The NBA wants a debate around the Most Valuable Player award every year — that’s why there are no clearly defined criteria. Is the MVP for the best player in the past regular season only? Should it go to the best player in the game (even if someone else had a slightly better season)? How much of a role should narrative play in winning the award?
LeBron James started lobbying to win this year’s MVP in the bubble last year — “I want my damn respect” — and he is winning the narrative portion of the race this season. After the Lakers’ fourth straight win since the All-Star break on Thursday, LeBron again did some MVP lobbying without appearing like he wanted to do any MVP lobbying.
“I should have more than four, I believe…” LeBron said in a postgame Zoom with reporters. “I don’t sit around thinking about it or crying about it, or whatever the case may be. I just try to come in the next season and be the MVP and be talked about [for] it again. I bet a lot of the greatest that played this game feel like they should have more as well.”
LeBron is right about that, there has been a lot of “Jordan should have more than five MVPs” talk over the years. Kyle Kuzma had LeBron’s back on this one when he spoke to reporters (via Dave McMenamin of ESPN).
“The NBA MVP is a very political award,” Kuzma said… “Bron should have been the MVP at least eight, nine, 10 times. Everybody knows that.”
Why LeBron doesn’t have eight gets back to the definition of the award — voters tend to lean toward the “best player in this regular season” definition of MVP. LeBron is in that mix every year, but the argument can be made other players had better specific seasons. In his second go-around in Cleveland, LeBron coasted some regular seasons (particularly defensively) to be better rested and ready to carry a team come the playoffs. It worked — those Cavaliers went to the Finals four straight seasons and won a title — but LeBron was not the best player for the first 82 those years.
A better illustration may be last season, when LeBron finished second in MVP voting — Giannis Antetokounmpo had the better regular season (for transparency’s sake, my ballot had Antetokounmpo first and LeBron second). Antetokounmpo scored more points than LeBron, grabbed more rebounds, played better defense, the Bucks finished with a better overall record, and Milwaukee was 12.8 points per 100 possessions better with Antetokounmpo on the court compared to the Lakers being +9.9 with LeBron.
All that said, if voters had been polled, “which player do you want to lead your team in the playoffs” LeBron likely would have won. He can raise his game and his team to a level Antetokounmpo has yet to prove he can. LeBron was the best player in the postseason — that’s why he won Finals MVP. But that’s a different award. If MVP is for the regular season, Antetokounmpo was better.
However, the larger point that LeBron should have more than four — or Jordan more than five — for all the years of being the best player on the planet makes intuitive sense.
It’s part of his narrative this season, in what is a crowded MVP field that features LeBron, Joel Embiid (his case is hurt by missing games with his knee injury), Nikola Jokic, Damian Lillard, and others. LeBron has the narrative behind him, plus some impressive stats and a strong defensive season.
Whether that is enough to win him a fifth MVP — and tie him with Jordan — will be one of the big storylines for the next couple of months.