For many around the NBA, the MVP race is over, which doesn’t make a lot of sense when you dive into the details. Both Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James have a claim.
There is a lot of NBA regular season basketball left to be played. As crazy as it sounds, more than a fourth of the season remains for both the Los Angeles Lakers and the Milwaukee Bucks, the two teams that feature our core candidates in the MVP race: Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James.
And yet, depending on who you listen to, there isn’t a race. It’s over, and Giannis is the unanimous winner.
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Yes, already, with over a fourth of the season remaining to be played.
As a separate issue, this is a terrible precedent to set. It’s bad news to have award voters publicly saying any race is over this early because their ego will inevitably get in the way of them backtracking. It’s a bad process.
But I’m more interested in the perceived chasm that exists between the MVP cases of both Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James, because even without any context, the Lakers are just five games behind the Bucks in the loss column. A sizable gap, yes, but not an insurmountable one.
Make no mistake, Antetokounmpo’s case is unbelievable. The Bucks are a legitimate threat to notch 70 wins, and will most likely set a new NBA record for point differential.
But once context gets applied, LeBron’s case is equally impressive in its own way. I’m not here to make the case that LeBron James is the MVP of the league, I’m here to diminish the perceived gap, and to hopefully make some voters hold onto the trophy a bit longer.
The first piece of context involves the schedule.
For obvious reasons pertaining to travel logistics, the NBA has teams face conference opponents 52 times in their 82-game slate. This means that Eastern Conference teams face Eastern Conference competition for roughly two-thirds of their schedule.
Now we can argue about the top of the East and the difficulty of the Eastern Conference playoff path all day long, but it is the bottom of the conference that is relevant here.
The Eastern Conference has seven teams with 22 or fewer wins, while the Western Conference has only two such teams. This undeniably makes it easier for the elite teams in the East to rack up wins against inferior competition. This leads to inflated net ratings and win totals.
So, looking strictly at the standings, Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James are separated by five losses, but the schedules don’t resemble each other. The Lakers have dominated the West standings in nearly as impressive a manner as the Bucks have dominated the East standings.
Those standings viewed individually do a better job of comparing records of teams who have played a similar schedule. And strictly speaking in terms of quality wins, the Lakers and Bucks have each defeated 14 teams with records .500 or better.
Then comes the second piece of context. Circumstance.
The Milwaukee Bucks are a well-oiled machine the likes of which we haven’t seen in the NBA. They have a culture that starts with Mike Budenholzer and Giannis, and permeates all the way through the roster, which is extremely well constructed. This has allowed the team to succeed without Antetokounmpo to such an extent that he has only had to play in 57.7 percent of his team’s available minutes, a feat that would be utterly unprecedented for a league MVP winner.
The Los Angeles Lakers are a much different organization. They have come so far since the summer that we’ve forgotten what was expected of them. The Lakers had a preseason over/under projected win total of 50.5, while the Bucks had an over/under of 57.5.
In addition to factors involving the schedule, this gap is related to what we knew about the Milwaukee and Los Angeles rosters and coaching staffs coming into the season.
It’s easy to forget that as a result of the Kawhi Leonard fiasco, the Lakers had to fall back on players that were available for a reason. Danny Green was the only signing with options that waited around for the Kawhi decision. Most of the Laker roster is filled with cast-offs and rejects from other rosters around the league, such as Dwight Howard, Rajon Rondo, Avery Bradley, DeMarcus Cousins, etc.
This has manifested itself on the court all season long. While the Bucks are outscoring opponents by 11.7 points per 100 possessions without Giannis this year, the Lakers have been outscored by 12.4 points per 100 without LeBron. And yet the Lakers, largely because of the play of LeBron James, have greatly exceeded expectations.
In fairness, the Bucks have exceeded expectations as well. Both the Lakers and Bucks are on pace to exceed their preseason Vegas win totals by about 14 games. Which is precisely why these two players are at the top of our MVP list.
This brings us to the final piece of context, the reminder that LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo are two completely unique basketball players.
Giannis fans are quick to point out that he is a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. For the record, I believe Giannis is the best defensive player in the league, and I think he deserves the award.
But the flip side of this discussion is the fact that LeBron is miles ahead of Giannis as an offensive player. Yes, Giannis is averaging 30 points per game on 59 percent effective field goal percentage (eFG), but James is scoring 26 points per game on 55 percent eFG. A gap, but one that is more than made up for by the fact that LeBron James is the best passer in the NBA.
LeBron’s assists lead to 26.6 points per game for his teammates, compared to 15.5 for Giannis. So even strictly speaking from a statistical standpoint, LeBron is generating significantly more offense for his team than Giannis is generating.
The point here is that both Giannis and LeBron have an immense impact on winning, only it is distributed differently. Giannis more so with his athleticism and LeBron more so with his brain. For Giannis, the ceiling manifests on defense, and for LeBron, the ceiling manifests on offense.
So we have two players that are in completely different circumstances that are greatly exceeding expectations. Neither of these guys are running around the league playing one-on-one against their peers. They are playing within the unique confounds of their team and their schedule.
No, Giannis shouldn’t be punished for being on such a good team, but LeBron shouldn’t be punished for being on a lesser team either. Both players need to be evaluated individually within their unique circumstances, and in my opinion there isn’t much of a gap at this point.
Which is why I cannot reconcile with the idea that the race is over. With over a quarter of the regular season remaining, I urge voters to keep an open mind until the end.