Nearly one year ago, LeBron James issued a theme for his second season with the Los Angeles Lakers: revenge.
After a rocky first year that was demolished by injury and saw the former Heat and Cavs star miss the playoffs for the first time since his second season in the league, speculation around James’ fitness, ability and motivation became the topic du jour. Perhaps overstating it, James adopted the Washed King moniker, using it as a hashtag on nearly every Instagram post, seemingly fueling himself towards a year where he would shut down all of that talk.
LeBron did just that. With revamped defense, his best playmaking season ever and leadership that has amounted to the top seed in the Western Conference, James has put himself firmly back into the MVP conversation, challenging the reigning winner of the award, Giannis Antetokounmpo, who has been the best player on the best team in the league.
The NBA announced recently that awards will be decided based on games played before the season was shut down due to the Coronavirus pandemic. So while LeBron will likely come with the same focus and determination in Orlando to lead his team to a potential championship, we’ve seen everything we need to see to establish his case for winning his fifth MVP award and his first since 2013.
James, for his part, is unsurprisingly candid but political about his belief that he’s been the best player in the world again this year, talking to reporters about the award during his media availability on Monday:
— Harrison Faigen (@hmfaigen) July 20, 2020
Once again, James is pushing back against his detractors, namely those pushing the narrative that his greatness has been elevated by playing in the weaker conference his whole career. And while his first season out west was poor (although a 15-8 record when James, Lonzo Ball, and Brandon Ingram all played shows just how much injuries hurt their chances), his second season has been what everyone has come to expect from the King with the additional caveat of year 17 hanging over him.
So, does LeBron James have a case over Giannis for the premier award of the regular season?
I don’t think there’s a wrong answer. Antetokounmpo has been dominant on both ends of the floor and could be the front runner for both MVP and Defensive Player of the Year due to his all-around play for a historically great team despite a slight drop off in the few games before the shutdown. On a per possession basis, he has scored and rebounded more than James, contributed more defensively and been a slightly more efficient scorer.
But the story of the season matters, too. The Lakers had a massive turnaround after an objectively disastrous year with about half the roster consisting of new players, not to mention a new coach that was not the organization’s (or LeBron’s) first choice. LeBron has guided that ship through a socio-political crisis (that he did not handle very well) and the tragic death of a franchise icon while the team not only stayed afloat but exceeded all expectations to win 12 more games than last year in 19 fewer attempts.
James’ brilliance as the lead playmaker – really the only above average playmaker – for the Lakers is the core tenet of his basketball, case however. LeBron is effectively playing point guard full time for the first time in his career and is averaging a career-high and league-leading 10.6 attempts per game despite having to make adjustments to a new cast of pass-catchers. Overall, James is directly responsible for 52.2 Lakers’ points per game including his points and assists (and not including passes that lead to free throws because the NBA does not track that). Giannis, despite his own brilliance in scoring and making plays, is responsible for 45 Bucks’ points per game. (James is responsible for about 0.5 more points per minute played than Giannis). Unsurprisingly, the Lakers have been 8.1 points per 100 possessions better offensively when LeBron sees the floor.
And while James’ revamped defense still does not hold a candle to Antetokounmpo’s versatile lockdown pressure, it’s been majorly impactful all the same. The Lakers’ defense has been 3.6 points per 100 possessions when LeBron is on the court and he’s shown that impact in a variety of ways, whether it’s guarding the reigning MVP one-on-one, providing weak-side help, or chasing down transition opportunities.
To me, Giannis still has the best case from a basketball standpoint to win the MVP and I would not be upset to see
a future Laker him win the award.
But LeBron isn’t as far off as some seem to believe and between his play, positional change, reengaged defense, leadership and team success amid so many challenges, he has about as good of a case as any 35-year-old could hope for. The crown is still his one way or another.