LeBron's MVP Push
When the NBA season was suspended due to the outbreak of COVID-19 in March, LeBron James and the Lakers were playing their best basketball of the season. They’d just beaten fellow top title contenders Milwaukee (March 6) and the Clippers (March 8) before their last game, a blip against Brooklyn (March 10).
LeBron’s push towards a 5th MVP award was gaining legit momentum.
The 49-14 Lakers had opened a 5.5-game lead in the West with 18 to play, and were two games back in the overall loss column to the Bucks. The West’s top seed was quite secure especially considering a soft schedule to close out the season.
“That weekend, LeBron took the toughest (defensive) assignment in both games, he guarded Kawhi (Leonard) in the Clippers game and did a great job with him there, and he guarded Giannis in the Bucks game when AD was in foul trouble and did a great job in those two situations,” said coach Frank Vogel from the Orlando bubble on Saturday. “What he was able to do on the defensive end combined with the dominance that he exhibits with not just scoring the ball, assisting the ball, but orchestrating our offense, leading us on the break. I think that weekend was probably a great indicator, a great measuring stick.”
In fairness, the Lakers had more on the line, more to prove in those two games having lost to Milwaukee and the Clippers in their previous matchups. But it was an important point of emphasis nonetheless.
Meanwhile, LeBron’s biggest competitor in the MVP race, Giannis Antetokounmpo – also having a truly fantastic season – hurt his knee against the Lakers and was likely to miss a few weeks.
Zooming out, the traditional numbers of the fellow All-Stars were comparable, with LeBron going for 25.7 points, an NBA-best 10.6 assists and 7.9 boards, Giannis 29.6 points, 13.7 boards and 5.8 assists. Both were net rating monsters, with Giannis having the edge in many advanced numbers due in part to Milwaukee’s point differential*.
*In this story from May, I pointed out that Milwaukee’s 10.7 team net rating was boosted by the far weaker East, where the No. 7 seed Brooklyn is 30-34, compared to West No. 7 Dallas at 40-27.
But LeBron was on the rise in the nine games after the All-Star break, averaging 30.0 points on 55.1% FG’s (48.9% prior) with 9.4 assists and 8.2 boards. He had his body peaking towards the postseason, and woulda/coulda/shoulda had a few weeks to differentiate himself as the recovering Antetokounmpo watched from the bench.
James did this in his 17th season, which is truly unprecedented. He ranks 2nd all time in average points (Kobe Bryant, 27.3), 1st in assists, 1st in 3’s made (2.2), 9th in rebounding, 5th in steals (1.2) and 5th in free throws made (4.0).
Recently, the NBA informed voters not to include the eight seeding games for award consideration. And during Monday’s media availability in Orlando, LeBron was asked if he was disappointed that he wouldn’t have the chance to make a further push due to the regular season’s suspension.
“I’m not disappointed because things happen and I can’t control that,” he replied. “But as far as the MVP race, I think I showed what I’m capable of doing not only individually but from a team’s perspective, us being No. 1 in the West, there was a lot of conversation about ‘LeBron can do those things in the East but if he ever came to the West, what can he do,’ and I heard all that. To be able to have our team at the top of the Western Conference and playing the way that we were playing at that time and the way I was playing, that’s definitely a good feeling.”
James is currently tied with Wilt Chamberlain (4), with only Michael Jordan (5), Bill Russell (5) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (6) winning more.
Vogel was asked if he was asked if he thought LeBron deserved MVP honors for 2019-20:
Absolutely. Nobody impacts winning more than LeBron James. I do believe that he should be the MVP this year. For what LeBron means to our team, even before the season begins when the roster is being put together with the number of guys that are on the Lakers because LeBron James is here and want to play with him. I think it starts there. And then obviously what he’s able to do on the basketball court, orchestrating the offense, leading the league in assists and really setting a tone on the defensive end. We’re the third best defense in the NBA, best in the West, and a lot of that comes from his commitment this season, which has been greater than the last few years from what I’m told, has really set us apart from being the best record currently in the Western Conference.
LeBron certainly gets credit for attracting certain veteran players to come play with the Lakers, and then helping them flourish on the court towards a lot of winning.
From Anthony Davis to Danny Green, Jared Dudley or Alex Caruso, there literally isn’t a single comment from the entire season diverting from how terrific it’s been to play next to LeBron.
For perspective, I asked JR Smith – just signed to replace Avery Bradley’s roster spot – how 2019-20 LeBron compares to their time together in Cleveland.
“More than anything he’s more patient now,” said Smith. “When he was younger he had more of a shorter fuse with things … he let things roll off the back of his neck pretty easily now, whether it be a good thing or a bad thing. He hasn’t changed his work ethic, but I think he’s more relatable and easier to get along with … before, he’s always been so focused on his drive and winning and stuff like that, but I feel like that pressure is off his shoulders, and he can just be him. He don’t have to try to orchestrate the offense or the defense or what somebody did wrong, he can let the coaches do their job, and I think that’s a true testament to him growing.
“I’ve watched interviews when people try to say he’s not coachable because he knows so much about the game, but he’s probably the most coachable person out there, just because he gives you his side or his opinion and he might be right.”
Vogel has shown a daily appreciation for coaching LeBron.
“He’s been extremely coachable for me and our coaching staff here this year,” said Vogel. “He and I have established a great partnership where I rely on his input on day-to-day decisions and the way we’re doing things. I ultimately have to veto him in certain situations if we need to make sure we’re not going too long in practice and what not, but he’s been absolutely wonderful. I couldn’t ask for anything better from his coachability standpoint.”
There should be no diminishing the importance of an MVP honor for LeBron, especially because it would vault him up next to Russell and Jordan. But Giannis is a very strong contender, and that’s out of LeBron’s control, in the hands of the voters.
Where he still has more direct control is in driving L.A.’s chance at his fourth championship, a process currently progressing through practices in Orlando.
Next come three scrimmages before the eight seeding games and ultimately the playoffs that start in less than a month.
LeBron, who’s kept himself in peak condition during the 4-month hiatus, is ready to roll.
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