LeBron James is winning the only NBA election currently being tallied, as he passed Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant to become the top vote getter for the 2020 All-Star Game this week. But it’s not making an exhibition game that James most has his eye on, and not just because he thinks the All-Star Game shouldn’t be happening this year. His eyes are also clearly on a bigger prize: His fifth MVP trophy.
James has built an impressive statistical case, averaging 25.5 points, 7.9 assists, 7.9 rebounds and shooting 49.5% from the field and 39.4% from three. Following an already impressive prior campaign after which he was “pissed off” he didn’t get more MVP votes, James is making sure to put himself more in the conversation this year.
And while he’s biased, Anthony Davis thinks James has made a pretty good case for the award, even if he’s somewhat at a loss for new ways to describe his co-star’s greatness.
“He’s doing everything he’s always done,” Davis said after practice on Thursday. “He’s averaging almost a triple-double, he’s playing unbelievable basketball. What I’m saying is nothing you guys haven’t heard already, but from the start of the season to now he’s shown why he’s in the MVP race, and I think he’s No. 1 in that race. He’s continuously playing at a high level for our group.”
But James also did basically all of that last year, with more assists to boot. What does Davis think is the difference now?
“I think the biggest difference is his ability to shoot. I mean, how do you guard him? He’s knocking down the three-ball consistently, he’s getting into the paint,” Davis said. “You can’t go under, you can’t chase him over because he’ll get downhill and make a really good pass or make plays. He’s definitely tough to guard, which makes it easier for everyone else to be able to relax and make shots.”
James’ 3-point shooting is a career-high so far this season, and it’s come through late when the Lakers have needed him, as he’s shooting 45.8% from deep in situations classified by NBA.com as clutch, among the league-leaders there. He’s once again the only Lakers player whose time on the bench results in the team having a negative net rating — i.e. getting outscored by their opponents over the course of 100 possessions — and the team is a whopping 14.5 points per 100 possessions better when he plays than when he sits. Strictly in terms of net rating, the Lakers are better (+11.7) when LeBron plays than the league-best Milwaukee Bucks (+9.6), and when he’s off the floor they’re worse (-2.8) than the Dallas Mavericks (-2), San Antonio Spurs (-1.3) and New York Knicks (-1.2).
Basically, with LeBron off the floor, the Lakers are a lottery team. With him on it, they’re the best team in the NBA.
Nikola Jokic doesn’t make the Nuggets that much better (10.4 points better per 100 possessions with him on vs. off). Joel Embiid does have a bigger on/off impact on the Sixers (15.1 points better per 100 possessions) than James does on the Lakers, but it’s close, and he has missed more games than James, playing in 20 of 25 vs. James’ 26 of 26, meaning James has had six more games to make him impact felt, and sometimes availability is the best ability. James (4.7 ppg) also ranks ahead of Embiid (4.3 ppg) in clutch scoring, but behind Jokic (5 ppg). There are cases to be made for all three.
All of this can change over the next several months, and those other two guys are having MVP-caliber seasons. Other players may also make their presences felt in the race. But so far, there is no doubt in Davis’ mind who should win MVP. It’s the same person all of the Lakers felt should have won last year.
“I think coach definitely hit it on the head when he said (LeBron) should win,” Davis said. “You never know all the politics and stuff, but he should.”
We’ll see if the voters agree at the end of the year — or if the differences in opinion that Davis sees as “politics” get in the way — but James is definitely making a convincing case so far. If he keeps this up, with his strong narrative and a bit of hindsight from last year on his side, it’s tough to see him not winning the award in the end.