With basketball soon on its way back, arguments that have laid dormant for months are beginning to resurface. Though largely forgotten, the final days of the regular season featured two enormous victories for LeBron James, one over reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks, and another over Kawhi Leonard and their Los Angeles rivals, the Clippers. With those triumphs came a renewed discourse. Might James, not presumptive favorite Antetokounmpo, be the rightful most valuable player?
Damian Lillard thinks so. He appeared on ESPN’s Jalen and Jacoby Wednesday and cited a somewhat dubious reason for picking James.
“This season I think it’s LeBron,” Lillard said. “They’re the No. 1 team in the west, they’ve been consistent all year long, and for him to be at the age he’s at with the amount of miles that he has on his body, how often he’s talked about the pressure that they’ve put on him in every little thing that he does. At the level he’s performing at, in my opinion, I think he’s the MVP.”
This school of thought gained quite a bit of momentum after James’ emphatic victories over the Clippers and Bucks. Merely being in the conversation for MVP at age 35 is a feat in and of itself, but that doesn’t mean he should win the award. After all, it is the “most valuable player” award, not the “most valuable player relative to his age” award. James being 35 adds no value to his team.
When his merits are weighed objectively against Antetokounmpo’s, James loses out fairly convincingly. Giannis is the league leader in win shares per 48 minutes, PER and box plus-minus, and while he trails James Harden in VORP, both lead LeBron there as well. James averages more assists than Giannis, but Antetokounmpo leads in points, rebounds, field goal percentage, effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage. His team has won more games, and while James won the more recent head-to-head matchup, Antetokounmpo won the first one for an even split.
Had the season continued unabated, James may have had a chance to catch Giannis, especially considering the knee injury Antetokounmpo suffered against the Lakers. But it didn’t. Even if the regular season were to continue in some form in Orlando, there won’t be enough games for LeBron to bridge the very wide gap between the two of them.
That doesn’t make what James has accomplished any less impressive. He is, in all likelihood, the greatest 35-year-old basketball player of all time. Finishing second would be an accomplishment, and even if his numbers don’t merit a regular-season MVP award this season, he could still easily prove himself as the NBA’s best overall player in the postseason. The trophies that matter have yet to be decided.
But this one, regardless of age, belongs to Giannis. He is the rightful MVP no matter what narrative advantages James might have in his favor.