*This article was sent to me by Mike Scotch* (Mike Scotch prefers to remain anonymous)
With the NBA season looking more and more likely to return, talks have restarted in regard to one of the most highly debated questions in sports: who is the MVP? In order to properly preface my analysis, I believe it is fair to say that voter fatigue is and has been an issue in MVP voting in many sports. We saw it with Michael Jordan, and many will make the same argument now for LeBron and how both athletes deserve to win more MVPs than they did. But simply put, just because LeBron has one less MVP award in his trophy case than he likely should, does not do nearly enough to surpass the historic season of the Greek Freak.
Before moving into statistics, I have always found it interesting how the narrative of your supporting cast is shaped by national media. With the Milwaukee Bucks being one of the smallest markets in the NBA, their participation in the NBA finals, though it would be exciting, would in the eyes of the media, diminish income in comparison to L.A, NY, and other major markets. Therefore, I have become highly accustomed to flipping through sources like ESPN and FS1 to hear “NBA experts” declare that the Milwaukee Bucks do not have the manpower to win the NBA Finals as Khris Middleton is not a good enough second option. Middleton does have his flaws, but he is also very close to completing a historic 50/40/90 season. With that as a side point, as NBA fans, we have constantly been instructed by the media that the pieces around Giannis are not right to win a final, regardless of how good of a season they are completing. On the contrary, the Los Angeles Lakers, along with their counterpart the Clippers, have been viewed as the only potential options to represent the Western Conference in the finals. Whether the Lakers or the Clippers are picked to take part in the finals, the consistent analyst prediction aside from the occasional wildcard is the Western Conference representative will reign champion this season.
What begins to make this comparison a bit nauseating is the idea that analysts have presented the Lakers as likely finals favorites because they are a “more complete team”. I do feel the Lakers are a complete team, as I do with the Bucks and the Clippers, but it fascinates me that when the conversation shifts from who the Finals favorite is towards who the MVP is, the perception of LeBron and Giannis’ supporting cast change rapidly. For LeBron, his MVP narrative shifts to him carrying a team to the finals, similar to how he did in his early Cleveland years, except this time he is doing so at 35 years old, something we have never seen before. Though he is now 35, the biggest difference between his team now and his early years is Anthony Davis. AD is clearly one of the best basketball players in the NBA, and he has proven to be a remarkable pairing for LeBron. At his current clip of 26.7 PTS, 9.4 RBS, and 3.1 AST, on 51.1% shooting, he will likely finish this season in the top 5 of MVP voting.
Now any fan of the NBA would be absolutely insane to say that Khris Middleton is better than Anthony Davis, so why is it that when LeBron is being discussed for MVP, he is viewed as the leader of the best team in the NBA, but when Giannis is criticized, it is because his supporting cast is all of a sudden elite compared to LeBron’s. When Giannis is scrutinized, Brook Lopez gets labeled as a DPOY candidate, taking away from Giannis’ defensive greatness. But when the Bucks are discussed as a title contender, Brook Lopez lacks rebounding and his poor shooting from the three-point line will be hard to overcome.
The NBA, seemingly more than any other sport, relies on narratives. Prior to COVID-19, media outlets like ESPN and FS1 blasted the airways with talk that LeBron had caught up to Giannis and that he had closed the gap. This coming after a game where the Lakers beat the Bucks on March 6th, (bringing the series tied) and Giannis put up 32, 11, and 6. The two headlines that ESPN ran with after that game were, ‘LeBron gets the better of Giannis in battle of MVP candidates' and ‘LeBrilliant: James’ 37 points lead Lakers past Bucks 113-103’. LeBron was brilliant that game and I felt he was deserving of that praise, but what those headlines seemingly ignore is the fact that in that game Khris Middleton finished with 12, 5, and 4 on 5-19 shooting, while Anthony Davis had 30, 9, and 2 blocks in just 29 minutes. Once again, we see how LeBron and his brilliance are credited for defeating a top team, while the success of Anthony Davis is only brought to light when we are discussing why the Lakers will win the finals.
I also didn’t think this would be a fair discussion without pointing out some of the laughable points made by ESPN on their show The Jump.
Point 1: LeBron is the MVP because after backlash on his China comments and having to deal with the death of legend Kobe Bryant, he has simply had to overcome more than Giannis.
Counter: It would be hard to argue for many people having to overcome more than Giannis has to reach stardom. After growing up poor on the streets of Greece, Giannis eventually learned about basketball and began playing with his brother, Thanasis. During their games, Thanasis and Giannis would both share the same pair of basketball shoes and alternate throughout the game. Once Giannis transitioned into the NBA, he lost his father at the age of 54 to a heart attack in 2017. Then this past year, the death of Kobe Bryant struck Giannis especially hard as Kobe and Giannis had worked out together in the past, and Kobe was one of Giannis’ greatest motivators for securing his first MVP last season. To make the MVP award into anything other than an award for on-court performance and impact is a bad idea, but to make it out like LeBron has had to overcome all these obstacles that Giannis hasn’t is absurd and another way companies like ESPN try to bring LeBron to the forefront of any conversation.
Point 2: LeBron is the MVP because he is 35, and no one has ever done this at 35.
Counter: Correct! LeBron James is in fact 35 years of age. LeBron is also having a historic season. The MVP award just so happens to be an award for the most valuable basketball player, not the most valuable basketball player when we factor in numerous variables like age. By that same point, why is Zion Williamson not a candidate for the MVP? What he is doing as a 19-year-old, where he is undersized (by height) for his position is truly one of a kind, so should he not be a candidate? If everything is relative to age and not actual statistics, then the MVP rankings would likely be a lot different.
By now I am sure you have been able to identify the view that I have on this situation. If not, I will clear it up one more time. Giannis is having the superior season statistically, and it is not really close. Whether we like it or not, the NBA media will continue to use whatever narratives they have to make sure that their King (James) returns to the MVP podium.
Anyways, we can dive into some numbers. Throughout the season, Giannis is averaging 29.6 points, 13.7 rebounds, and 5.8 assists per game, on 54.7% from the field and a 31.6 PER. PER, or player efficiency rating, is a standardized “catch-all” metric used where the league average is 15. In this view, Giannis is a clear leader with James Harden and Anthony Davis following 2 and 3. Back to the supporting cast argument, Khris Middleton comes in at 31 on this list, and LeBron falls in at 9, about 2 points below Davis. LeBron is also averaging some fantastic numbers, currently leading the league in assists, but do to Giannis playing 30.9 minutes per game compared to LeBron’s 34.9, the per 36 statistics show the largest gap in performance. Per 36 possessions, Giannis is averaging a whopping 34.5 points, 16 rebounds, 6.7 assists, with 1.2 blocks and steals. LeBron on the other hand averages 26.5 points, 8.1 rebounds, 10.9 assists (impressive), with 1.3 steals and .5 blocks. If we were to ignore the names of these two players and pretend that one didn’t play in Milwaukee vs. LA, I feel the MVP voting would, and should be a no brainer.
In a recent image, Giannis was compared to Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neil. The current season for Giannis was viewed against Shaq’s 99-2000 season where is was awarded the MVP. Within the four categories viewed, Giannis and Shaq had almost identical seasons, with 2 major differences. First, Shaq posted 2 more blocks per game, and second, Giannis plays on average, 9 fewer minutes per game than Shaq did. If what LeBron is doing this year is enough to be viewed as “never been seen before” material, then there is absolutely no reason why Giannis and what the first place Bucks are doing should be viewed as anything less than spectacular.
At the end of the day, I know we will continue to see how the NBA media narrative will be used in order to drive the MVP race. Though regardless of what ESPN and other on-camera personalities say, I can be happy knowing that in Bleacher Report’s most recent polling of 70 MVP voters, Giannis walked away with 60, or ~86% of the vote, and I will see Giannis raise his second MVP award soon.