Does LeBron James Really Have a Gripe with NBA MVP Voters?

Sean Highkin@highkinFeatured ColumnistSeptember 19, 2020

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James smiles as he stands on the court during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Philadelphia 76ers Tuesday, March 3, 2020, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Giannis Antetokounmpo was announced Friday as the NBA's MVP for the second season in a row, and LeBron James has thoughts.

"It pissed me off," James told reporters in his virtual media availability after the Los Angeles Lakers' series-opening blowout win over the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals. "You know, not saying that the winner wasn't deserving of the MVP. But that pissed me off. And I finished second a lot in my career, either from a championship, and now four times as an MVP."

Out of the 101 media members who cast ballots for the NBA's end-of-season awards (of which this writer is not one), 85 put Antetokounmpo in first place; the other 16 had James No. 1. This wasn't a surprise to anyone, as they were the clear-cut top two candidates all season.

"I'm not going to sit up here and talk about what the criteria should be or what it is," James said. "It's changed over the years since I've gotten into the league," he said. "Sometimes it's the best player on the best team. Sometimes it's the guy with the best season statistically. Sometimes ... I mean, you don't know. You don't know. But you know, Giannis had a hell of a season; I can definitely say that."

Straight after his press conference, James headed for his phone and fired off a tweet saying essentially the same thing, because brand synergy has always been one of his strengths.

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Let's stipulate a few things.

First: The right player won the 2019-20 MVP award. Whether it's team record or individual statistical performances, Antetokounmpo's case is unassailable. PER is an imperfect stat, but he had the highest single-season mark in league history at 31.86 while averaging 29.5 points, 13.6 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game and playing Defensive Player of the Year-worthy defense (an award he also won) on a Milwaukee Bucks team that finished with the NBA's best record. 

The optics are weird that Antetokounmpo accepted the award on vacation in Athens while James' team is playing in the Western Conference Finals. It's not the first time that's happened. The Dallas Mavericks' first-round loss as a No. 1 seed in 2007 didn't mean Dirk Nowitzki deserved that MVP trophy any less. It's a regular-season award, and for the second year in a row, Antetokounmpo had the best regular season.

Second: For as much as James likes to complain about the award being decided by media narratives, that's how he got the number of votes he did. The fact that he was even in the conversation—at age 35 in his 17th season, while leading the league in assists on the best team in the West—was partially because his team is the Los Angeles Lakers, by far the league's most covered, popular franchise.

Some LeBron voters have said as much.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Third: James is absolutely right that the criteria for the award are inconsistent and change from year to year. The phrase "Most Valuable Player" is intentionally ambiguous and open to interpretation by voters.

For some, it's the best player on the best team. For others, it's the most statistically dominant or simply the player they feel defined the season from a story standpoint. There's no right or wrong way to vote; the field is just more clear-cut in some years.

Know this, though: There's a science behind what James said Friday. He's known for months that he wasn't going to win this MVP award. He's not as mad about it as much as he's acting. He's got four MVP awards, the third-most all-time. (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won it six times, Michael Jordan and Bill Russell won it five times, Wilt Chamberlain is the only other player besides James to win it four times.) He's already in historic company in that regard. Nobody's going to view his career differently if he retires with "only" four of them.

But James is playing the long game. By agitating for it now, he's planting the seeds to win MVP next season, whenever next season takes place. He already has some high-profile media support, and if the Lakers win this year's title (a good possibility), he'll go into next season with a head start on the "narrative" angle he hates so much when it goes against him. He'll have four rings, and probably Finals MVPs on three different teams (which has never been done before). If he has a statistical season in 2020-21 that's even close to the one he just had, and the Lakers are in the title mix, he'll be the voting favorite.

Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

The MVP award is based on regular-season performance, but postseason success absolutely factors into voting when a previous winner comes up short. James Harden was the deserving choice in 2017-18, but voters have cooled on him in years since despite comparable statistics. Multiple disappointing playoff performances will do that. He's not going to win another one until the Rockets break through and win the title, or at least make the Finals.

And you can bet Antetokounmpo won't be a three-time MVP until he gets a ring. Losing in last year's Eastern Conference Finals when the Bucks hadn't made it past the first round since 2001 doesn't change the perception; losing as badly as they did to the Miami Heat in the second round this year does.

If James goes into next season as a four-time champion, it will be easy to latch on to the notion that he's on a "revenge tour" for the MVP he feels he should have won. Add that he'll be 36, with an ever-closing window to win his fifth MVP trophy, and there will be even more support to give him one to make up for others he was robbed of earlier in his career.

No one that old will have ever won an MVP (Karl Malone won it at 35 in 1999; Jordan was 34 in 1998). No one will have ever gone 12 years between his first and last trophy (James' first was in 2009). 

By winning it next year, James would make a kind of history that is entirely his own. Being the oldest MVP in league history would cement the "longevity" angle in his case for the greatest player of all time. James is as savvy as any NBA superstar has ever been—he knows this. Nothing he does is by accident.

In lamenting the loss of the 2020 MVP award for narrative reasons, James is getting a jump on setting up that same narrative to work in his favor next year.

       

Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is a graduate of the University of Oregon and lives in Portland. His work has been honored by the Pro Basketball Writers' Association. Follow him on TwitterInstagram and in the B/R App.