Anthony Davis has started to make his case for Defensive Player of the Year 25 games into the season, and a convincing case at that.
But at this current pace, the newest Lakers superstar will likely be in contention for an even bigger award: Most Valuable Player. The only problem? His teammate, LeBron James.
Both Davis and James have had spectacular seasons thus far, and figure to be shoo-ins as All-Star starters, and All-NBA honorees, although Giannis Antetokounmpo could knock one of them off the first team, provided they’re all classified as forwards.
When it comes to MVP, however, the calculus gets a little trickier. If both stars are leading the Lakers, is either of them the most valuable? Each brings a unique set of skills, though they both exhibit them with similar flair, and each has been supremely dominant in his role for the team that is tied for the best record in the league at 22-3.
Their value is hard to separate because the two stars have been perfect complements for one another. James is averaging a double-double for the first time in his career (25.8 points and 10.8 assists), and that’s primarily a function of him sharing the court with one of the greatest play finishers in the game. James has connected with Davis for 77 assists, 18 more than the second-highest total in the league. Ben Simmons has assisted Tobias Harris 59 times, and Lou Williams to Montrezl Harrell 57 times, but both duos have played at least 60 more minutes together than James and Davis.
As a product of all those assists, Davis is scoring at the highest rate of his career (28.4 points per 36 minutes). He’s never played with a better point guard than James, and his offense is thriving. Davis is shooting 74.29% at the rim, another career-best mark, and he’s only getting more comfortable as the year goes on.
Defensively, James is more engaged than he has been since he took his talents to South Beach. After being challenged by Davis before the season to make an All-Defense team, James has responded with his best defensive rating in four years, perhaps not coincidentally the last time he won a championship. The effort is visible, as James is more regularly deflecting passes, getting in position to take charges, and diving on the floor for loose balls.
In addition to Davis’ preseason challenge, James has been emboldened to be aggressive in his perimeter defense because of the backline protection that his superstar teammate provides. So much of what they each do on the court relies on the presence of the other, to the point that it’s almost impossible to separate their value from one another.
But if their cases are so intertwined, maybe LeBron and AD can be co-MVPs! The league gave the entire Atlanta Hawks starting lineup the player of the month award in 2015; perhaps that template can be extended to include end-of-season awards.
The Lakers have to look no further than their own bench for an example of a player who has shared an NBA honor — assistant coach Jason Kidd was co-Rookie of the Year with Grant Hill in 1995, one of three times that this particular award has been split. In hindsight, splitting the vote was probably the truest outcome, considering the Hall of Fame careers both players ended up having.
But there have never been co-MVPs, and that’s by design. Voters have to pick first through fifth place, and though it’s theoretically possible for players to tie in points, it’s highly unlikely. The fact of the matter remains that each individual voter has to rank five players in order. No ties allowed.
In the history of MVP voting, two top-five players on the same team tend to cannibalize votes from one another. Over the last 30 years (after the league expanded to 25 teams), there have been only been four instances of two teammates finishing in the top five of the MVP ballot: Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in 1996, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant in 2002 and 2003, and Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in 2016. Not even Durant and Stephen Curry managed to crack the top five together.
In those four seasons, one of the players was fifth each time, and the teammates cancelled each other out three times, with only Jordan emerging as MVP during Chicago’s historic 72-10 season.
If considered separately, it’s unlikely that James and Davis can overcome that bias, not in a season that also features triumphant individual campaigns from Antetokounmpo and James Harden, among others.
It’s hard not to feel a little sympathy for the Lakers’ PR department, with no clear-cut candidate to promote over the other when it comes time for year-end awards. Who will be turned into a bobblehead to be sent to NBA voters? Or will the Lakers simply prioritize Davis for Defensive Player of the Year and focus on James for MVP?
The fact that two Lakers stars each provide so much individual value is ultimately a good problem to have. That they complement and amplify each other so well is a further blessing, and what makes this team so dynamic and successful. Maybe they won’t break the mold and become the first ever co-MVPs, but if the Lakers continue their winning ways, plenty of other historical feats await this duo, even if a shared Maurice Podoloff trophy isn’t among them.