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.