The Point 07-23-20

The Point: How LeBron and A.D. Truly Measure Up For NBA Awards

by Kevin Ding
Senior Writer

Let’s come at this from a different angle: Would you agree that LeBron James is the most valuable person in the league?

James sits on a perch of popularity and influence that almost none ever have in the game’s history, certainly not in this modern age of globalization.

The top vote-getter in All-Star voting again this season, James carries this incalculable value because people love watching him play basketball. But it’s also because of the level of leadership and integrity he brings to the NBA—and how his all-around ability has established a commitment to excellence that is inspiring and revered.

These are intangible things. Impossible truly to measure. We just know from years of watching James and even more years of watching sports how real these qualities are—and how much of a difference they make. They are a byproduct of James’ mindset—which is a fundamental determination to make everything around him better.

Those same sort of intangibles must play a major part in evaluating James’ case for NBA Most Valuable Player, because there is no place those intangibles work better for James than on the court and in the locker room. In a tumultuous Lakers season with turns no one ever imagined, James had the right words, poise and motivation to steer this team. As easy as it is in today’s NBA to default to analytics, we can’t lose our feel.

If you want to understand what true currency is in this world, it’s not just numbers or highlights. In the same way that real-life value isn’t just about wallet thickness or social-media followers, LeBron’s value is quality over any quantities.

Of course he has stats, if you want them. With his 25.7 points and 7.9 rebounds per game, league-leading 10.6-assist average, and the Lakers’ rise to a .778 winning percentage—a 64-win pace for a team that Vegas gave a total wins projection of 50.5 before the season—James has led this team to something beyond special.

For voters who might default to the simplistic equation of best player on best team, Relative Percent Index (RPI) calculations place the Lakers above Milwaukee by accounting for the Lakers’ success against better teams and facing the second-toughest schedule whereas Milwaukee’s opponents ranked tied for 23rd. And while others might split credit between James and Anthony Davis—as MVP voters historically tend to do with two-star teams—the Lakers, including Davis, have been clear in endorsing James. It’s really quite simple why.

Experiencing first-hand all those powerful intangibles on top of the basketball performance crystallizes James’ overall value.

“He impacts winning more than anyone in the league,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said, coming up with a bullseye description of what James meant to the Lakers this season.

LeBron James

That issue of split credit in voting might wind up helping Davis’ chances to be named NBA Defensive Player of the Year. The top three teams in defensive rating each have multiple defensive standouts: Milwaukee has Giannis Antetokounmpo, with Brook Lopez second in the league in blocks and Khris Middleton third in the league in defensive win shares—plus Eric Bledsoe made the All-Defensive first team last year. Toronto has up to five candidates for All-Defensive honors this year.

The Lakers are No. 3—and you could again point out that Milwaukee’s and Toronto’s defenses benefited from facing lighter competition in the East, where seven of the NBA’s nine worst teams were. Regardless, Davis is clearly the basis for the Lakers’ defense in much the same way James is for the Lakers’ offense.

The Lakers’ defensive size advantage only exists because Davis can be the twin tower to JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard, neither of whom wants to venture out much beyond the paint. Despite ranking third in the league in blocks, long an area of his dominance, Davis grew as a defender this season. He literally spread those wings in new ways, being a menace along the perimeter this season even though he previously hadn’t had to do much of the chasing guys around screens and contesting three-point shots that are rarely blockable.

Superstar rep or not, Davis was the dog who would make second and third efforts on defense, just as coaches dream at every level of basketball. He ranks 21st in steals and 22nd in deflections despite his size. He leads the entire league in claiming 1.9 loose balls per game, again often having to stoop to the level of his littler competition to do that dirty work. For reference, the only players last season to reach 1.7 loose balls per game were all perimeter-oriented: Paul George, Russell Westbrook, Victor Oladipo, Kyrie Irving, Ben Simmons, Bradley Beal, Mike Conley and Kawhi Leonard.

This is how James spoke of Davis in February, nine games before the pandemic-driven pause on the season: “He does everything. He’s able to protect the rim. He’s able to guard in the post. He’s able to switch out to guards. He’s able to block shots when guys are shooting floaters and runners. Get steals. I mean, he does everything defensively for us. That’s why he’s Defensive Player of the Year. He just does everything for us. It’s not one thing he doesn’t do well defensively.”

Anthony Davis

Want to knock Davis for something on defense? You have to resort to saying that he’s not as good as James as a defensive communicator. There’s another of those James intangibles, although at least this one is garnering some recognition with his instructions easier heard in these recent fan-less scrimmages in Florida.

Vogel cited Davis flat-out at Defensive Player of the Year, which is a less subjective voting judgment than what is “most valuable.” However, Vogel compared James to famed football middle linebacker Mike Singletary in barking out precious directions on defense. If Davis is the spine to the Lakers’ defensive book, James is the one helping all his teammates read it.

“The best offensive leader in the league and the best defensive leader in the league,” Vogel said of James, “in one player.”

Vogel also raved about James’ effort on defense in Year 17—and gives James some credit for taking Davis’ overall work to a new level. James has given his younger co-star an example in everything from preparation to production. In noting Davis’ resilience this season is “a big growth point for him,” Vogel added: “LeBron’s influence has weighed in there, too.”

Right before the Lakers’ last, best stretch of the season in early March, New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry lost to a Lakers team playing without Davis. Then Gentry said about James: “I’m just amazed that they talk about anybody other than him for MVP.”

Gentry, Davis’ former coach, knows better than almost anyone the magnitude of Davis’ greatness, and Gentry still put it in those terms.

But at this point in his career, James is beyond asking for anyone’s approval. Awards are ultimately outside validation, especially for someone who has proved self-motivated to serve from his platform. James could wink at critics who sought to shut him up on social issues, because he has actually dribbled more than ever this season. It has only added to his value and voice.

When he’s on the floor, James assists on 48.1 percent of the Lakers’ baskets. Bear in mind that he is the guy scoring baskets much of the rest of the time. Luka Doncic (44.8 percent) and Trae Young (42.3) are nowhere close, and they’re the only players even to crack 38 percent. James was that vital to the Lakers’ offensive operation, and one of the Lakers’ few issues this season has been dependence on James.

He actually played 34.9 minutes per game, more than younger counterparts six years younger in Leonard (32.2), 10 years younger in Antetokounmpo (30.9) and 14 years younger in Doncic (33.3), who were among the few who had heavier offensive usage rates this season than James. But just as the NBA MVP debate should be more about people than numbers, it should be beyond age.

James being 35 years old isn’t relevant to this MVP discussion, except in one way:

There is wisdom in our elders.

Sometimes we forget how valuable that is.

* * *

Kevin Ding is an independent sports writer, and the statements and views expressed by him do not necessarily represent the views of the Los Angeles Lakers.

To catch up on all of Kevin Ding's in-depth Lakers stories, visit The Point home page.

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