For now, with the final month of the season on the horizon and the two teams set to play Friday night, there are those who don’t see a debate between James and Antetokounmpo for MVP.
“Oh, it’s Giannis by a landslide,” said Charles Barkley, the 1993 MVP and NBA analyst at TNT.
There are others who say it’s not a done deal because of the outstanding seasons both are having.
“I don’t think there is a clear answer,” said Mark Jackson, the NBA game analyst for ESPN. “I think both guys have put themselves in position to legitimately win it.
“What I don’t understand is when somebody takes one side and argues against the other. What Giannis has done and is doing is putting himself in the discussion with some of the greatest that have ever played this game and it’s something that obviously he’s going to be able to sustain going forward. He’s an incredible basketball player. At the same time, what LeBron James has done, is doing and seems to be continuing is absolutely ridiculous.”
The numbers put up by James, 35, and Antetokounmpo, 25, might make it too close to call. And the position both have placed their teams in the standings makes it another close call.
James, a four-time MVP who last won the award at age 28 in 2013, is averaging 25.4 points a game (12th in the league), 10.7 assists (best in the league) and 7.8 rebounds. He has led the Lakers (47-13) to the best record in the Western Conference and second best in the league.
Antetokounmpo, last season’s MVP who could become the first repeat winner since Golden State’s Stephen Curry in 2016, is averaging 29.6 points (tied for third in the league), 13.8 rebounds (fourth) and 5.8 assists. He has the Bucks holding the best record at 53-9.
Deeper analytics tend to favor Antetokounmpo, who is first in player efficiency rating at 31.84 compared to James’ 25.79, which ranks eighth. The Bucks star also ranks first in the plus-minus category with an 11.8 rating compared to James’ 8.1, which is fifth overall.
Barkley explained why the 6-11 Antetokounmpo should be the MVP.
“Because they got the best record in the world, he’s got less help than LeBron and they are like 53-9,” Barkley said. “Listen, I understand people are trying to change the narrative. But if LeBron was 53-9, played with less help, they would give him the MVP in a landslide. He got the one MVP [in Miami] and never had a record like that and he had Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. And LeBron is having a great year, don’t get me wrong. But the Bucks are 53-9 and Giannis don’t have no Anthony Davis on his team.”
The role James has played in steering his teammates and the Lakers organization through the tragic death of Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26 has shown his leadership.
Barkley admits James has been a tower of strength in this most difficult time.
“I understand the Kobe thing, but they need to be fair to Giannis,” Barkley said. “What he’s doing is incredible.”
The Lakers, not too surprisingly, think James should be the MVP.
“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. “… I mean, you guys see when LeBron’s off the floor, how our team operates. 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. And for me, just being around it this whole season, my vote goes to LeBron.”
For his part, James said winning the MVP “never motivated me.” His goal is to be “the best player in the world.”
In that vein, James praised Antetokounmpo.
“Big-time challenge. Big-time challenge,” James said about facing Antetokounmpo. “His ability to get the ball off the glass, push, facilitate, put pressure on your defense. But I think what a lot of people are misunderstanding about how great Giannis is how they put that team together. They put that team together around him that fits his attributes perfectly. It allows him to get space because they keep so many shooters out on the floor at the same time. It allows him to get downhill because you have to stop him at the point of attack and you also have to get out to sharpshooters. So they did a great job of constructing that team, putting the pieces around him that best fit his game perfectly.”
After the Bucks defeated the Pacers on Wednesday night, Antetokounmpo said how “it’s amazing” what James is still doing in his 17th season.
“A lot of times we think that, ‘OK, we’re going to retire at 35,’ but seeing a guy at 35 being still top-three best player in the world, that makes us want to be there,” Antetokounmpo said. “Makes me want to be there one day, so I’ve got to keep taking care of my body, eating the right way, being healthy, and as I said — he paved the way, and hopefully we can just follow.”
When: 7:30 p.m, Friday.
On the air: TV: Spectrum SportsNet, ESPN; Radio: 710, 1330.
Update: The Lakers are seventh in the NBA in scoring (114.6 points per game) while the Bucks are first (119.1). The Lakers lead the league in field-goal percentage (48.7%) and the Bucks are second (47.9%). The Lakers give up 107.1 points per game, the fifth-lowest in the league, and the Bucks allow 106.6 points per game, the second lowest in the league.