LeBron is turning 34, has played more minutes than almost any star in NBA history, and is coming to a new team. And yet, he should be the MVP favorite.
Several smart people are predicting some level of catastrophe for LeBron James and the Lakersthis season.
Understand this: missing the NBA playoffs or nearly missing the playoffs is full-on catastrophe. While it’s a reasonable outcome based on the facts as they sit, it would be a catastrophe. Missing the playoffs at this stage of his famed career — and the Lakers missing the playoffs again after landing the best basketball player in the world — is unthinkable.
Is it also unthinkable the team’s fates could careen in the other direction, that the Lakers could be quite good and LeBron could be rewarded as such?
Here’s the case that LeBron is actually the NBA MVP favorite heading into 2018-19.
The truth about the West
The Western Conference has been objectively better and deeper than the East for decades now. That remains the case. The Warriors and Rockets are better than the top-tier East teams like the Raptors, Celtics, and Sixers. The next tier of West team are on par or better than the next tier of East teams, and the race to get into the playoffs is more competitive in the West.
This is all true. It is also true that the West is a little underwhelming after the top two teams.
Remember, the Blazers won the No. 3 seed in the West last season with 49 wins. LeBron’s Cavaliers had 50, albeit against an easier schedule (by about a third of a point per game, per Basketball-Reference.) Portland got trebucheted right out of the playoffs by the Pelicans. Portland was good ... but how good? Good enough to be daunting to the Lakers now?
The competition is surmountable. The Lakers could miss the playoffs, yes. They could also be the No. 3 seed. They have a better player than any of those other teams chasing Golden State and Houston. That’s a helluva good start.
If the Lakers are good, all credit goes to LeBron
So that’s the first step to LeBron’s MVP conquest: the Lakers get good and add something like 15 wins to bring them up around 50. The last time a LeBron team failed to win 50 in a full 82-game season was 2007-08.
(By the way, 15-game improvements are hardly unprecedented: Minnesota improved by 16 wins last year by adding Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson. LeBron is even better.)
If the Lakers win 50 games for the first time since 2011 and make the playoffs for the first time since 2013, having signed not a second star to go with LeBron, but Lance Stephenson, Rajon Rondo, Michael Beasley, and JaVale McGee, James is going to get most if not all the credit.
Now, if the Lakers get there, it’s in part because some of that rogues’ gallery performed, because Brandon Ingram and/or Lonzo Ball made a leap, because Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Kuzma filled roles admirably, because the front office made deft moves at the deadline, because Luke Walton guided the flotilla through the storm. But LeBron is getting the lion’s share of credit, as he will deserve.
And the other contenders?
James Harden will be a top MVP contender until the wheels fall off, which could well be a half-decade from now. But one of his more potent arguments — that he has deserved an MVP for a few years now — is gone now that he actually has an MVP. That doesn’t mean he won’t win another, but one of the arrows in his quiver is spent.
Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, along with Harden, are in the conversation with LeBron for the best basketball player in the world, but they have barely registered in MVP voting since teaming up in 2016. The Warriors are too stacked to produce a legit MVP candidate unless one of them misses a good portion of the season.
Anthony Davis finished third behind Harden and LeBron in MVP voting last season, and has been the stalking horse of the conversation for a few years now. He and Giannis Antetokounmpo are the common sense preseason favorites for the award in most corners I have seen.
But if you’re concerned about LeBron’s Lakers making the playoffs, be concerned about Davis’ Pelicans, too. They lost DeMarcus Cousins and Rondo, and while nabbing Julius Randle was smart, there’s no telling whether New Orleans can bring the same quality this year. And if the Pels don’t make the playoffs, AD doesn’t have a shot at MVP, fair or not.
Antetokounmpo, meanwhile, needs help from his teammates to make a real MVP case. Being a low seed in the East playoff bracket isn’t going to get Giannis there. Being a top-four seed? Now we’re talking. But that requires Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton, and whoever else Mike Budenholzerleans on to help Antetokounmpo make the Bucks matter.
There are other fringe MVP candidates at this point, like Russell Westbrook (almost assuredly topping out at one MVP), Kyrie Irving (truly in the conversation once you get past the top names), Damian Lillard (a dark horse that finished No. 5 last year), Kawhi Leonard (who will suffer from the reputation hit his bad break-up with beloved Gregg Popovich caused), Joel Embiid (is he more important than Ben Simmons?), Ben Simmons (is he more important than Joel Embiid?), maybe even John Wall and, dare I say, Blake Griffin. Right now, before anyone has even suited up for training camp, all things are possible.
LeBron needs some help to climb atop the MVP mountain. But so does everyone else.
The legacy question
Here’s some of that help LeBron might be able to count on.
People in and around basketball love LeBron. Even people who hate him love him. He has four NBA MVPs. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has six. Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain have five each. Everyone is addicted to talking about LeBron’s legacy and status as potentially The Greatest Ever. Subconsciously, that has an impact — especially given the fact that Jordan’s post-playing career has rubbed a lot of people sideways.
The heart plays tricks on the brain, and it wouldn’t be abnormal for at least some voters’ warm fuzzies about LeBron’s social impact and the reality of the MVP count to sway those voters’ brains to give James a little more on-court credit.
This isn’t devious or conscious or wrong. Steve Nash picked up MVP votes because of the joy he brought to the game. Westbrook picked up votes due to celebration of his throwback F.U. attitude after being jilted. Some voters literally voted for Derrick Rose in 2011 because he was from Chicago and led the Bulls back to prominence. It’s all subjective to a degree, and there’s certain a legacy bump to be had for LeBron.
Yes, everything else has to line up. The Lakers need to be good (not a given). The other candidates need to have something go sideways (not a given). LeBron needs to put up dominant numbers over nearly, if not all, 82 games (sheesh). But the case at this point in the calendar looks pretty solid, right?
Jump on that bandwagon now. We’re leaving on opening night.