Inside the MVP Race Between Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James

Is there really a case for LeBron James to edge Giannis Antetokounmpo for MVP?
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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – LeBron or Giannis?

Giannis or LeBron?

The NBA’s end of season award voting window is open—the league, smartly, decided that two-thirds of the teams competing in eight seeding games four months after a global pandemic froze the league in place isn’t worth factoring in—and the MVP award is a two man race. There is LeBron James, the indefatigable 35-year old superstar, who will add NBA assist leader to a list of accomplishments thicker than a Dickens novel. And there is Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Greek Freak, the reigning MVP who put up a better statistical season this year than last.

Or is it?

Objectively, Giannis should win in a landslide. The numbers are jaw dropping: 29.6 points and 13.7 rebounds, while shooting 54.7% from the floor, the kind of stats not seen since Shaquille O’Neal in 2000—when Shaq was a near-unanimous MVP.

Want more? Giannis’s efficiency rating (31.6) is three points better than any other player and the fifth highest in NBA history. If you really want to nerd out, Giannis leads the league in plus/minus, win shares per 48 minutes and has the third highest points per-36 minute average in NBA history.

Oh … and he might be the Defensive Player of the Year.

And Giannins’s Bucks lead the Eastern Conference.

By a mile.

“Defensively, he’s been even more impactful [this year],” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “He can go different directions. He can take the tough matchup on the other teams best player, but we try to put him in situations where he can be really active, use his length, use his basketball instincts and kind of reek havoc. He’s unique defensively, and we play so much off our defense.”

The case for Giannis is an easy one.

So what’s the case for LeBron?

Last week, I ventured over to Lakers practice to find out. The numbers for James are excellent. Asked to be L.A.’s de facto point guard, James responded by handing out a career-best 10.6 assists. He’s launching a career-high 6.4 three’s per game and still shooting just a tick below 50% from the floor. He’s a 25-point per game scorer and a runaway train in transition. And while the purple-and-gold brigade may have predicted a top-of-the-West season, L.A.’s evolution from a hastily put together group into a title favorite has been to many (cough, cough) one of the league’s most surprising stories.

It’s a strong case.

Could any Laker make it stronger?

“The things he is doing at his age, this is probably one of his best years,” said Anthony Davis. “The things he has been able to do on the floor, especially when everybody was saying he was washed and he should hang it up and all these things, he came back with a dominant performance. Just to be even in the race at this point of his career … for me, to see it every night, the things he does on a consistent basis … it’s a good argument to be MVP.

A few things to unpack there. No one with any credibility thought James was washed up coming into this year. Last season wasn’t his best, and he did battle the most significant injury of his career. But in a down year he still averaged 27 points. James created the washed up narrative (you remember #washedking, right?), a log on the motivational fire.

What James is doing at this stage of his career is remarkable. He’s having the best age-35 campaign in NBA history. There may never be one better. He’s playing 35 minutes per game … in his 17th season. He’s having his best defensive year in since his Miami days. He’s the strongest, most athletic and oftentimes fastest player whenever he steps on the floor.

It’s a good point.

It’s doesn’t push him past Giannis.

Danny Green understands superstars. He played with Tim Duncan in San Antonio. Kawhi Leonard in Toronto. What’s his case for James to be MVP?

“There’s a lot of them,” Green said. “He’s probably owed a couple. He’s arguably the best player in the world the last 15-17 years. This year we’re the top team in the West because of him and A.D. A lot of people counted him out … didn’t think he was at a level he was before. The level of concentration, bringing an organization that a year before they were not in the playoffs to being a championship contender. Obviously A.D. came with that and helped but for him to make that happen … shows what kind of impact he has on the organization.”

Again—all good points. James has four MVP trophies … and three second place finishes. He put up a monster season in 2010-11 only to finish third, the backlash he faced after defecting to Miami seemingly souring voters towards him. He could have won MVP every year in his early days in Cleveland, when he was pushing an anonymous roster to 50-plus win seasons.

He’s owed something.

But is he owed an MVP?

Frank Vogel makes the strongest case. The Lakers coach was in the basketball wilderness before a series of events put him on the L.A. bench. Vogel responded by changing James’s role and dumping more responsibility on his lap. He relied on James to stitch together a roster filled with new faces and demanded he take a lead role in elevating the defense. The result has been the Lakers best winning percentage (.778%) in more than a decade.

“He impacts winning more than anybody in the league,” Vogel said. “He’s the quarterback of both the offense and the defense for us. When you have Tom Brady running the show offensively and Mike Singletary barking out calls on the defensive end, you’re a dominant team. All the [stats] matter, but to have the best offensive leader in the league and the best defensive leader in one player, that’s probably the best argument.”

It’s a compelling one. An engaged LeBron is elite on both ends of the floor. He’s recording chase-down blocks when most players his age wouldn’t attempt them. He’s showing an offensive burst that’s the envy of players ten years his junior. He’s engineered a storybook season in Hollywood.

He deserves something for that.

Just maybe not the MVP.