Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James posted a 34-point triple-double in a win over the ninth-place New Orleans Pelicans, and the NBA world is abuzz about the 35-year-old’s MVP odds.
“I’m just amazed that they talk about anybody other than him for MVP,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry told reporters after Sunday’s 122-114 loss on national television. “That’s what he does. Every team that he’s been to has a chance to win the championship. I’m not sure what the definition of MVP is, but he makes everybody on his team better, and he makes it difficult for everybody playing.”
Except, Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo is this season’s MVP, and it’s not that close.
What James is doing is incredible. He is posting the greatest Year 17 season in league history for a first-place team, and he will almost certainly finish top-three in MVP voting for the 11th time. His career-high 10.6 assists per game lead the league, and the rest of his statistics are right in line with the eye-popping numbers he registered at age 20, only with 15 more years of wisdom behind them.
But Antetokounmpo is your 2020 NBA MVP.
It is almost impossible to make a statistical argument for James. Antetokounmpo is averaging 29.9 points (61.3 true shooting percentage), 13.8 rebounds, 5.8 assists and 2.1 combined steals and blocks in 30.9 minutes a night for a team on a 71-win pace. He is logging a 35-16-7 per 36 minutes.
James is averaging 25.5 points (57.8 TS%), 10.6 assists, 7.8 rebounds and 1.8 combined blocks and steals in 34.9 minutes per game for a team on a 63-win pace (a 26-8-11 per 36 minutes).
Antetokounmpo was the MVP last year and is better this year. He will also make his second consecutive All-Defensive First Team appearance, and you can make an easy argument he warrants the Defensive Player of the Year award this season, too, after finishing second to Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert a year ago. James has not been named All-Defense since 2013 and is not expected to make either team this season. All of the NBA’s defensive and hustle metrics favor Antetokounmpo.
Every all-encompassing advanced statistic favors Antetokounmpo, too. His current player efficiency rating of 32.3 would be the highest ever recorded in a single season. He also leads the league in real plus-minus (7.87), box plus-minus (11.7) and win shares per 48 minutes (.295). He finishes more possessions than any other player in the league. James ranks second in real plus-minus (6.49), seventh in box plus-minus (8.1), 10th in PER (25.6) and 15th in win shares per 48 minutes (.210).
In the clutch, Antetokounmpo is averaging 51 points per 100 possessions on 51/40/56 shooting splits, leading his team to a 14-3 record in games that are within five points in the final five minutes. James is producing 30 points per 100 possessions on 33/18/62 splits, posting an 18-8 record.
The only case you can make for James is that L.A. is outscoring opponents by 10.6 points per 100 possessions with him on the court and getting outscored by 1.8 points per 100 possessions with him on the bench — an individual on/off net rating of 12.6. Milwaukee has been 11.5 points per 100 possessions better with Antetokounmpo off the floor, but it is hard for him to make the Bucks much better than they are with him, as they are outscoring opponents by 17 points per 100 possessions.
Milwaukee’s 12.1 net rating leads the league by a wide margin and would be better than any other team in NBA history but the dynastic 72-win Chicago Bulls and 73-win Golden State Warriors. The Bucks own the league’s best defense and third-ranked offense. Los Angeles ranks third defensively and fifth offensively. The five points per 100 possessions difference in net rating between the Bucks in first and Lakers in second is the same difference between the Lakers and NBA’s 13th-best mark.
Head-to-head, the Bucks hosted their lone meeting to date, defeating the Lakers by a 111-104 margin in mid-December. Antetokounmpo amassed 34 points (11-19 FG, 5-8 3P, 7-10 FT), 11 rebounds and seven assists to James’ 21 points (8-19 FG, 3-7 3P, 2-2 FT), 12 rebounds and 11 assists in 37 minutes. The two teams meet again on Friday night in Los Angeles, and it is hard to imagine any head-to-head scenario in which James could leapfrog Antetokounmpo in this race.
Against other top contenders — the eight remaining top-five seeds across the two conferences — Antetokounmpo has posted a 9-5 record, averaging 30.6 points (59.0 true shooting percentage), 14.8 rebounds, 7.2 assists and 2.7 combined blocks and steals per game. The Lakers are 8-7 against those same teams, as James has averaged 24.1 points (53.5 true shooting percentage), 10.9 assists, 7.9 rebounds and one combined block and steal per game. For the most part, they have been equally good against elite teams, but as with everything else, Antetokounmpo is better.
Listen, in most seasons, James has done enough to warrant an MVP. That he is even in position to be on the ballot in his age-35 season is a remarkable accomplishment. But what Antetokounmpo is doing has never been seen before, and he is doing it for a historically great team. I’m not sure what the definition of MVP is, either, but I’m amazed that they talk about anybody other than him for it.
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