The NBA’s MVP race has always been shaped by a narrative. When Russell Westbrook won the award in 2016-17, it wasn’t just because the then-Oklahoma City Thunder point guard set the record for most triple-doubles in a season. Rather, he was doing so without Kevin Durant — who left for the Golden State Warriors months earlier.
Voters — often writers — love a good story. And for this season, the most irresistible storyline centers around the most dominant force in the NBA for the last 18 years: LeBron James.
The 36-year-old Los Angeles Lakers star is once again a top candidate to be named the MVP, just months after winning his fourth championship. Oddsmakers peg James as the favorite in a competitive race, with Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid and Denver’s Nikola Jokic not far behind.
The case for James is simple: He’s reminding the league that he’s still the best player. And now, with center Anthony Davis shelved for the next four weeks due to an Achilles injury, James has a chance to separate himself from the competition.
The season is far from over, but James could lock down the award if he leads the Lakers through a dominant stretch without his co-star.
“LeBron is LeBron, you could argue that he could easily (have) had 18 of them,” said Wizards coach Scott Brooks, whose team plays James on Monday. “Maybe not 18, but 15.”
Brooks has a great point: If it feels like James is a contender for MVP every year, it’s because he practically is. A four-time winner, James has placed in the top five of voting for the award in 14 of his past 17 seasons. James’ four MVPs rank tied for third all-time, behind only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (6), Michael Jordan (5) and Bill Russell (5).
That type of yearly dominance can hurt James’ candidacy. But it likely won’t this year. After all, eight years have passed since James last won MVP in 2013. That gap, along with the historical significance of tying Jordan and Russell, could resonate with voters who could argue that James deserves another award after all this time.
On the court, James continues to play at a ridiculously high level. Through 31 games, James has averaged 25.6 points, 8.2 rebounds and 7.9 assists per game on 50.2% shooting. Those stats aren’t far off from his averages during his last MVP-winning campaign in 2012-13 (26-8-7) — despite James playing nearly three fewer minutes per game now.
At 22-9, the Lakers are also tied with the Clippers for the second-best record in the NBA. And without Davis, Los Angeles is 5-3 this season. James’ Lakers have shown no signs of coasting after coming off a championship.
Determining the criteria for what makes an MVP, though, depends on who is asked. Brooks, for instance, said the factors extend beyond wins and losses. Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone gave a different explanation and said it’s about a player who can “not only put his team on their back on certain nights,” but also play at an elite level on a nightly basis.
“MVPs are guys that make all their teammates better,” said Malone, who proceeded to stump for his star, Nikola Jokic.
If there is an argument against James, it’s that he ranks further behind other candidates in advanced statistical categories. For instance, Jokic ranks first in win shares (6.6), whereas James ranks eighth. Embiid has the league’s highest player efficiency rating (32.9), while James is 16th (23.9). James is also third in value over replacement average, behind Jokic and Golden State’s Stephen Curry.
But James, given the name value and his drought at winning the award, might be too good of a story to pass up. James, too, has seemingly campaigned for the award. At the end of last year’s finals, he famously declared: “I want my damn respect, too” — which some analysts took as him vying for next year’s MVP.
Entering Monday’s game against the Wizards, the Lakers have been in a mini-slump, losing three of their last four. In Saturday’s loss to the Miami Heat, the Lakers came up just short in a game in which James shot a season-low 33% shooting (7-of-21) for 19 points.
James, though, said afterward he needed to do more — especially without Davis, the seven-time All-Star who is the Lakers’ best defensive player.
“We’re in the winning business, and I’ve always been a winner,” James told reporters. “So, it’s time to click into that.”
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