Moore: Why There Is No Logical Path for LeBron James to Win MVP
Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images. Pictured: Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks and LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers.
Every season I have posed the questions about the question. If you want to determine who the Most Valuable Player is, you have to first figure out what questions you should be asking to solve that puzzle. This season, that same process is what helps make the answer quick and easy to solve.
And yet, for some reason, here we are, having to explain why LeBron James is not the frontrunner to take home the 2020 NBA MVP award.
So let’s do the work to show why Giannis Antetokounmpo (currently a -2000 favorite) is going to win.
THE BEST SEASON
James has been incredible this season. It is his best regular season since 2013. That statement alone gives you pause: If this is a top-five season for the second-best player of all time, how can he not be MVP? James has given more investment defensively than he has since leaving Miami, has been the driving engine for the West’s top team, has shot great from the floor and leads the league in assists.
How can he not be MVP?
Because Giannis has been better, his team has been better and his impact has been better. The basics:
- Giannis: 29.6 ppg | 13.8 rpg | 5.8 apg | 1.0 steals | 1.0 blocks | 55-31-63 splits
- LeBron: 25.4 ppg | 7.8 rpg | 10.7 apg | 1.2 steals | 0.5 blocks | 50-35-69 splits
Those numbers, on the surface, don’t indicate a large differential. What is mind-boggling, however, is that James is averaging 34.9 minutes per game, relative to 30.8 for Giannis. Those four minutes have a big impact on their production. Take a look at their per-36-minutes numbers:
Giannis vs. LeBron Per 36 Minutes
Per-100 possessions data is built to specifically account for pace. The idea is that if you’re scoring a ton, but you’re running up and down the court, you have more possessions to do so. So even though the Bucks lead the league in pace, the per-100 stats should account for it and normalize things.
Per-100 possessions, Antetokounmpo is averaging 40 points and 20 rebounds per 100 possessions, and no one has done that since possession data is able to be calculated. (Wilt Chamberlain probably did it sometime before that, because, Wilt.)
His production is truly unprecedented. So even with all that James has done, Antetokounmpo has done more.
But that’s just what’s in the box score. You also have to factor that Antetokounmpo is a top-three candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. Opponents are shooting 9.6 percentage points worse against him according to NBA.com’s admittedly-wonky defensive data. He’s often guarding the opponent’s primary offensive threat.
He ranks fourth in rebounds per game — again, in fewer minutes than the players ahead of him.
James is the better passer, but the Bucks have tried to create more opportunities for their other players this season. Giannis already has more possessions finishing pick-and-rolls than he did all of last season as the roll man. Giannis has outplayed him on both the offensive and defensive end of the floor, even if James is more central to the Lakers’ success.
So let’s talk about those successes.
THE MOST VALUABLE SEASON
The best way to get around all the ways that Giannis has James beat on individual production and performance is through his value “to the team.” The idea is effectively to compare the two rosters and suggest that James has led a worse Lakers team to a comparable-if-not-as-good record in a tougher conference and that without him the Lakers would be garbage.
None of this is false. It’s just also not enough for several factors to put him above Giannis.
Where I always start with this is, “How has your team been with you on the floor?” Not how much worse has the team been without you, but how good have they been with you.
Overall record: The Lakers are elite, and that gets lost in the Bucks’ gaudy record. They’re on pace for 64 wins. But the Bucks are on pace for 70 wins. So few teams have hit that mark. It’s difficult to do, but the Bucks have done it with Antetokounmpo playing only 30 minutes because they just easily and breezily demolish everyone.
The Bucks have 36 wins by double digits. That’s more wins than 18 NBA teams have total this season.
“So,” the argument goes, “with Giannis playing only 30 minutes, that just shows you how good his team is, which is why they win.”
Not so fast.
For starters, with Antetokounmpo on the floor, the Bucks outscore their opponents by an outrageous 16.7 points per 100 possessions. With James on the floor, the Lakers outscore their opponents by 10.4. That 6.3-point differential is massive. The Bucks are in another league in the minutes that Giannis plays relative to the Lakers’ minutes with James.
“But without LeBron” the advocate begins… and that’s where I stop you, because this number stopped me in my tracks. Despite the Bucks being awesome, incredible without Giannis (+5.2 per 100 possessions) and the Lakers being bad without James (-1.0, they are outscored across all minutes when James does not play) … the gap is somehow wider.
The difference between the Bucks’ Net Rating with Giannis on the court and off is +11.5. The difference between the Lakers’ Net Rating with LeBron on-court and off is +11.4. So even though the Bucks are still so good without him, they’re still better with him than the Lakers are with LeBron vs. without.
But those are numbers. And numbers sadly don’t convince everyone.
James has Anthony Davis; Giannis has Khris Middleton. Now, Middleton is playing and shooting well enough this season to be an All-NBA selection. But even I, who is not very high on Davis this season, will always take Davis over Middleton. In terms of roster spots 3-10? Sure, I’ll take the Bucks all day. It’s not difficult.
However, and this gets to something I hammer every single season with the MVP race: You cannot reward a player for having bad teammates, because in doing so you are punishing another player for having good teammates.
It is each MVP candidate’s job to get the most out of his guys, to make them better in some way. Giannis clearly does that. James does, too. But Giannis has done it to a little higher level.
There are no injuries to consider. And if you bring up the East vs. West comparison, let’s be real clear on this: the Bucks are 19-4 vs. the West (83% win percentage). The Lakers are 32-7 (82% win percentage). The Bucks have beaten the Lakers, Clippers, Jazz, Rockets, Mavericks and Thunder. Their win profile is without blemish, outside of the Nuggets and Mavericks, who they have another chance against, and the Sixers.
There’s no argument that James has been more valuable either to his team, or to the league.
THE MOST OUTSTANDING SEASON
I want to be clear on this: I want James to win another MVP. James winning one more evens him up with Michael Jordan (and Bill Russell) and ties him for second-most all time. Doris Burke on ESPN’s broadcast asked the question if it feels right that James has been this great for this long with only four MVPs to show for it.
And that’s a fine and fair question to ask, but it has to be coupled with: Who do you think got it that James deserved it over?
2019: No chance, James missed half the season for a lottery team
2018: The Cavaliers were a wreck and his individual metrics weren’t great
2017: A real argument can be made, but in my opinion this was one of the toughest MVP races in history and both Russell Westbrook and James Harden had more outstanding seasons
2016: Steph Curry had the greatest individual offensive season in history. Nope
2015: James was adapting to a new team, the Hawks finished with the East’s best record and his numbers weren’t elite while the Warriors came about and Curry set records he broke the following year
2014: Mostly a coast season for LeBron, and Kevin Durant was insane that season… it was a transcendent season. Do we think KD deserves zero MVPs?
2013: Won it.
2012: Won it.
2011: This is the one year you can make the argument, with him over Rose and Dwight Howard. But the Heat were clunky, and his individual numbers weren’t great. He was still figuring out Miami that season, and that team never really blew you away.
2010: Won it.
So even though I agree it’s crazy that James has only four when he’s been the best player in basketball through much of that, it’s also the wrong way to think about it. The MVP award rewards a player’s season performance, not his status. James learned to pace himself towards the back end of his career. That’s understandable, but the award is not built to reward that, nor should it be.
BEING OLD ISN’T A PLUS
James is 35 this season. It’s his 17th NBA season. So much of our awe of him is generated by what he’s doing at this stage in his career. And indeed, James is the only player to average more than 25 points and 10 assists at age 35 or older.
But that can’t be part of this equation. The MVP award is purposefully vague about its definition of “valuable.” But I can find no way to say that his performance at this age makes it more valuable. There’s really no argument that says that doing it against the backdrop of adversity makes it “better” in any regard. More impressive? To be sure. But not better.
To suggest so would have to mean the opposite — that if a player is younger they are inherently worse, and we know that’s not the case, or that if they did so at an extremely young age that is more impressive than a player doing more at an older one. You don’t think Jayson Tatum is better than Damian Lillard right now, or at least not because he’s younger, right?
James deserves all the credit in the world for being the best player in his mid-30s in NBA history. It’s a credit to his conditioning, work ethic, effort, brilliance, control of the game, drive and superhuman athleticism. It’s also not relevant in the NBA MVP conversation.
HE’S STILL GOING TO GET VOTES
Let’s be really clear on this: James is going to get first-place votes. That’s why the narrative popping up this week is so frustrating. Anyone who covers the league night in and night out, devotes time and energy to really wanting the best answer to “Who is the MVP?” will come away with Giannis. And most of the voters will, and Antetokounmpo will win.
But if I could get odds on whether Giannis will win unanimously? I’d lay the juice on “no.” There’s too much media in L.A., and winning with the Lakers, especially the season in which Kobe Bryant passed away tragically, is a narrative that too many voters are going to be drawn to.
James will get votes. I don’t believe he’ll get enough to win, based on the voters I’ve spoken with and what I’ve read. At its core, most voters will be unable to get past the idea of not voting for the reigning MVP when his team won more games than last season (approaching 70 games) and the player was dominant in a way we’ve seen no player be, physically, since Shaq. It’s a tough ask.
I can’t suggest that there’s value on James to win the thing because of that. But I also can’t say that this thing is a complete wrap and there’s no way James steals it from Giannis. It’s possible because a large contingent of the voting bloc is always more vulnerable to the narrative than fact.
James winning would be shocking because Giannis lost and not because James won — he’s currently +1000 to win it right now. James’ season this year likely wins most years, including last year. It would be close with James Harden in 2018, Russell Westbrook in 2017, Steph Curry in 2015 and Durant in 2014. That’s how great he’s been.
But he hasn’t been good enough, and if the voters were to ignore all that, it would be a mistake that matches how big of an upset it would be at the books.