LOS ANGELES – What motivates LeBron James this season? The answer sits in Jeanie Buss’ office.
There, the controlling owner has 10 of their 16 NBA championship trophies sitting on a shelf adjacent to the window above the team’s practice court. James can peer at that window anytime to remind himself what drives him during his 17th NBA season.
What about another kind of hardware? A fifth MVP award.
He has called himself “Washed King” as a nod to unnamed critics who questioned whether James, 35, could remain one of the NBA’s superstars after spending his first season with the Lakers missing a combined 27 games because of a strained left groin. He also missed the playoffs for the first time in 13 years.
“Regular-season MVP has never motivated me. To be the best to ever play in the game has motivated me and has resulted in me being league MVP a couple of times,” James said following practice Thursday.
“I’ve never gone into the season saying, ‘League MVP is where I want to be.’ I’ve gone into the season saying, ‘I want to be the MVP of this team and I want to be the best player in the world with how I approach my game every day and how I take care of my body.’ ”
James expressed relative apathy in stating his case for MVP against Giannis Antetokounmpo when the Lakers (47-13) host a nationally televised game against the Milwaukee Bucks (53-9) on Friday at Staples Center.
Instead, James cares more about furthering the Lakers’ 5½-game cushion for the Western Conference’s top seed by rectifying a seven-point loss in Milwaukee nearly three months ago. Friday’s matchup could be a preview of the NBA Finals.
“It’s not even debatable. He’s definitely having that type of season,” coach Frank Vogel said. “ … The body of work he’s put forth for our team I don’t really think it compares to anybody else. A lot of great performances throughout the year with other players so I don’t want to take anything away from anyone else but it’s pretty unbelievable what he does.”
It is hard to take away from what Antetokounmpo has done, though.
A season after winning his first MVP award, Antetokounmpo is averaging career-highs in points (29.6) and rebounds (13.8) while averaging nearly 6.0 assists and shooting 55% from the field.
“Right now, I would probably have to give it to Giannis,” an NBA advance scout told USA TODAY Sports. “They have the best record. But it’s so close. You could convince me either way. It’s remarkable what LeBron is doing at his age.”
The scout was granted anonymity because he is not authorized to discuss players publicly.
James has averaged 26.0 points on 50% shooting and 8.1 rebounds along with a league-leading 10.1 assists and second-best 13 triple-doubles. James admitted he surpassed even his points expectations while handling increased ball-handling duties as a de facto point guard. And Vogel and Anthony Davis argued James has also provided intangible leadership that a box score cannot fully capture.
“The only way I continue to be in the conversation is through the grace of God. I’ve always respected the game. I believe when you give to the game, the game gives back to you,” James said. “I take care of my body. I know it’s my temple. Then, I continue to have an open mind on how I can continue to get better.”
Will that be enough for James to win MVP? If the season ended today, I would still give the slight edge to Antetokounmpo.
Lakers forward Jared Dudley, who played with Antetokounmpo in 2014-15, conceded that “Giannis is in the lead, but it’s by a small margin.”
“Why wouldn’t LeBron want to win MVP? It’s motivation,” Dudley told USA TODAY Sports. “But he’s not going to jeopardize that if he needs to get rest days toward the end. I don’t think Giannis will, either. But I’m sure it’s in the back of his mind. If he gets his awards, that means our team is winning and playing at a high level.”
Antetokounmpo won the head-to-head matchup over James in their last meeting in points (34-21), while James edged him in rebounds (12-11) and assists (11-7).
With Antetokounmpo missing slightly more games this season than James (6-3), Dudley argued that Antetokounmpo cannot afford to miss significant chunks of time in the final month of the season.
This factor will not influence my vote. It might for other media members, though. Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Tim Duncan, Steve Nash, Stephen Curry and James have won consecutive MVP awards. Perhaps voters will hand the hardware to James because it fits a new narrative.
“My gut would be since Giannis won it last year, people would give it to LeBron,” an NBA executive told USA TODAY Sports. The executive was granted anonymity because he did not want to speak publicly about the MVP race.
“There aren’t many back-to-back champions. But when you take Giannis off the Bucks, they’re not nearly as good as they are if you take LeBron off the Lakers. They still have Anthony Davis.”
Fair enough. Davis has averaged 26.6 points on 51.3 percent shooting and 9.2 rebounds. He remains the favorite to win the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year. Davis has made life much easier for James after he spent last season with a young and inconsistent roster. But the Lakers believe James deserves credit for enhancing his facilitating role, elevating his supporting cast and coaches as well as avoiding a major injury.
“The things he does on the floor, he can shoot the ball, he can pass, he gets everyone involved. He can take over games,” Davis said. “… We kind of struggle a little bit with him off the floor. And I think it’s about who is most valuable to their team. Just being around it this whole season, my vote goes to LeBron.”
Antetokounmpo does not have the same caliber of teammate as Davis. But he has a strong supporting cast, including elite 3-point shooters in Khris Middleton, George Hill and Kyle Korver as well as an effective point guard in Eric Bledsoe.
“What a lot of people are misunderstanding about how great Giannis is (is) how they put that team together,” James said. “They put that team together around him that fits his attributes perfectly.”
How will this MVP race play out? The next six weeks should be entertaining, to say the least.
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