LeBron James and the Art of the MVP Narrative
Updated: Oct 9, 2021
“And one!” LeBron James screamed towards Jamal Murray after plowing through him for the made basket. As the Lakers dominated the Denver Nuggets in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, his demeanor made a statement.
"I’m not going anywhere."
It was announced on Friday that Giannis Antetokounmpo had won his second consecutive MVP award. When reporters questioned LeBron about his opinion on the decision, he bluntly replied, “It pissed me off… And I finished second a lot in my career, either from a championship, and now four times as an MVP.”
Once again, James fell just short of the title as the NBA’s Most Valuable Player. At 35 years old, he led the league in assists and powered the Lakers to the top playoff seed in the Western Conference. Despite his impressive year, he only received 16 out of 101 first-place votes.
However, Antetokounmpo had a historic season that simply could not go unrecognized. The Greek Freak’s Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of 31.86 in the 2019-20 regular season was the highest in league history, surpassing the likes of Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan, and James. Antetokounmpo’s stifling defense also earned him Defensive Player of the Year; he led the league in field goal percentage allowed.
LeBron and the rest of the basketball world are well aware that the MVP award is given to the player with the best regular season; the playoffs are not taken into account. Nonetheless, he still had to watch from the Orlando bubble as Giannis accepted his award back home in Greece. This scenario is similar to the 2007 season, when Dirk Nowitzki accepted the prestigious award after the Dallas Mavericks had lost in the first round of the playoffs.
In 2011, Derrick Rose won his first MVP at age 22, becoming the youngest player in league history to win the award. His win over LeBron did not come without its fair share of controversy and criticism. Although Rose led the Chicago Bulls to a better record than James with the Heat, the latter led in almost every major statistical category. So why didn’t LeBron win his third MVP award in a row?
The answer can be traced back to the narrative ensuing that season. The 2010-11 season was LeBron’s first since infamously making “The Decision” of signing with the Miami Heat, angering fans and the media. For the first time in his career, he was an NBA villain. No longer was he just the kid from Akron, Ohio; he was the man who betrayed the team that drafted him seven years prior. Enter Derrick Rose, the antidote to the void left by LeBron’s game-changing move. Rose leading his home-town Bulls to the best overall record in the league was the perfect sweetener to counteract the bad taste left in the mouths of basketball fans.
Paired with LeBron’s newfound status as NBA Enemy No. 1, voter fatigue surely played a role in the unpopular decision to award Rose. LeBron had won the MVP award in consecutive years before signing with Miami. Although his points per game went down slightly during his first season with the Heat, the rest of his per game statistics either improved or stayed the same. He edged Rose in almost every single category besides free-throw percentage and 3-point percentage. There was no logical argument to give Rose the award over LeBron, but voters were still incensed by the latter’s decision. A feel-good story felt right over rewarding a player who “abandoned” his home-town team.
Flash forward to today, and LeBron is ready to take control of the MVP narrative going into next season. He will turn 36 in December but with the drive of his 20-year-old rookie self. Some voters think that the MVP should be awarded to the player with the best statistical season. Others believe it should go to the best player on the best overall team in terms of record. The criteria is not set in stone; it fluctuates from year to year based upon what happens in the league. Nonetheless, King James is eager to prove he’s here to stay.