We Don't Have to Accept the LeBron-For-MVP Narrative
We should probably be noisy about this.
Andrew Unterberger is a famous writer who invented the nickname 'Sauce Castillo' and is now writing for The Rights To Ricky Sanchez, as part of the 'If Not, Pick Will Convey As Two Second-Rounders' section of the site. You can follow Andrew on Twitter @AUGetoffmygold and can also read him at Billboard.
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The Sixers' Sunday night loss to the Raptors was a win in one respect. With a sprawling long two in the final minute that went in, almost accidentally, while trying in vain to draw contact from Raptors center Aron Baynes, Joel Embiid hit the 25-point mark on the night. That was significant because it was the 14th game in a row with him reaching that number -- something only Allen Iverson had ever done before on the 76ers, and something only five other players (and no true big men) had done on any team in the past decade.
Maybe the streak keeps going to further historic proportions, maybe not. Maybe the streak starts to get national media attention, and maybe not. But in a Most Valuable Player race where easily understood narrative rules the day, every little bit helps. And we're gonna need it this year to counter the big machine that is LeBron-for-MVP.
Through 30-something games this season, Joel Embiid has been the NBA's MVP. That's not a fact, but it is my belief, and one most numbers and historical precedent would tend to support. Embiid is averaging over 30 points a game -- something only Bradley Beal can also claim this season, and which no seven-footer has done for a full season since Bucks-era Kareem Abdul-Jabbar -- on unfathomably high shooting slashes (54/40/85), getting to the line nearly 12 times a game, grabbing 11 boards a night, anchoring a sixth-rated defense with his all-NBA-caliber goalkeeping, and leading the Sixers to an East-best 20-11 record. He leads the league in Player Efficiency Rating, with a mark (31.7) that would be among the highest PERs ever posted if he did it for the full season. The Sixers are +11.1 per 100 possessions with him on the court and -7.2 with him off it. Aside from the six games he's missed -- an admittedly large number, though not yet a disqualifying one -- there are no holes in his MVP resume. It should take a truly staggering season-long performance to beat him.
LeBron James, through 30-something games of his own, has not delivered that performance. Undoubtedly, his season has been incredibly impressive -- particularly as a 36-year-old, an age by which point 99.99% of basketball players in NBA history have been permanently removed from the MVP discussion. He's averaging 26-8-8 on 50% shooting, getting to the line about six times a game. His defensive stats are fairly negligible (one steal a game, a career low for him, to go with half a block), though the Lakers' overall defense is still top-rated. His on-off numbers are very good (+9.0 on, -2.6 off), but not jaw-dropping. He's led the Lakers to a 22-10 record, tied for second in the West. He's one of the two best basketball players of the modern era, and he's having another great season -- though one that's only historic by back-half-of-their-30s player standards. In a weak year, he still might have had a legitimate MVP case.
But this isn't a weak year. Embiid is having the kind of season that Hall of Fame players have in their very best years, if they're lucky. His numbers are not just better than LeBron's, but significantly better, across the board. He's averaging about five more points, three more rebounds, six more free-throw attempts and one more block a game, while shooting 4% percent better from the field, 4% better from deep and 15% better from the line -- all while turning the ball over at a lower rate. Advanced stats nearly all favor Embiid by a dramatic margin: PER (31.7 to 23.6), Win Shares per 48 (.285 to .183), BPM (8.7 to 6.7). (The super-advanced all-in-one stats are a little more split, with RAPTOR and Estimated Plus-Minus favoring Embiid and Real Plus-Minus favoring LeBron.) The only box score category where LeBron has the obvious advantage is assists -- 8.1 to 3.1 -- though his assist numbers are significantly down from last year, when he averaged a league-leading 10.2.
Aside from that, there's only two real numerical-based advantages to LeBron's case: Games played and overall record. He's played all 31 of the Lakers' games so far this year, while Joel has missed six, and their record is still better than the Sixers' (though just 1.5 games better now). Even there, one argument kinda undercuts the other. In those six games Joel has missed, the Sixers went 1-5, meaning that their record with him is 19-6: a higher winning percentage (76%) than the Lakers in every game with LeBron (69%). LeBron clearly doesn't have the league's strongest statistical resume, he's not on the best team (Utah may leave both LA teams in the dust with their 25-6 record), and he's not even having that great a season by his own (insanely high) standards, with his lowest PER and second-lowest WS/48 since his rookie season. (And we're not even getting into all the other potential MVP candidates -- Stephen Curry, Kawhi Leonard, and probably the only true challenger to Joel's MVP claims, Nikola Jokic -- all of whom have profiles about as superficially impressive as LeBron's, if not moreso.)
So what exactly is his MVP case? LeBron's case, for the most part, is narrative. LeBron's case is, "Man, how insane is it that LeBron is still playing at this level?" LeBron's case is, "Can you believe it's really been eight seasons since he last won the MVP?" LeBron's case is, "Didn't you see what he did in the playoffs last year -- again?" LeBron's case is, "Everyone agrees he's the best player, so why don't we just admit he's the MVP already?"
And LeBron's case is currently being made not only by untold hordes of fans on Twitter, but by some of the biggest names in mainstream media. Ramona Shelburne made the argument on ESPN Radio, saying, "I don't think it's close. I don't even know why you guys are debating it... it's LeBron." Her evidence: Him playing every game, him playing well even with co-star Anthony Davis not being at 100%, and him deserving a "makeup call for last year... 'coz he shamed everybody [in the playoffs] who didn't vote for him last year." (Former coach PJ Carlesimo apparently joined her on radio a couple days later to call it a "disgrace" if LeBron stays healthy and doesn't end up winning the award.) Meanwhile, longtime LeBron correspondent Brian Windhorst wrote an ESPN article with the self-fulfillingly prophetic title "Eight years after his last NBA MVP, narrative might tilt toward LeBron once again," analyzing how general NBA subplottery had worked against LeBron in the past, but might work in his favor this time around. By last Saturday night's Heat-Lakers ABC showdown, you know that Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson were openly talking on the broadcast about the stupidity of LBJ having not won the award since 2013.
Along with the big names, the silent majority has also been swayed: A poll conducted a couple weeks ago by Tim McMenamin of ESPN of 100 media members found LeBron to be the clear leader in the clubhouse of the MVP race, notching 53 of the 100 first-place votes -- 30 more than Embiid, the second-highest first-place-vote-getter. The poll acknowledged that the margins were still close by MVP race standards, but concluded that "James currently has the inside track in his push for a fifth MVP trophy to go with what he hopes will be a fifth NBA championship this summer." (Worth noting that at that point, a large percentage of LeBron's then-narrative was still based on him shooting over 40% from three for the first time since his last MVP season, though after a brutal 6-37 stretch from deep since then, he's back down to under 36%, much closer to his norm of recent years.)
What's driving all of this is, in large part, the Shelburne-mentioned notion that LeBron just proved in the playoffs once again that he's the best overall player, and that it's dumb for us to act like another player is more valuable, when we alllllll know who we'd most wanna have on our team when the regular season turns into the postseason. Obviously there's some truth at the core of that, since even Giannis Antetokounmpo -- winner of the two most recent MVP awards -- openly acknowledges that LeBron is the best player in the NBA.
But who the Best Player Alive officially is doesn't really matter to the MVP discussion. The MVP is a regular-season award, and even if LeBron has regularly been the best-performing player on the best-performing team in the playoffs -- which he has in fact been rewarded for over the past eight years, in the form of two Finals MVP trophies -- that hasn't been the case in the regular season; certainly not this year, and not for most of the last eight years, either. (Say what you will about Bill Simmons, but no media member is more obsessive about MVP race history than he, and his Sunday night pod with Ryen Rusillo breaking down the past eight MVP races -- and why LeBron wasn't really snubbed in any of them -- was mostly convincing.) Kendrick Lamar is probably the closest thing to a consensus Best Rapper Alive right now, but if he releases an album that's pretty-good-not-great and some less-accomplished rappers put out albums that are better, no one's gonna argue that he's being snubbed on critics' year-end lists merely by virtue of having previously demonstrated that he's capable of more. There's no reason why you should win MVP mostly based on name and reputation.
Go one layer deeper than the LeBron Should Win Because He's LeBron argument, though, and you get to the real motor powering this discussion: LeBron really wants to win the MVP this year. Which isn't to say he hasn't in past years, but now he's no longer being diplomatic about it. Windhorst's article about LeBron's eight years in the MVP wilderness didn't catalog his cases for having been shafted in those years, but instead detailed the evolution of his reactions to the losses -- from cordial to subtly irate to obviously miffed to outright pissy. Combined with the article's title, it's hard not to read the implication of the article being that LeBron's done playing nice with the media on this matter after eight years, and that the media in turn will likely recognize that it's time to stop playing around and give him his damn fifth MVP trophy already. (Also hard not to note that all these LeBron-for-MVP pushers come from the ESPN family -- even the Real Plus-Minus stat! -- which probably doesn't suggest a complicated conspiracy theory so much as the idea that many of these folks might have some vested interest in this particular narrative coming to fruition, for a wide variety of professional reasons.)
Of course, this is a pro-Embiid-for-MVP piece coming on a blog for a Sixers podcast, so it would be extremely hypocritical of me to purport to have any less of a vested interest in this matter. And for the record, while I obviously disagree with all these folks either arguing for LeBron or furthering his MVP narrative for him, I don't think they deserve derision (or worse, harassment) for doing so. They've got their reasons, and the MVP definition is kept vague enough that you can twist just about any elite player to fit it if you try hard enough. I think the numbers are on my side, but I don't pretend to be objective on this matter, and if you read all the above stats and still decide it's fair to stump for LeBron, go nuts. There certainly have been a handful of winners in the past -- Karl Malone, Derrick Rose, Steve Nash at least one of the two times -- who didn't really have the greatest arguments for MVP either, but were helped by the fact that it was just kinda fun to vote for them over some of the more predictable winners. In that sense, there is precedent for LeBron winning for this season. So fair enough.
But Embiid is my guy -- if you're reading this, chances are pretty good he's yours too -- and it does feel pretty shitty to think that almost no matter how well he actually plays on the court this season, he could lose to a guy who's just much better (and more practiced) at playing the media than he is. Once momentum gets going on something like the LeBron MVP hype train, it's pretty hard to stop it. Of course, LeBron looks absolutely exhausted since Anthony Davis got hurt a week ago, and L.A. just lost three in a row, including home Ls to the sub-.500 Heat and Wizards -- derailing any hopes of a deal-sealing "look at how LeBron's keeping the Lakers afloat with AD injured!" hook to this already-catchy tune, which his backers were clearly hoping for (and probably expecting). Last night, he was too tired to get past Davis Bertans late in the game, missed a couple huge free throws and ended up with a superficially impressive 31-9-13 stat line whose deeper struggle numbers (14-29 shooting, just 1-3 from the line and 2-10 from deep, a season-high eight turnovers) made Russell Westbrook look efficient by comparison. Maybe that all changes things, but I'm guessing it probably won't take more than one big game for the choir to start preaching his MVP gospel again.
So, we have something of a responsibility -- admittedly a laughably low-stakes responsibility in the grand scheme of world events these days, but a responsibility nonetheless -- to fight fire emojis with fire emojis here, and be as loud and annoying about Embiid's MVP case as the LeBron boosters will be about his. Post those blog breakdowns of all the ways he impacts the game this year, tweet about those favorable historical comparisons to Wilt's and Shaq's best years, make sure everybody on the planet knows just how many fucking games of 25 points in a row he's up to. It's only 31 games into the season, sure, but the opposition's campaign is clearly already well underway. If we don't start getting out the vote now, it may be too late by this time next month.
(And yeah, there's also the added drama here of LeBron's flagrant foul on Embiid in January that resulted in him taking a hard fall and ending up with lingering back pain that's still affecting Jo almost a month later. I don't necessarily hold that against LeBron as much as some do -- I didn't feel like it was ejection-worthy in real time, reviewing it after I'm still not sure -- but Embiid imself certainly seemed to take exception to it, so sure, there's a little extra juice to this MVP race there.)
You might say that the MVP is a meaningless award anyway, that we shouldn't care so much about an award that's this corruptible in the first place. True, but this is sports -- everything's at least a little dumb, nothing is inherently meaningful, and most of it ultimately means whatever emotional investment we put into it. For me, I'm putting about as much into Joel Embiid's MVP campaign as I am into the Sixers' postseason success. At this point, Embiid himself is easily a truer distillation of The Process than the team entire, after nearly a half-decade of corruption from Dave Silver, the Colangelos, Scott O'Neill, Team Collaborative GM and everyone else who attempted to steward the team in between Sam Hinkie's dismissal and Daryl Morey's arrival. It's impossible not to have some amount of mixed feelings about the Sixers in their totality, but love for Joel remains pure and simple every time. He clearly wants the MVP -- he lists it as his goal before pretty much every season -- and I want the MVP for him. Short of winning the championship, there's absolutely nothing else that would be as validating for Jo and for us.
Besides, the difference between Embiid winning the championship and Embiid winning the MVP is that as writers, fans and general Process laytrusters, we can actually have impact on the latter outcome. We can't change the result of a basketball game, particularly while fans aren't even allowed at stadiums, but it's not totally beyond our capabilities to alter the the course of an MVP narrative, to get one or two media members to look at the numbers a second time, to in any way counter the next ESPN "Hearing good things about that Funke!"-style attempt at speaking the LeBron-as-inevitable-MVP myth into reality. We don't have to accept it as fact, and we don't have to let others do so either.
And at the very least, we can put our powers of annoyingness to a potentially constructive aim for once -- and then either seethe about it forever if it doesn't come to fruition, or claim credit for it if and when justice is finally done at the end of the season. We've been right a lot about a lot of things over the years, but Joel Embiid rightfully and righteously winning MVP over LeBron James would easily be our rightest moment yet.