Giannis Antetkounmpo is the NBA MVP right now. In my heart of hearts, I believe this statement to be true. He has been dominant for the entirety of this season, has a historic combination of raw production and efficiency, and the Bucks lead the NBA with the best record and have the best net rating. The award is about the entire season and it’s important to keep that year-long perspective in mind, even though there is always late season noise about a player that puts together a spectacular close to the season in these award races.
This year, LeBron James is the one gathering supporters for a late MVP push (which would be his fifth MVP of his 17-year career). With Antetokounmpo set to miss games due to a knee injury, the Lakers recent victory over the Bucks, a huge victory over the Clippers on Sunday, and LeBron James posting preposterous numbers up of his own, there are plenty of reasons for this recent charge — and it’s not unwarranted. He’s already in the conversation, but it’s usually with the mention of he’s a pretty clear second behind Antetokounmpo, but a narrative shift may have taken place over the last week to put momentum behind James case for the MVP.
For starters, the Lakers defeat of the Bucks gave James the metaphorical 1-on-1 victory between him and Antetokounmpo. He then capped off his week with 28 points, nine assists, and seven rebounds in the Lakers 112-103 victory over the Clippers on Sunday, including an emphatic exclamation point and as much emotion as we’ve seen out of LeBron in a regular season game in some time. These are the moments James needs to put his name in the minds of voters as the season closes out.
If James is going to be in race, or win it for that matter, then his entire case needs to be built around finishing the year stronger than Antetokounmpo or the Bucks and, sometimes, the best story can trump the best season. The year Russell Westbrook won MVP is a great example. The 2017 award felt like it belonged to James Harden for months. He wasn’t just putting up spectacular numbers, but he was doing so at an efficiency never seen before. Westbrook had history on his side, however, becoming the second player ever to average a triple-double in a season and when he clinched it he did so with a buzzer beater to win the game on top of it. Narrative is a powerful tool in the MVP race, and James is doing a lot in that area right now.
LeBron is, undoubtedly, a great story and that matters. He’s in his 17th season, six seasons removed from his last MVP award win, and is leading the West’s premier team, in the NBA’s current premier market, to a top seed.
Obviously, James still needs the numbers to be in this conversation in the first place. He’s been playing spectacularly well all season, with the Lakers being a strong 11.3 points per 100 better when he’s on the floor as opposed to on the bench. After the All-Star break, he’s been averaging 30.1 points, 9.5 assists, and 7.6 rebounds with a ridiculous 65 percent true shooting percentage. To Antekounmpo’s credit, he’s averaging 28 points, 13.7 rebounds, and 5.8 assists with a true shooting percentage of 60.9 percent — and from a season-long perspective what he’s doing (in the minutes he’s doing it) has been almost unheard of. He’s been phenomenal himself and oddsmakers still have him as a healthy favorite, but James has done a lot to even put himself in this situation. One way he could put himself right there with Antetkounmpo in the minds of voters is team record.
There are a lot of voters that feel winning is absolute. No matter what at the end of the day if you don’t have the wins then you can’t be MVP. That shouldn’t be a problem for Antetokounmpo or James, but it’s worth noting that the Lakers are only three losses back of the Bucks. They’ve only lost once since the All-Star break and the Bucks have lost twice. Antetokounmpo is going to miss a few games due to injury and one would expect them to be cautious with his knee injury as Milwaukee cruises to the one seed in the East. What if the Lakers catch them? While James continues to outperform Antetokounmpo late into the season? There are voters out there that could continue to be swayed by James late push.
So much of this comes down to the power of recency bias. The Bucks have been strong all year. The Lakers are peaking at the perfect time for when people really start to put MVP in their minds. If the Bucks slip for even a moment, and James continues to push the Lakers, then the conversation becomes less about James being involved in it and more about if he deserves to win it or not. To do that though he needs to finish so insanely well that he outdoes a full season worth of Antetokounmpo playing some of the best basketball of his life and the Bucks playing some of the most dominant ball in the league. Even after the All-Star break Milwaukee still leads in the NBA in net rating and has looked like far and away the best team in the league. However, James has plenty of supporters and the Lakers stretch run will provide him ample opportunity to continue making emphatic statements like he did this weekend in the spotlight, which Antetokounmpo will be out of until he returns to the floor. There still is a lot of ground to make up, but it’s far from an impossibility.