in franchise history.

"He's better than Dirk," Kidd said in a matter-of-fact tone during an appearance on the Mavs' flagship radio station, meaning no disrespect to his teammate from the 2010-11 championship run.

Dirk Nowitzki, whose statue greets fans in the plaza outside American Airlines Center, is of course the most accomplished player to ever wear a Mavericks uniform. He's the only player in franchise history to win MVP and NBA Finals MVP and holds a wide variety of team records, most prominently his 31,560 career points. The hope -- anticipation even -- is that Doncic will surpass all of his rookie season teammate's feats.

The most important -- delivering an NBA title to Dallas -- is eight wins away.

But there's no reasonable debate about whether Doncic is more talented than Nowitzki, who has been saying so since Doncic was his teenage teammate. Doncic, who had a historically unprecedented stat line of a league-leading 33.9 points, 9.2 rebounds and 9.8 assists per game this season en route to what will surely be his fifth straight first-team All-NBA selection, dominates games like few have.

"He's in the atmosphere of MJ, the best to ever do it, LeBron, Kobe," Kidd continued during that radio appearance.

That bold statement from Doncic's coach is premature as a proclamation. But it's not a crazy prediction.

You certainly can find skeptics who say Doncic will never lead Dallas to one title, much less the multiple required to join the exclusive company of Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. Some rival executives, scouts, coaches and players will happily express their doubts -- as long as they're granted anonymity, because nobody wants to draw the attention of the ruthlessly competitive Doncic.

You'll hear that a team can't win a title with a superstar who doesn't defend. That might be true, but it doesn't apply to Doncic. The Mavs were the NBA's top-ranked defense in the final 20 games of the regular season, a trend that has carried over into the playoffs. Dallas' scheme protects Doncic as much as possible, but his individual defensive metrics are actually very good this season.

You'll hear that a team can't win a title with such a heliocentric system. This theory probably wouldn't still be in circulation if James Harden's Houston Rockets hit just a few of those 27 straight 3s they missed in Game 7 of the 2018 Western Conference finals. Nevertheless, Doncic and Kyrie Irving have thrived as the league's highest-scoring tandem, developing harmonious chemistry on and off the court.

"We all know his numbers and stuff like that, but I want to be a teammate and a brother next to him that helps him grow as a man and helps him achieve the things that he wants to achieve," Irving said on Saturday after the Mavs eliminated the Oklahoma City Thunder. "And I know he feels the same way."

Doncic is at the point in his journey as a ringless superstar -- his EuroLeague title with Real Madrid and EuroBasket championship with Slovenia aren't considered in these kinds of conversations -- that a championship parade is required to shatter perceptions.

So was Giannis Antetokounmpo, who wasn't skilled enough to lead a team to a title until he finished the Milwaukee Bucks' 2021 championship run with a 50-point performance.

So was Nikola Jokic, who was the poster boy of analytics ruining the NBA discourse until he reeled off 10 triple-doubles during the Denver Nuggets' playoff run to last season's title.

Nowitzki, Doncic's predecessor as the Mavs' face of the franchise, serves as a sensational example of just how silly NBA legacy blathering can be. He was perceived by many as the epitome of the soft European stereotype deep into his prime, a finesse player not built for the tough playoff grind. Never mind that he was one of four players in NBA history at the time with career postseason averages of 25 points and 10 rebounds. Nowitzki didn't suddenly develop championship-caliber toughness at age 32, but he had the right pieces in place around him and got the breaks needed to finally grasp the Larry O'Brien Trophy.

The Mavs firmly believe that day will come for Doncic. Perhaps even before he hits his prime.

-- Tim MacMahon

Anthony Edwards, Minnesota Timberwolves

Kevin Garnett is the greatest player in Timberwolves history. Heck, KG and Kirby Puckett might be the most well-known figures in Minnesota outside the legendary Prince and Bob Dylan.

But if Edwards can deliver the Wolves' first title since their inception in 1989-90, he would not only ascend to a height greater than Garnett in Minnesota, but he could cement a path toward potentially becoming the face of the NBA.

In just his fourth season, he's already in the West finals. With his exciting style of play, megawatt personality and insatiable thirst to win, the kid often compared to Michael Jordan could be on the cusp of reaching some rare air.

"Honestly, this is like a trampoline, a jump board for him," Wolves point guard Mike Conley said of Edwards' breakout playoff performance. "Just being able to experience this at such a young age. A lot of times, you lose that Game 7 [to Denver in the second round] and then it kind of gets your mind on it for all summer and you come back another year to springboard to the Western Conference finals and kind of build up to it."

The scary thing is Edwards is not in his prime and is already being labeled as "unguardable." He has improved in each of his four seasons since being drafted first in 2020, upgrading his scoring, shooting and playmaking abilities.

"When you're guarding him one-on-one and he's able to operate in space, to me, he's proven to be unguardable," Denver coach Michael Malone said last round. "He can shoot the pull-up 3 with great efficiency. He can get downhill and dunk it on your whole team. He can stop, shot-fake pivot, shot-fake step-through, midrange as well as draw fouls."

That doesn't include Edwards' defensive ability -- he can smother guards such as Jamal Murray on the perimeter and rise for spectacular blocks -- or his leadership.

"It's incredible for him, 22 years old, being in a Western Conference finals," Wolves center Rudy Gobert said. "I don't know how many of those he's going to have. ... I try to tell him that you got to make the most of that moment. You're Anthony Edwards, you are in your fourth year in the league, you are very mature and you can help a team win a championship right now. ... He wants more, he wants to be a champion and he is putting in the work to do so.

"... He's been getting more mature almost every game we've played. The maturity, the growth he's shown carries over to our team, and I can't wait to watch him keep growing."

Edwards isn't the complete package -- yet. But what he is adding is invaluable playoff experience, including the knowledge of what it takes to eliminate a defending champion.

"I think he's really enjoying the cerebral parts of the game right now," Minnesota coach Chris Finch said. "Being demanding of his teammates, his leadership, all these things that, they were there and they were growing, but they've gone to another level. They're omnipresent right now."

For all the talk that Edwards plays like the 1980s version of Jordan, consider that Jordan didn't win his first ring until he was 28.

"It's a big moment for him, big opportunity," Conley said. "He's got to understand that. Our gift is we have a lot of guys who don't really realize the moment as much, like how special it is. It allows us to come in with just a hungry, eager mentality.

"That's going to be to his benefit going forward for his legacy."

-- Ohm Youngmisuk

Tyrese Haliburton, Indiana Pacers

After winning Game 7 at Madison Square Garden, Haliburton walked into the postgame news conference wearing a hooded sweatshirt featuring a photo of Pacers legend Reggie Miller's famous choke gesture toward Knicks superfan Spike Lee in 1994.

Haliburton's ode to the Pacers' past came after his own signature moment at New York's expense. As the Pacers began to blitz the Knicks to advance to the East finals, Haliburton seized an opportunity to trash talk during a first-quarter back and forth with a Knicks fan sitting courtside.

It was as if the torch had been passed from one Indiana troll to the next. Just like Miller, whose Pacers battled New York in back-to-back playoffs in 1994 and 1995, Haliburton took one final opportunity to provoke Knicks fans on his way out of town.

"I knew I was going to have to pick somebody today to get me going," Haliburton said after the game.

Haliburton has been racking up accomplishments during his breakout season. He averaged 20.1 points and led the NBA with 10.9 assists per game. He guided the Pacers to the inaugural in-season tournament title game in December, started for the East in the All-Star Game in Indiana and led the Pacers to their first playoff series victory and conference finals appearance since 2014.

"The playoff experience, the playoff moments, being able to advance, his exceptional game in Game 7, these are things that really endure a fan base to a franchise player," Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said before Tuesday's Game 1. "That's how Reggie Miller made his mark with the Pacers over 18 years.

"... And he's been very humble about the lessons learned. That's a special young star that has both the belief, the confidence but also the humility and the personality."

But can Haliburton carry the Pacers even further than Miller?

Indiana has made one Finals appearance in franchise history, in 2000 with Miller as its centerpiece. This year, Haliburton has led the Pacers to upsets over a higher seed in consecutive rounds and faces another heavy favorite in the top-seeded Celtics. If this run for Indiana keeps going, it will almost certainly be with Haliburton at the forefront, and that could help him ascend to an even higher level than Miller reached during his Hall of Fame career.

"He brings people together," Miller said of Haliburton during All-Star Weekend. "If you watch Tyrese play, it's never been about him. It's been about us. What can we do to win.

"The way his teammates look at him, they look at him like they look at LeBron. They look at him like they look at Jokic. They look at him like they look at Giannis. Like, 'We can do anything with this dude out there.' And I see that. That's why, knock on wood, I really do believe that he can carry this team to a championship."

-- Jamal Collier

Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

Five Celtics have won an NBA Finals MVP: Larry Bird, John Havlicek, Jo Jo White, Paul Pierce and Cedric Maxwell. The first four are Hall of Famers. Maxwell, meanwhile, has his No. 31 jersey retired at TD Garden and has become an institution in Boston as a fixture on Celtics radio broadcasts for decades.

A title and a possible Finals MVP that would come with it would further cement Tatum's career as a Celtic, one that's quickly heading toward his own No. 0 jersey joining the many hanging above the Garden parquet.

Considering Boston's success during Tatum's career, it's easy to forget that he just turned 26 in March and is in his seventh season. He has played in five conference finals during those seven years -- something many players never come close to achieving, let alone before they reach their prime.

And yet, that's exactly where Tatum finds himself, having powered Boston to the league's best regular-season record and a net rating more than four points better than that of any other team. That success has come with Tatum putting up excellent yet slightly less impressive individual statistics -- a credit to Boston's surrounding roster and Tatum's willingness to take an individual step back.

"Just trying to manipulate the game, understanding that I do have a lot of the attention when I'm on the court and I have the ball," Tatum said after Boston dispatched Cleveland in the East semifinals, when asked about how he approaches games with so much talent around him.

"And how can I dominate the game? Me and [Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla] talk about during spurts of the game if I want to screen, do I want to handle the ball, and it's just simple, making the right reads. I don't come down the court telling myself I'm about to shoot or I'm about to pass.

"It's just making the right read based on the action."

But for all of the accolades and adulation Tatum and the Celtics have received over the past few seasons, this clearly is their best opportunity to claim an NBA title. The Denver Nuggets, the team expected to cause the Celtics the most trouble in these playoffs, have been dethroned. After playing the injury-riddled Heat and Cavs in these playoffs, Boston faces an Indiana squad that also benefited from playing teams with injured players en route to the conference finals.

Win a title, and all of the questions about Tatum's fit with Jaylen Brown, Tatum's ability to be the best player on a championship team and the long-term questions about where Boston is headed will all go away. If they fail to break through, all of that noise will become louder than ever.

But after years of knocking on the door, Boston is in position to bust through it and pass the Los Angeles Lakers by claiming an 18th NBA championship. And if they do so, Tatum will cement himself into Celtics lore.

-- Tim Bontemps