It is no secret that Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo has been the heavy favorite to win the 2019-20 NBA MVP award. The Bucks are having a historic season and clinched the fastest playoff berth in NBA history. They also sport a comfortable lead at the top of the Eastern Conference standings and Giannis is having an even better individual season than he did last year when he first won the award.
The case however for LeBron James has been trending after the Lakers defeated the Bucks and Clippers in back-to-back games. LeBron has been playing out of his mind and took on the challenge of defending The Greek Freak and Kawhi Leonard. This brings the question: has James done enough to close the gap in the MVP race? The Crossover staff debates.
Chris Mannix - Giannis Antetokounmpo
This is not a Giannis is way better than LeBron argument—it’s neck and neck. And LeBron is authoring one of the great seasons of an all-time great career, while having the best age-35 season ever. But Giannis’s numbers are insane. He’s posting early 2000’s Shaq scoring and rebounding numbers, while averaging nearly six assists. He might be the NBA’s best defensive player. I get that the Bucks were supposed to be good, and that they are deeper than the Lakers. But LeBron has Anthony Davis, an MVP candidate in his own right. Giannis’s running mate is Khris Middleton. James has definitely closed the gap, but my vote still goes to Giannis.
Rohan Nadkarni - Giannis Antetokounmpo
If the season ended today—which it won’t!—Giannis Antetokounmpo is the MVP. Per-36 minutes, Giannis leads LeBron James (the presumed No. 1 challenger) in points, rebounds, and blocks, with a higher true-shooting percentage for good measure. Per-36, Giannis is doubling up LeBron in rebounds and averaging nearly eight more points. (The only thing holding back Antetokounmpo’s counting stats is how often the Bucks blow out opponents.)
While James has a large lead on Antetokounmpo in assists, LeBron doesn’t even lead his own team in points, rebounds, blocks, or steals per game—Anthony Davis does. In terms of advanced stats, Giannis leads LeBron in VORP, win shares, PER, and box plus/minus. The Bucks have a better record than the Lakers and have had a significantly better net rating for most of the season. Giannis has been arguably more impactful than LeBron offensively, has been better defensively for the balance of the season, and he doesn’t have the benefit of playing with another supermegastar at the level of Davis.
The race isn’t over because the season isn’t over. LeBron is capable of catching up if he puts up monster numbers down the stretch and if the Lakers can catch the Bucks in wins. But don’t let one weekend or forced narratives change your mind. When it comes to what’s happening on the court, through 65 games, Giannis Antetokounmpo has been the most valuable player in basketball.
Robin Lundberg – LeBron James
I think deep down we all know no player provides more value than LeBron James. And his ability to elevate a team to contender status is on display again in L.A.. Yes, he has Anthony Davis but he’s the sole creator for the Lakers leading the league in assists while scoring more than 25 points a game. Plus, he’s doing it in the West now. Do we believe the results would be the same if literally anyone else was in his place? Giannis has been a beast, but no one is more valuable than an in his prime LeBron. Incredibly he still is.
Elizabeth Swinton - Giannis Antetokounmpo
Fatigue seems to have no effect on LeBron James in his 17th season, but Giannis Antetokounmpo still holds the edge for MVP. While James has put up a landmark year on offense averaging 25.7 points and a league-leading 10.6 assists per game, Antetokounmpo has proven himself in an area James has not always shown this season—defense. The reigning MVP leads the league with a 96.5 defensive rating, standing as the rock of Milwaukee’s defensive dominance while averaging 29.6 points per game. James has helped elevate the Lakers above expectations and is worthy of recognition in a difficult Western Conference, but as long as Antetokounmpo’s injury does not keep him sidelined for long, his sustained dual-threat in a potentially historic season will lead to his second straight MVP trophy.
Mark Bechtel - LeBron James
You can make a pretty compelling case for either player using stats, whether they are traditional (LeBron is going to tie Magic as the tallest assist champ in league history) or advanced (Giannis is currently rocking the second-best PER of all-time, just 0.1 behind a Wilt Chamberlain season in which the Big Dipper averaged 44.8 points and 24.3 boards). You can also take that old chestnut of an argument that begins “Websters defines valuable as…” and conclude that both the Bucks and Lakers would be in radically different spots without their stars.
So what decides it? My gut. I’m going with LeBron, simply because he’s been spectacular in a season in which he’s reinvented himself. Not to accuse Giannis of simply relying on his athletic ability, but what James has done—refashioned himself as the buffest point guard in history—has been nothing short of remarkable.
Michael Shapiro - Giannis Antetokounmpo
The severe recency bias that has hamstrung our civic discourse has now sadly infiltrated the MVP conversation. LeBron James is in the midst of a terrific season, and last week's wins over the Bucks and Clippers were a true statement. But still, we must consider the full body of work, and that makes Giannis Antetokounmpo the clear MVP.
Milwaukee is a historically-great team by many metrics, and Antetokounmpo has a good chance to become the first player since 1982 to average 30 points and 13 rebounds per game in a season. This is no slight to James, who remains near the peak of his powers. But the arguments in favor of LeBron are too flimsy. His age shouldn't matter in this conversation, and discussions regarding his leadership lack any empirical backing. I'd still take King James over anyone in a playoff series. That's different than who should win MVP. Giannis is still the choice to win the award for the second straight year.
Ben Pickman - Giannis Antetokounmpo
As recently as two weeks ago, there was no debate about who was going to take home the NBA MVP award this June. But LeBron James' vintage performances in his team's recent victories over the Bucks and Clippers have reopened a conversation that previously didn’t really exist. In his 17th season, James is still averaging 25 points and nearly eight rebounds per game and he’s a posting a career-high 10.6 assists per contest. James’ teammates were as vocal as they have been of late endorsing their teammate’s candidacy, and for a good reason. If there was anything this weekend did prove, it's that James can still dominate single games like no other player in the league.
Still, Antetokounmpo deserves to still hold a slight lead over James for the totality of his season-long production. The Bucks star’s per-36 minute totals of 34.5 points, 16 rebounds and nearly seven assists are wildly impressive and his team’s dominance is largely due to his play. While it seems likely that Milwaukee won’t get to 70 wins after all, the Bucks still have won 36 games this season by double-digits, eight more than the Clippers who have the second most double-digit wins and 11 more than the Lakers. That’s largely the Greek Freak’s doing.
Antetokounmpo appears to be dealing with a knee injury that might cost him another week of action and that extended absence could shift the conversation fully into James’ favor. The final five weeks of the regular season will now go along way in determining who takes home the award. Maybe postseason Bucks-Lakers conversations will be as hotly contested.