LOS ANGELES — More often than not, the standard for the NBA's Most Valuable Player is the best player on the best regular-season team. Last year's Milwaukee Bucks finished with 60 wins, and Giannis Antetokounmpo deservedly earned the honor. James Harden got the nod in 2017-18 with the Houston Rockets far ahead of the pack with 65 victories.
Russell Westbrook bucked the trend in 2016-17, winning MVP after averaging a triple-double for the season on the 47-win Oklahoma City Thunder, who finished sixth in the Western Conference, well behind the 67-win Golden State Warriors.
Antetokounmpo would certainly be worthy of repeating as MVP. He's averaging 29.6 points, 13.8 rebounds and 5.8 assists for the Bucks (53-9), who are still atop the league, six games ahead of the next-best Los Angeles Lakers (47-13).
But LeBron James should also get a serious look based on what he's doing for Los Angeles. With an assist from the NBA stats department, the details are impressive.
In addition to scoring 25.4 points per night, James is averaging 10.7 assists, directly leading to 26.7 points per game for his teammates. His points created on assists are in the top 10 since 1996-97, and the stat doesn't include setting up fellow Lakers for free throws. James' 18.7 potential assists lead the NBA and are 15th overall since the league started tracking the stat.
The Lakers score 114.6 points per night, 45.5 percent of which come from either James' scoring or playmaking. That's the beauty of his game: He's a powerful scorer, but double-team him at your own risk because he'll kill you with the pass.
The league tracks in-game player movement with the ability to compare how teams defend an All-Star like James to others. Unlike other elite scoring ball-handlers like Luka Doncic and Harden, James doesn't face the same ball pressure on the perimeter and sees fewer double-teams. But he is enough of a threat from the outside (35.1 percent on 6.3 attempts per game) that he needs to be honored.
Others, like Ben Simmons (who has only attempted six three-pointers all season) and Antetokounmpo (4.7 attempts per night but a 30.9 conversion percentage), face significantly lighter defensive pressure on the perimeter. Teams want to make them shooters. James is happy to punish opponents for sagging off. He might even pull up from the Lakers logo.
Pay too close attention to James, though, and he'll use his strength to bully toward the basket. He drives 13.7 times per game, finishing 53.9 percent of his shot attempts. Converge on him and he'll find a teammate (2.23 potential assists per game when drawing multiple defenders and kicking to a perimeter shooter).
Beyond the numbers, James is the Lakers' leader both on and off the court. While an MVP vote shouldn't come down to politics behind the scenes, James may be the main reason Anthony Davis pushed for the offseason trade to the Lakers.
While Davis is still learning what it means to be on an elite contender, James' steady hand has guided the Lakers all season to the best record in the West.
On the court, that translates to James propping up Davis as the team's primary scoring option (26.6 points per game) while fully accepting his role as a team's true point guard for the first time in his career.
The eye test shows how valuable James is to the Lakers, but so does the minutia in details like James is "the only player to average at least 0.55 points per drive and 0.14 assists per drive," per the NBA.
In many ways, James resembles one of the greatest Lakers of all time: Earvin "Magic" Johnson, who was not only a brilliant, tall playmaker but also a threat in the post against smaller guards.
James averages four post-ups per game, shooting 57.1 percent on those attempts. Double him and he's statistically the best facilitator in the league out of the post, generating assists 19.6 percent of the time.
Teams send help on 22.3 percent of James' post-ups when he's between six and 15 feet from the basket. That's about the league average, which shouldn't be the case. If one of the NBA's superstars is getting closer and closer to the basket, wouldn't a double-team be the obvious answer? James is just too proficient a passer to overplay.
He can create from the perimeter and the post; James enables the Lakers' inside-out game, creating open three-pointers with the pass. He's generating 9.1 attempts per game, and on average, defenders are 7.15 feet from the shooter. That's almost an additional foot of space (0.72) than the league average of 6.43. He also creates shots right at the basket (6.4 attempts within five feet), and they're often wide-open, with the nearest defender 3.32 feet away (also better than the league average of 2.93).
Taking it all into account, it's clear why James has a plus-10.4 net rating in a team-high 1,988 minutes, per NBA.com. Only Alex Caruso is higher: plus-11.6 in 993 minutes as an important role player. And it's why the Lakers have a minus-1.0 net rating when James has sat for a total of 902 minutes.
The Lakers win games by 7.5 points per contest. The Bucks are at 12.4, so Antetokounmpo's plus-16.7 net rating is comparatively inflated. That's not a criticism—they are thrashing opponents thanks in large part to their young All-Star.
They, too, are at their worst when Antetokounmpo sits, but the Bucks are still in positive territory at plus-5.2. Perhaps Milwaukee has greater depth and continuity than the Lakers.
Awarding Antetokounmpo with the MVP is certainly justified, but don't ignore what James, at 35 years old and in his 17th season, is doing in Los Angeles. He may have the third-best player between the two teams in Davis (subjectively), but the Bucks roster is arguably better balanced and more formidable.
Even Antetokounmpo couldn't help but admire James on Wednesday after the Bucks' 119-100 win over the Indiana Pacers.
Eric Woodyard @E_Woodyard
Giannis on inspired by LeBron: “It’s amazing. He’s 35 and playing at a high level. He just leads the path for us. A lot of times we think that ‘Ok, we’re going to retire at 35, but seeing a guy at 35, being still top-3 best player in the world, that makes us want to be there.” https://t.co/47Qf4Ixgba
James hasn't won the NBA's Most Valuable Player award since 2012-13. He may not win it this season, especially if Milwaukee completes the season sweep Friday night at Staples Center. But if the Lakers can get the victory and close the gap, he may upset Antetokounmpo's bid for back-to-back MVPs.
Email Eric Pincus at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.