When the Lakers take on the Bucks tonight, it won’t just be a potential NBA Finals preview, but a referendum on this year’s MVP voting.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is the odds-on favorite to capture his second straight Most Valuable Player award. As the offensive and defensive fulcrum of a team that could win 70 games, Antetokounmpo’s case is air tight.
That being said, it’s hard to ever think of LeBron James as an underdog.
James has won four MVP awards in his 16 seasons in the league. He was ninth in voting in his rookie season, sixth the year afterwards, and then began a 13-year streak of finishing in top five before dropping to 11th in an injury-riddled debut season with the Lakers. Suffice to say, the man doesn't need any more accolades to add to his trophy chest.
Nevertheless, what James is doing in year 17 indicates that he wouldn’t mind making some room on the shelf. Despite coming into the year touting new teammate Anthony Davis as the Lakers’ MVP candidate, James has put together the team’s best case for the Maurice Podoloff Trophy, as well as one of, if not the best, cases in the league.
Lakers head coach Frank Vogel might be a little biased, but he thinks this should be an open-and-shut win for his star.
“The body of work he’s put forth for our team, I don’t really think it compares to anybody else,” Vogel said. “I don’t want to take anything away from anybody else, but it’s pretty unbelievable what he means to us on both sides of the ball. His defensive IQ and the ways he impacts the game with his strength and athleticism. Scoring the ball the way he does, but also leading the league in assists, and the most important stat is how much we’re winning. To me, it’s his (award).”
James’ argument starts on the offensive end, where he leads the league in assists at 10.7 per game, the only player in the NBA to average double figures in that category this season. (Incidentally, if you sort by assists per 36 minutes, James is second in the league behind Talen Horton-Tucker, whose two assists in five total minutes sets quite the pace.)
When James is on the floor, the Lakers average 114.5 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass, which would be the second-best offense in the league after the Dallas Mavericks. He simply makes his teammates better. Every two-man combination on the Lakers with James (excluding Markieff Morris and James, who have only played 32 minutes together thus far) has a positive net rating.
James’ defensive contributions rate even better statistically where his renewed engagement and focus have set a higher standard on that end for the Lakers than in years past. He ranks second in the league in ESPN’s defensive RPM, and the team is 8.2 points per 100 possessions better on defense with James on the floor, a differential that outpaces his offensive impact. With James on the court, opponents shoot worse and get into the paint less frequently.
James also has an outsized impact on the Lakers’ transition attack. When James is in the game, the Lakers run more often off of steals (plus-5.1%) and even live rebounds (plus-6.4%). Transition offense is almost always more efficient than half court offense, giving the team better opportunities to score.
When you add in James’ 25.4 points per game and the Lakers 47-13 record, the statistical argument for James as the most valuable player in the league is clear. Unfortunately, Antetokounmpo has him beat almost everywhere.
James is second in overall RPM, while Antetokounmpo is first. The Milwaukee forward is ahead of him on both offense (second and third) and defense (third and fourth). Both of their teams have a plus-11.4 point differential with their star players on the floor, but the Bucks are plus-16.7 with Giannis on the floor versus plus-10.5 for the Lakers with LeBron.
Antetokounmpo is averaging more points per game (29.6) than James (despite playing fewer minutes), in addition to six more rebounds per game. He has a higher true shooting percentage on a higher usage rate, and oh yeah, did we mention the Bucks have only lost nine games this season? Like James, Antetokounmpo also has a positive net rating with every one of his Bucks teammates, and they’re all a little bit higher than their Laker counterparts.
So if the numbers don’t make the claim for James, then his MVP case would have to a bit more esoteric to beat Antetokounmpo. The narrative would have to be fairly compelling to overrule the best player on the best team, a tried and true formula for this award. At practice on Thursday before facing the Bucks, Vogel did his best to speak to the less quantifiable positives James brings.
“I don’t want to talk about other players and the seasons they’re having, but the intangible piece is the IQ and everything that he brings to the table,” Vogel said. “The confidence that he gives our group, knowing that we have that guy on our side.”
“I think one thing that I wasn’t directly around was just his leadership and the ways he’s really rallied our group. Our chemistry is the strength of our basketball team, and he’s been unbelievable with getting all the guys on the same page, supporting the coaching staff.”
All of this is where this weekend comes into play. It would be hard to deem James more valuable if he lost to Antetokounmpo both times during the regular season, as I’m assuming the All-Star Game won’t factor into the voting discussion. It also wouldn't do James any favors to lose to a crosstown rival three times and get outplayed by Kawhi Leonard in all of those matchups. The MVP trophy may not get presented until well after the playoffs end, but it’s a regular season award, and high-profile games matter.
If the Lakers manage to earn a split or win both games this weekend, then James’ story starts to become more compelling. Although the #WashedKing narrative never made much sense, James did start this season with some question marks. He had to recover from the first major injury of his career after missing the playoffs for the first time since 2004. He has brought prestige back to a franchise that was floundering for almost a decade. And even though his statistics aren’t groundbreaking in comparison to Russell Westbrook winning MVP for averaging a triple-double, what he’s doing at age 35 is unprecedented. No player in NBA history has ever been this good, this late in their career, and that sort of achievement is worth recognizing.
James earns extra points in my book for his impeccable rebuke of MLB commissioner Rob Manfred and his introduction of the phrase “I am in Sports” into our lexicon. Furthermore, any discussion of James’ season is incomplete without an acknowledgement of the role he has taken to lift this organization in the aftermath of Kobe Bryant’s tragic passing. To understand that “God gave [him] wide shoulders for a reason” and put the team on his back demonstrates his value to the Lakers on an entirely different level.
LeBron James is having an outstanding season, one that will surely be recognized with a first-team all-NBA honor and a return to his top-five perch on the MVP ballot. Strictly considering his statistical resume, it’s unreasonable to think that James should earn his fifth MVP trophy ahead of the Giannis Antetokounmpo, given the year he’s put forth in Milwaukee.
But when you take into account James’ entire body of work on and off the court, and the tale he has crafted in his 17th season, there is no denying the impact James has on the Lakers. He lifts this team up in a way that no one else can. In most other years, his resume to date would be worthy of his fifth trophy. But against this year’s competition, he’ll need an exclamation point to cement his candidacy, one that could come tonight.
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