Returning to the court from a shortened, 71-day offseason after winning an NBA championship in the Orlando bubble, Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James missed just one game so far this season -- his team’s final contest before the end of the first half, a one-point to the Sacramento Kings.
Even with the short break, James appears to be the frontrunner in the NBA MVP conversation. With Los Angles sitting as the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference at 24-13, James leads the Lakers in points (25.8), assists (7.8) and minutes played (34.8) per game. He’s second on the team in rebounds at eight per game.
At 36 years old, James would be the oldest player to win the award. Karl Malone won the MVP award at 35 years old during the 1998-99 season.
However, according to Fan Duel sports book, Philadelphia 76ers big man Joel Embiid is the favorite to win his first MVP trophy at the midpoint of this year’s NBA season. Embiid is averaging 30.2 points and 11.6 rebounds for the Eastern Conference-leading Sixers, who sit at 24-12 the season.
James is looking for his fifth MVP award, which would tie him with Bill Russell and Michael Jordan. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar still leads the NBA with six MVP awards.
James hasn’t won an MVP award since the 2012-13 season. He’s often been overlooked in favor of other players putting up more gaudy numbers during the regular season like James Harden, Russell Westbrook or Giannis Antetokounmpo, or a more endearing story like Stephen Curry.
However, this season James is fighting to create his own appealing narrative, eschewing load management by taking care of his body and willing himself out on the floor each night.
Michael Vandegarde served as an NBA scout for 18 with the Philadelphia 76ers and runs a scouting service focusing on high school players available for NBA teams. Vandegarde also is involved with CoachTube, a digital platform that brings clinics and instruction to athletes, trainers and coaches virtually.
Vandegarde believes James is the leader in the MVP award -- for now.
“Absolutely, he’s in the MVP conversation,” said Vandegarde. “I would say he’s been the leader in that category for most of the year. But there’s definitely other guys and there’s other interesting stories. And sometimes those interesting stories get legs of their own.
“I look at Embiid. If the Sixers end up with the best record in the East, he absolutely has to be in the conversation because when he plays, they’ve been the best team in the league in terms of record. You could go to a Kevin Durant or a Kyrie Irving. If they play enough games and they produce enough and Brooklyn ends up the top in the East, they would have to be in the conversation.
“I would say LeBron’s in the lead, Embiid’s in the top three and you’ve got to see how it plays out in the last six weeks of the season.”
Against the top four teams in the Eastern Conference (Sixers, Nets, Bucks, Celtics) and top four teams in the Western Conference (Jazz, Suns, Clippers, Blazers) James has averaged 28.6 points, seven rebounds and six assists a contest. The Lakers are 4-5 in those games, so it’s not exactly a glowing endorsement for James’ MVP candidacy.
However, now in his 18th NBA season, James has evolved his game. He's developed a more consistent shot from the 3-point line, making him even more tough to guard in the half-court because of his ability to go downhill and drive to the basket.
“Obviously, earlier in his career he was a limited shooter at best,” Vandegarde said. “He’s just slowly progressed and got better and better. Now, he’s an absolute threat and I applaud him at getting better at that. A lot of guys that weren’t great shooters and relied on athleticism become better shooters. Vince Carter, Andre Iguodala and even Magic Johnson couldn’t shoot a lick at the beginning of his career and found a way to be back in the day a capable shooter.
“He (James) is unstoppable. Now, can he shake you and do some of those things? No, he doesn’t do that. But he overpowers you and it’s still something that is unstoppable in a different way than a Kyrie Irving or Kevin Durant. Those guys can shake you and pull up, and that’s really not his game. Although he can do some of that, it’s more power, use your body and lean back (to shoot).”
James has operated as the Lakers' main scorer and facilitator this season. He’s been the anchor of an L.A. defense the currently leads the league in defensive efficiency. And he’s played well in the fourth quarter, helping the Lakers close out ball games.
But whether that's enough for James to take home the MVP trophy at the end of the season remains to be seen.
“People are always looking for that charming story,” Vandegarde said. “And LeBron has had a bunch of charming stories. It would be another charming story at the end of his career to get another MVP, but it’s also a charming story for Embiid, who’s never gotten one.
“I remember back in the day Karl Malone got a couple of them, but if you look at the stats Michael Jordan was the best player every year. But you have fatigue. You don’t have that quite as much right now because he hasn’t won it in a couple years, but you do have a little LeBron fatigue over the last 20 years because how great he is. So, the MVP kind of takes on a life of its own because of the story.”