2019 NBA MVP Race: Where LeBron James Ranks After Joining Lakers

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistJuly 24, 2018

2019 NBA MVP Race: Where LeBron James Ranks After Joining Lakers

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    LeBron James has already earned four MVPs during his illustrious NBA career, and winning a fifth for his 2018-19 efforts with the Los Angeles Lakers would be practically unprecedented. 

    In terms of sheer volume, he'd be entering even more rarified air. Though James is part of a five-man club with his four trophies, only Bill Russell (five), Michael Jordan (five) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (six) have earned a literal handful. 

    But earning league-wide supremacy with so many different teams is rarer still. 

    Abdul-Jabbar (three with the Milwaukee Bucks and three with the Lakers), Wilt Chamberlain (one with the Philadelphia Warriors and three with the Philadelphia 76ers) and Moses Malone (two with the Houston Rockets and one with the 76ers) are the only other men who have earned an MVP award for multiple franchises. James already has two apiece with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Miami Heat. 

    No one—not just in the NBA, but in any of the major American professional sports—has claimed this particular accolade for three different organizations. This 33-year-old forward would be breaking into new, unexplored territory and placing a nice feather in the awe-inspiring cap that is his ever-growing legacy. 

    Unfortunately, it's far too soon to know if he will tick that box. But at this stage of the offseason, based on expected performance in the three categories that typically matter in MVP conversations (individual excellence, team success and narrative), can he claim the pole position?

Second-Tier Contenders

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    Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

    In terms of pure talent, Stephen Curry deserves to be considered a first-tier contender for the league's most prestigious individual award. You can make plenty of convincing arguments that the 30-year-old floor general is unquestionably among the league's top five players, and he's likely to continue rewriting the three-point record books throughout the 2018-19 campaign. 

    However, Curry is disadvantaged by the enduring presence of Kevin Durant on the Golden State Warriors roster. The small forward may not be the true face of the franchise or the linchpin around which the offensive scheme is built, but his well-rounded play and prominence while winning back-to-back Finals MVPs make him the team's most likely candidate for regular-season MVP. 

    Sorry, but we're simply not going to list two players from the same team as top-five candidates. And right now, Curry is the one attempting to make an uphill climb in even steeper fashion. 

               

    Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

    Do we have confidence in Joel Embiid playing enough to work his way into the top tier (limited to five players because a ballot only has five spots)? 

    If the Philadelphia 76ers center could cut back on his turnovers and improve his work in spot-up situations, he'd morph into the generational talent envisioned by so much of the NBA world. Couple that with a climb up the Eastern Conference standings into the No. 1 spot, and he'd have quite a case to hold up the Maurice Podoloff Trophy. 

    But MVPs typically don't miss much time in their jewelry quests, and Embiid has yet to prove he can endure the rigors of a full professional season without significant maintenance time. Even in 2017-18, he suited up just 63 times and (due to a fluke collision with teammate Markelle Fultz) was unable to participate in the entirety of a first-round playoff series against the Miami Heat. Without showcasing more durability, he simply can't rise any higher at this early stage of his increasingly impressive career. 

             

    Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics

    This isn't a knock on Kyrie Irving, so much as a compliment aimed at the entire Boston Celtics organization. 

    Sure, the dazzling point guard could continue to improve on defense and become a more willing passer—the latter seemed to be an early-season development before he settled in to fill a role not dissimilar to the one occupied with the Cleveland Cavaliers. But even with those distinct flaws, his ball-handling wizardry and preternatural scoring chops allow him to function as one of the NBA's most potent offensive forces. 

    The bigger issue in the MVP conversation is the perceived egalitarian nature of the Celtics, which wasn't exactly aided by the team falling just one game shy of a Finals appearance while operating without both Irving and Gordon Hayward. So long as those two established All-Stars are suiting up alongside Al Horford, Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, it's hard for any one man to rise far enough above the pack to make a serious award push. 

              

    Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors

    Of all the men listed as second-tier contenders (or honorable mentions), Kawhi Leonard may have the best shot at blowing away expectations. He was widely viewed as a frontrunner for the San Antonio Spurs heading into the 2017-18 season—and was my personal pick for MVP—but the mysterious quadriceps injury threw everything out of whack. 

    What if he's fully healthy and motivated for the Toronto Raptors? In that situation, he could easily remind voters that he's a two-time Defensive Player of the Year capable of exploding for an efficient 30 points on any given night, making him one of basketball's most complete entities. 

    But we have no idea how likely that is. He could still be suffering from that balky quadriceps. He could never be the same player. He could struggle to fit in with a new set of teammates. He could be unmotivated, knowing he's just ready to leave for a third organization in the summer of 2019. Too much is still in flux to have confidence in his candidacy quite yet. 

               

    Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

    For his triple-double efforts in 2016-17, Russell Westbrook was awarded MVP. One year later, he finished No. 5 in the balloting despite averaging 25.4 points, 10.1 rebounds and 10.3 assists—yes, another season-long triple-double. 

    That's not mere happenstance. The novelty has worn off. With the spotlight focused directly on him for so long, Westbrook has been exposed to legitimate criticisms of his shot-happy nature, defensive inconsistencies and—whether fair or not—struggles elevating the Oklahoma City Thunder to the same pedestal occupied by the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors. 

    Westbrook could replicate his 2017-18 efforts moving forward, but changing this narrative will be difficult. And without changing it, he won't be adding to his trophy collection. 

             

    Honorable Mentions: Jimmy Butler, DeMar DeRozan, Paul George, Gordon Hayward, Al Horford, Nikola Jokic, Damian Lillard, Donovan Mitchell, Victor Oladipo, Chris Paul, Ben Simmons, Karl-Anthony Towns

5. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors

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    Age: 29

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 26.4 points, 6.8 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 0.7 steals, 1.8 blocks

    2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 26.0 PER, 3.61 RPM, 274.99 TPA

    We're now far enough removed from Kevin Durant's decision to join a team coming off a 73-win season that voters should be able to look past the manner in which he teamed up with the Warriors' All-Stars. And that's already happening, based on his back-to-back Finals MVPs and his climb from No. 9 in the 2016-17 MVP balloting to last season's No. 7 finish.

    Durant may be preparing to enter his 30s, but he's still getting better. 

    The scoring ability hasn't gone anywhere, especially now that he's settled into a comfortable role with the Dubs. After returning from the All-Star break, he torched opponents to the tune of 27.4 points per game while shooting 49.7 percent from the field, 41.3 percent from downtown and 89.4 percent from the stripe—tantalizingly close to allowing for entry back into that vaunted 50-40-90 club. 

    Pair that scoring ease with improved facilitating habits and a well-rounded defensive game that allows Durant to flit between stifling foes on the perimeter and serving as a secondary rim-protector, and you have a complete package. The 29-year-old forward—for the time being, at least—should be the obvious choice as the second-best basketball player in the world, and that matters quite a bit in the MVP conversation. 

    But he's still playing alongside Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. During the second half of the season, he should even spend time on the floor with DeMarcus Cousins. That inevitably pushes his stock down a bit, if only because his individual achievements are marginalized by the ease with which these Warriors will win games. 

4. James Harden, Houston Rockets

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    Age: 28

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 30.4 points, 5.4 rebounds, 8.8 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.7 blocks

    2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 29.8 PER, 6.71 RPM, 565.39 TPA

    Winning back-to-back MVPs is a difficult endeavor. Candidacies are typically centered around individual excellence, team success and a narrative component, and that third criterion becomes tougher to fulfill when you're no longer breaking out of the pack with your heroic play. 

    It's still possible, of course. Tim Duncan, Steve Nash, LeBron James (twice) and Stephen Curry have all done so during the current millennium, which offers hope that Harden will be able to replicate his offensive exploits and defend his crown. He certainly has the individual skill necessary to fulfill the first criterion once more. 

    But one issue pops up. 

    The Houston Rockets finished 2017-18 with the top record in the Western Conference, winners of a franchise-record 65 games. If they can't come close to that tally—an endeavor that becomes more difficult after the offseason departures of Luc Mbah a Moute and Trevor Ariza, while so many other Western teams are growing stronger—Harden will have difficulty checking the other boxes. His team's success won't matter as much if Houston experiences even the tiniest amount of slippage, and the narrative component could be shattered entirely. 

    Is that fair? Of course not. It's not his fault his team is slightly weaker now, and this is (allegedly) an individual award that should be handed out irrespective to the success of running mates. 

    But it's reality. 

3. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans

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    Age: 25

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 28.1 points, 11.1 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.5 steals, 2.6 blocks

    2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 28.9 PER, 5.55 RPM, 291.19 TPA

    Anthony Davis has momentum. 

    That nebulous concept can materialize in so many different ways. For Davis, it'll present itself as a continued surge up the NBA's player rankings until he's firmly in position to take a legitimate shot at winning MVP for the first time in his impressive career. And everything starts with him building upon his remarkable second half of 2017-18. 

    To be clear, this is not intended as a shot at DeMarcus Cousins. The New Orleans Pelicans were using the now-departed center properly during his first full season by the bayou, and the team was flat-out rolling before he suffered a ruptured Achilles. But once he went down, Davis seized the opportunity to thrive alongside Jrue Holiday and drastically elevated the amount of individual responsibility he was capable of shouldering. 

    Two days after Cousin fell to the floor toward the end of a Jan. 26 victory over the Houston Rockets, Davis went for 25 points, 17 rebounds and six assists during a loss to the Los Angeles Clippers. Then he exploded. From that game through the end of the regular season, he averaged a staggering 30.2 points, 11.9 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 2.0 steals and 3.2 blocks while only turning the ball over 2.5 times per contest and slashing 51.4/33.7/83.5. 

    That's a remarkable blend of volume, efficiency and all-around contribution, and it's what we should now expect of this superstar moving forward. We finally saw a fully realized version of this unibrowed big man, and there's no turning back now.  

2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

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    Age: 23

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 26.9 points, 10.0 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.4 blocks

    2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 27.3 PER, 4.23 RPM, 320.7 TPA

    Someone from the Eastern Conference must get a bit of recognition. 

    That could be Victor Oladipo, Joel Embiid or Ben Simmons, though it's a bit early in their careers to ascend this far up the pecking order. Kawhi Leonard could take the mantle from LeBron James if he's fully healthy and motivated to shred any and all doubt. Kyrie Irving, Al Horford, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward or Jaylen Brown could get plenty of credit if they separate from the morass of upper-tier players on the Boston Celtics roster. 

    But Giannis Antetokounmpo, still only 23 years old and already thriving in so many different facets of the game, is the best bet to emerge as the supreme player in the NBA's weaker half. And if he can carry the Milwaukee Bucks into the tier occupied by the Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers and Toronto Raptors—one that the Indiana Pacers are also trying to break into—he'll get plenty of award love at the end of the 2018-19 campaign. 

    Antetokounmpo hasn't yet developed a reliable three-point stroke (30.7 percent on 1.9 attempts per game in 2017-18, which is the third consecutive season in which accuracy levels have trended up), but that doesn't seem to matter.

    His long strides, lanky arms and magnetic draw to the painted area still place defenders in pickles, forcing them to backpedal quickly and risk exposing a hip that the aptly nicknamed Greek Freak can attack in an advantageous fashion. He's an efficient scorer even without falling into the modern archetype, and that offensive load hasn't prevented him from playing excellent defense or functioning as a quality distributor for the Bucks. 

    It's that all-around game that plays so well in this particular conversation, allowing him to produce remarkable individual numbers, drive the narrative with highlights of so many different varieties and help the Bucks improve by a rotation-best 9.2 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor. 

1. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

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    Age: 33

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 27.5 points, 8.6 rebounds, 9.1 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.9 blocks

    2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 28.6 PER, 4.96 RPM, 593.09 TPA

    LeBron James checks all the boxes in the MVP conversation. 

    Individual excellence?

    In a vacuum, he's producing numbers that would make other players swoon. Those per-game statistics you can read above are undeniably excellent, even more so because they were earned efficiently, didn't feature a single absence during the regular season and were followed by even better play during a postseason run to the NBA Finals. That James is doing this with so much mileage only adds to his superiority in this category. 

    Team success? 

    The Los Angeles Lakers set a low bar last season by winning only 35 games, and that still represented marked improvement upon the futility of the two prior years that allowed for a total of 43 victories. The other free-agent additions (Michael Beasley, JaVale McGee, Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson) might not be landmark signings who dramatically improve the team's upside, but the combination of their presence and a promising young core should be enough to vault the Purple and Gold firmly into the Western Conference playoff picture. 

    James won't push the Lakers to a 60-win season and challenge the Golden State Warriors for the best record in the Association. But he doesn't have to in order for this to be a successful year in Tinseltown. 

    Narrative? 

    This is what plays in James' favor most strongly, allowing for his preseason status as the MVP favorite. 

    Not only does he benefit from continuing to excel long after Father Time has affected so many superstars, but he also has a chance to entirely alter the trajectory of a marquee franchise. If his efforts spark an end to Los Angeles' five-year playoff drought—more than twice as long as any other in the organization's history—he's already experiencing success. If he turns the Lake Show into a legitimate title contender, he might as well become a shoo-in for the award. 

    Even with a battle for the succession to his throne in the East, the Warriors adding another All-Star to their deep coffers, plenty of young stars emerging and a talented rookie class ready to begin strutting its stuff on the professional stage, the story of the 2018-19 campaign will revolve around James' first foray into the land of Lakers. 

    That counts for a lot. 

          

    Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.

    Unless otherwise indicated, all stats courtesy of Basketball Reference, NBA.com, NBA Math or ESPN.com.