LeBron James staked his claim to the title of “best player in the NBA” this weekend by defeating the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Clippers in back-to-back games. Not only did he win the battles, but in both cases he spent large chunks of the games defending his direct counterpart in that debate. His defense against Giannis Antetokounmpo on Friday was perhaps the best he has ever played as a Laker, and if anything, his work Sunday on Kawhi Leonard was even better. Combine those performances with his 17-year track record atop the league and you’d be hard-pressed to find a safer choice to lead your team going into the postseason.
As true as all of that is, though, the praise for James in one particular area has gotten out of hand. A number of prominent media figures, including Jay Williams and Skip Bayless, have proclaimed James the front-runner for the regular season’s MVP award. Before Friday’s Bucks-Lakers game, Antetokounmpo was a -500 favorite at most books for the award, but three days later a groundswell of support seems to be forming for James.
The obvious flaw in this argument is that the MVP award is based on 82 games, not two, but with James’ candidacy gaining steam, it’s time to look into where he stands in comparison to the defending MVP and presumptive front-runner in what is, at best, a two-horse race. Although James has made about as compelling a case for himself as any player could over a single weekend, a deeper dive into both of their candidacies reveals what should have been obvious all along: The MVP was, and still is, the Greek Freak.
What do the numbers say?
Let’s start with a statement in LeBron’s favor: In a normal year, his season would absolutely be MVP-worthy. Only five players have ever averaged 25 points and 10 assists over a full season. James is in line to become the sixth, and three of the others (Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Oscar Robertson) won MVP at least once, even if it wasn’t in that particular season. Michael Adams didn’t because he was grossly inefficient. Tiny Archibald’s teammates knocked him out of the debate by finishing 36-46. James doesn’t have the same problem. His team is on pace to win just under 65 games. Only 21 NBA teams have ever hit that mark, and 16 of them had the MVP. Two of the teams that didn’t (the 2008-09 Lakers and 2015-16 Spurs) played in the same year as a team with a better record. Teams as good as the Lakers almost always produce an MVP.
The inherent flaw in LeBron’s candidacy, though, is that this isn’t a normal year. There is a team that has been better than the Lakers in the Bucks, and that has largely been the case because of how historically incredible Giannis has played. The numbers are off of the charts, and the raw figures don’t do him justice.
Look at their records. No, 49-13 doesn’t seem too far from 53-11, but their net rating gap is enormous. The Bucks outscore teams by 11.1 points per 100 possessions, whereas the Lakers do so by only 7.3. That gap is identical to the gap between the Lakers at 7.3 and the Utah Jazz at 3.5. Nobody in their right mind would argue that the Jazz are close enough to the Lakers to warrant MVP consideration for one of their players on a team basis, yet James has drawn that consideration based in part on his team’s excellence.
The same is true when you compare their individual numbers. On paper, the gap between Antetokounmpo’s 29.6 points per game and James’ 25.6 doesn’t look enormous. But Giannis plays four fewer minutes per game than LeBron simply because of how dominant his team is. They blow teams out so frequently that he often has the luxury of sitting out fourth quarters. He is so good that his team doesn’t need to play him as much as the Lakers need to play LeBron. Reframe the scoring debate around their per-36 numbers and it isn’t close. Giannis is putting up 34.5 points per 36 possessions while LeBron has posted 26.4. Only looking at per-game numbers punishes Giannis for his own greatness. If he were worse, the Bucks would be worse and would need to play him more.
Those per-36 numbers are independently historic. Giannis is only the third player in NBA history ever to average 34.5 points per 100 possessions. He averages more combined rebounds and assists per-36 (22.7) than either Wilt Chamberlain (20.8) or James Harden (12.2) did in their best scoring seasons, and he had a higher field goal percentage than either. There is a legitimate argument to be made that on a per-minute basis, Antetokounmpo is having the greatest season in NBA history.
That explains why he beats LeBron in practically every catch-all advanced metric. His 31.61 PER is not only the best in the NBA this season, but also is currently seventh-best in NBA history and within range of James’ personal best of 31.67. He also beats James in win shares (10.5 to 9.1), win shares per 48 minutes (.286 to .215) VORP (6.0 to 5.3), box plus-minus (11.5 to 8.4) and real plus-minus (7.6 to 6.72). The best way to contextualize those numbers is this: Giannis leads the NBA in more than half of them. LeBron doesn’t lead the NBA in a single advanced metric. In terms of raw numbers, Giannis also leads LeBron in scoring, rebounding and blocks. He shoots a higher percentage from the field and has both a higher true shooting percentage and effective field goal percentage. And, for the moment, he also has more wins.
And all of this has been limited mostly to offense. Giannis is the best player on one of the best era-independent defenses in NBA history. The gap between the Bucks and the No. 2-rated Toronto Raptors on defense is 3.5 points per 100 possessions. That is bigger than the 3.4 points per 100 possessions gap between the Raptors and the ninth-rated Oklahoma City Thunder. Defensive metrics are notoriously finicky, but for what it’s worth, Antetokounmpo also wins out in defensive real plus-minus, defensive box plus-minus and defensive win shares. Opponents shoot 19.5 percent worse at the rim when Antetokounmpo is the closest defender, the best mark in the NBA among those who have played in at least 20 games. Expand that to the rest of the court and shooters are 9.7 percent worse against Giannis than usual compared with only 1.4 percent for LeBron. As well as he has played on that end this season, Giannis is still the winner.
Yes, these numbers could change, but at the moment, the gap is so enormous that the odds of it closing seem fairly slim. LeBron is playing like an MVP. Giannis is playing like the greatest regular-season player of all time. If LeBron is going to win this award, stats aren’t going to be why. Unfortunately for him, every other theoretical argument in his favor wilts upon further examination.
Shouldn’t LeBron get credit for how badly his team plays without him?
The biggest point LeBron has in his favor is that the Lakers simply aren’t a good team when he isn’t on the floor. The Lakers decimate opponents by 10.5 points per 100 possessions when LeBron plays, per Cleaning the Glass, but when he goes to the bench, they are outscored by 1.1. A single player accounting for a gap of 11.6 points per 100 possessions is obviously enormous. It paints a picture of the Lakers as a group that is completely carried by James and would hardly even be a playoff team without him. The Bucks, on the other hand, outscore opponents by 5.2 points per 100 possessions without Giannis. That would make them the NBA’s seventh-best team by net rating without him. In that sense, it could be argued that he isn’t carrying his team to the same degree that James is.
Here’s where that argument falls apart: it doesn’t account for how absurdly good the Bucks are with Giannis on the floor. In his minutes, they outscore opponents by 16.1 points per 100 possessions. The gap between the Bucks with and without him is therefore 10.9 points, very close to LeBron’s 11.6-point gap. In other words, Giannis and LeBron have roughly the same impact on how well their teams play. The Bucks just happen to have such a well-constructed roster and brilliantly conceived system that they can weather the storm without their best player and blow the doors off other teams with him. Simply put, this argument punishes Giannis for having a better team rather than rewarding LeBron for being a better player. Their presence is similarly felt by vastly different teams.
Giannis plays in the easier conference, why aren’t we holding that against him?
This point is ironic given James’ own history. He won four MVPs in an Eastern Conference far worse than the one Antetokounmpo now occupies, yet conference disparity still factors into this debate for many voters. Although the two conferences have similar strength at the top, the West’s superior depth makes it a far more difficult conference to exist within on a nightly basis.
Well, at least that is the theory. In truth, Giannis has actually played significantly better against the West than he has the East. He is averaging 4.2 more points, 0.3 more rebounds and 0.6 more assists per game against the opposite conference, and more impressively, he is shooting nearly league-average on 3-pointers against Western Conference opponents (34.2 percent). Maybe the West is harder, but you wouldn’t know it by watching Giannis.
But LeBron just beat the two other best teams, why doesn’t that clinch the trophy for him?
The narrative surrounding Giannis is that he’s great at crushing bad teams but struggles against great ones. LeBron, with a proven track record of beating anyone in his path, just contrasted that notion by beating the Bucks and their top Western Conference opponent, the Clippers, on back-to-back nights. To many voters, this was proof of LeBron’s clutch superiority.
In reality, it is nothing more than a nasty case of recency bias. James did just beat the Bucks and Clippers, but Giannis beat the Lakers and Clippers months ago. In fact, his numbers against the two best teams on his schedule are actually vastly superior to LeBron’s.
Points per game
Rebounds per game
Assists per game
Field goal percentage
LeBron’s wins over the Clippers and Bucks were more recent than Giannis’ wins over the Lakers and Clippers. That doesn’t mean that they should count for more. Giannis was better individually against his two best opponents, and although his record is slightly skewed based on Kawhi Leonard and Paul George sitting out one matchup he played against the Clippers, 2-1 is still better than 2-3. The season is 82 games long. Handing LeBron the MVP award based on two games would be outright lunacy.
Is there anything else we should keep in mind?
Yes! In no particular order, here are a few other meaningful notes in Antetokounmpo’s favor:
Giannis is, without question, his team’s best player. Most reasonable observers would say the same for James, but there is at least an argument in Anthony Davis’ favor. He leads the Lakers in win shares, box plus-minus, scoring and rebounding. He is also the current front-runner for Defensive Player of the Year. He probably doesn’t impact the Lakers more than James does, but the fact that those things even need to be mentioned is a knock on LeBron’s candidacy. Giannis leads his team in points, rebounds and assists while topping every major advanced stat by a country mile.Although this has little to do with on-court performance, if you consider value to be a function of production over cost, Giannis makes only around 69 percent as much in salary as LeBron. Age is the culprit there. Giannis is playing under the lowest bracket of max contracts, those available to players with 4-6 years of NBA experience. LeBron is in the 10-years and beyond bracket. However, it should be noted that both the Lakers and Bucks used cap space to build their teams this summer. That extra $12 million or so in flexibility definitely matters to the Bucks. Recency bias isn’t the only cognitive bias working against Giannis. He also has to contend with voter fatigue. History has demonstrated how much more difficult it is to win this award a second year in a row. Although James obviously has four MVP trophies on his mantle, he hasn’t won one since the 2012-13 campaign. The narrative of giving him one last award and making him the oldest player ever to win it (in a tie with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) is going to tempt a lot of voters on the fence, but narrative has nothing to do with actual value. So what arguments are left in LeBron’s favor? Does he have any chance at winning MVP?
Statistically speaking, there is very little that LeBron can point to in his favor. He does lead the league in assists, so if a voter values playmaking above all else, that might tip the scales slightly. He is also a superior 3-point shooter to Antetokounmpo, and spacing is obviously crucial. Teams sag off Giannis and dare him to shoot. They wouldn’t dare do so with LeBron. Beyond that? It’s hard to find a numerical reason to get behind LeBron at this point.
If you’re willing to consider intangibles, there are a few other points in LeBron’s favor. For example: Davis would not be a Laker were it not for LeBron’s tireless recruitment. In that sense, LeBron deserves some extra credit for his team’s greatness, whereas Giannis has largely stayed out of matters relating to roster construction. It’s hard to imagine James allowing his team to give away Malcolm Brogdon, after all.
James has also led his team through far more adversity. The death of Kobe Bryant is perhaps the greatest tragedy any team has ever had to play through, and the Lakers hardly missed a beat. Beyond that, the media spotlight in Los Angeles is simply harsher than the environment in Milwaukee. A Bucks loss can exist simply as a loss. Most Laker losses turn into state emergencies. There is no reason to believe Giannis couldn’t endure such scrutiny, but he hasn’t actually had to do so yet. LeBron has.
Still, those are arguments many voters will disregard entirely. If LeBron really wants to win this thing, he needs something tangible. There just aren’t that many tangible items left to be claimed, but James does have one major potential advantage: health. LeBron has missed only three games. Giannis has missed seven, and he’s dealing with a knee injury right now. Although it doesn’t appear likely, if he misses extended time that could open the door for LeBron’s camp to argue that the best ability is availability.
It would take a lot for LeBron to actually win the MVP on this basis, though. Remember, the last time he was actually up for an MVP award was the 2017-18 season. He played all 82 games and still lost to James Harden, who played 72. Bill Walton once won the award having played only 58 games. In most cases, games played only serve as a tiebreaker. At the moment, this isn’t a tie. If voters make a decision based on peak performance and season-long merit, Giannis is going to be the winner.
And based on almost every criterion we use to determine a typical MVP, he would be a deserving one. LeBron is having one of the best seasons of his career. In most seasons, it would net him an MVP award. This just isn’t most seasons. What Giannis is doing is simply too historic to be denied. He might not be the best player in the NBA when the postseason rolls around, but this is a regular-season award, and he has had the best regular season of any player in the NBA by far. It’s his trophy to lose.