That’s when it became personal.
LeBron James was none too happy about his MVP snub, telling reporters exactly how he felt about finishing runner-up to Milwaukee superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo (recipient of 85 first-place votes to LeBron’s 16) in this year’s voting.
“It pissed me off,” admitted James, who hasn’t claimed MVP status since 2013. That was seven years and two teams ago for the Lakers elder statesman, who led the NBA in assists (career-high 10.2 per game) during the regular season. “I’ve finished second a lot in my career. Either from a championship and now four times as an MVP.”
You can understand why James feels disrespected. Already third on the NBA’s all-time scoring list and, at worst, the second-greatest player of all-time behind consensus GOAT Michael Jordan (I’d hear your argument for Kareem at No. 2, though I doubt it would change anything), LeBron is still an absolute behemoth, an infuriatingly versatile, unrelenting freak of nature with seemingly limitless talent. Seventeen years into his illustrious career and still dominant as ever, LeBron is, even at age 35, the best player our planet has to offer right now.
So why such shade from the voting masses? The easy answer is that Giannis had a better statistical season, finishing among the league’s top five in both scoring (career-high 29.5 PPG average) and rebounding (13.6 boards per game) while leading Milwaukee to an NBA-best 56-17 regular-season record. Antetokounmpo’s defensive prowess (he was this year’s Defensive Player of the Year, becoming only the third player to earn DPOY and MVP honors in the same season) may also have been a factor. Which begs the question, should the MVP go to the sport’s best player—a title most would agree belongs to James—or to whoever had the best season, which can often be two different things? Predictably, the NBA on TNT crew struggled to find any semblance of a middle ground on this topic.
“LeBron is the best player in the world. So if you’re the best player in the world, how can you not be MVP?” argued Shaquille O’Neal, taking a pro-LeBron stance. “You all keep talking about team or records. That ain’t got nothing to do with it. I lost twice because somebody had a better record, but they lost in the first round.”
“But if you’re the best player in the world, that doesn’t always necessarily mean you had the best season,” posited Warriors forward Draymond Green, offering a different vantage point. “Giannis had a better season this year and last year. But if you’re starting a franchise or you’re picking a player to say, ‘Go get me a championship,’ you’re picking LeBron James.”
The debate over what merits MVP status isn’t exclusive to just basketball. Mike Trout has been MLB’s top performer seemingly since the day he arrived in the big leagues. Yet the 29-year-old has only claimed MVP honors on three occasions. Whether that’s because the Angels have rarely been competitive throughout Trout’s tenure or if it’s a case of voters subconsciously wanting to share the wealth (why give Trout another award when everyone already knows he’s the best player?), what defines an MVP remains very much up for debate.
LeBron may not be leaving the bubble with any individual hardware, but James can still have the last laugh with Los Angeles now just three wins away from another NBA Finals appearance. If the Lakers can put away Denver in the Western Conference (they had no problem doing so in Friday night’s opener, a lopsided affair that saw James log just 31 minutes of court time), LeBron will be headed to his 10th career Finals and ninth championship series in his last 10 seasons.