There’s never an ideal time for an NBA suspension, let alone one caused by an international pandemic, but last month’s suspension couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Los Angeles Lakers.
In the week leading up to the suspension, the Lakers beat the LA Clippers and Milwaukee Bucks — two teams they hadn’t beaten prior to that — behind the most dominant stretch of basketball we’ve seen from LeBron James in the purple and gold. In the five games before the suspension, James averaged 30 points, 10.6 assists, 9.4 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game — all while guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard during that stretch.
That stretch from James sparked a conversation about the possibility of him winning his fifth league MVP at the age of 35 over Antetokounmpo, the reigning league MVP. It’s not the easiest argument to get behind within the context of the entire regular season, but it’s undoubtedly one that’s ongoing, and during an interview with Michael Lee of The Athletic, Jared Dudley gave his two cents.
Unsurprisingly, James has Dudley’s vote:
LeBron where he’s at now, leading the league in assists. Getting challenged by Anthony Davis defensively and not only holding the challenge, but taking the challenge to a whole ‘nother level. Going toward the end, he’s guarding the second- or third-best players in the league, in my opinion, in Giannis and Kawhi. He’s guarding them at 35. He’s guarding them the majority of the game, fourth quarter, with his reputation on the line defensively. People say he’s trying to save energy, but he’s guarding them and we’re winning. It’s because of that. Now, offensively he’s still carrying the load and the difference between him and these other players is his ability to get everybody involved.
Giannis has improved but LeBron is at such a high level. Of the mental aspect of the game. Of telling AD where to be at. As a leader, because I’ve heard people that played with Kawhi and Giannis, and from a leadership standpoint, what this man does, on and off the court, is the best. I’ve played with guys like Nash, Chris Paul. There is no one that compares to LeBron’s leadership, on and off the floor. His demeanor, with what he does, to still be a guys’ guy, to do the team dinners, to hang out, to bringing the whole Lakers organization together. Who really deserves the MVP this season? Both deserve it. Do I think LeBron is a little bit more deserving? Yes. Do I think Giannis’ stats are better? Yes. But the MVP is not necessarily the best stats.
That’s why I’m giving LeBron the edge. I’ll be the first one to tell everybody, I think Giannis’ stats are a little bit better, but I believe LeBron has been more valuable this year.
To Dudley’s credit, he hit all of the major points as to why this is an argument in the first place. However, he might be underselling the type of season Giannis is having just a bit. Here’s a snapshot of the freaky stats the Greek All-Star has put up this season from a story I did last month:
This season, Antetokounmpo has averaged 29.6 points per game on 54.7% shooting from the field in addition to the 13.7 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game he’s averaged per game. If his stats hold, he’ll become just the second player in NBA history to average at least 29 points per game on 50% shooting from the field while averaging 13.7 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game — the other is Wilt Chamberlain, according to Basketball Reference.
The craziest part about the season Antetokounmpo is having is the fact that he’s putting up the numbers he is while averaging just 30.9 minutes per game. No player has ever matched his stat line while averaging fewer than 40 minutes per game.
Has James been incredible this season? Yes! Did he look like the best player in the league in the games before the All-Star break! Also yes! But Giannis has put up comparable numbers over the course of the 82-game season, and his team has been historically dominant.
The argument can be made for LeBron’s MVP candidacy using the intangibles Dudley mentions, but it would be tough to say James has the edge over Antetokounmpo at this point (and even tougher to buy that voters would think so). Hopefully James will get the chance to strengthen his argument when the season returns.