Plaschke: LeBron James deserves to be the NBA's MVP. Here's why he has every right to be mad

Bill Plaschke
·7 min read
Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James shouts in the direction of an official during the first half.
LeBron James shouts toward an official during the first half of the Lakers' win over the Denver Nuggets in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals on Friday. (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

It’s a flagrant foul for unnecessary and excessive dumbness.

How is LeBron James not the NBA’s most valuable player?

It should result in ejections for unsportsmanlike ludicrousness.

How could only 16 of 101 writers and broadcasters vote for James as the best player in the league? Sixteen! What were they thinking? What were they watching? It certainly wasn’t the Lakers.

When the NBA announced its 2019-20 MVP award Friday, it was clear that voters had dribbled common sense off their feet, thrown fairness into the seats, and just plain bricked it.

The winner for a second straight year in a landslide was Milwaukee’s stat machine Giannis Antetokounmpo, and this columnist isn’t the only one whose jaw dropped.

Pissed me off,” said James later Friday after leading the Lakers to a 126-114 victory over the Denver Nuggets in the opener of the Western Conference Finals. “That’s my true answer. It pissed me off because out of 101 votes I got 16 first-place votes. That’s what pissed me off more than anything … not saying the winner wasn’t deserving of the MVP, but that pissed me off.”

The award covers only the regular season before the pandemic suspended play, so the argument for James cannot be based on a postseason in which he has carried the Lakers to nine wins in 11 games while Antetokounmpo was falling on his face as his team was blown out by Miami in the second round.

No, this isn’t about several weeks in a bubble, this is about six months in real life, but that’s where the argument is even stronger. The regular season was a span during which James displayed the greatest leadership of his long career while continuing to play at his highest level.

Antetokounmpo averaged three more points and six more rebounds per game than James for the team with the league’s best record, but James played more minutes, led the league in assists, and had a bigger impact on the league’s best team.

“To me, he’s the MVP of the league this year,” said Laker coach Frank Vogel, who admitted he was also surprised by the voting margin.

Vogel added, “What LeBron does for our team to me is unparalleled, to carry the threat of going for 40 at any point but leading the league in assists and quarterbacking our defense and driving our team to as many wins as we’ve had and our playoff success, to me he’s our MVP.”

The L.A. Times does not allow its writers to vote on awards, but, after spending much of his inaugural Laker season criticizing him, this columnist anointed him MVP in March. That so many folks eventually felt so different has James confused.

“I just don’t know how much we are really watching the game of basketball or are we just in the narration mode, the narrative,” James said.

When the season began, that narrative held that Antetokounmpo was the new face of the league while James, after an embarrassingly desultory and disconnected debut Lakers season, was fading fast.

“They kind of choose the MVP before the season even starts, you know,” said Laker Anthony Davis.

Indeed, after the season began, James’ extraordinary work in guiding an unsettled franchise back to greatness went largely unnoticed.

James led the team through a new coaching staff. Be honest, how many thought quiet Vogel would survive, let alone thrive? James facilitated his acceptance and eventual empowerment.

James also led the team through a new system featuring new key players in Davis, Danny Green, Dwight Howard and Markieff Morris. Granted, it’s a gift to play with a superstar like Davis, but James willingly gave up the ball to his new partners and sacrificed his own numbers for wins. And if becoming a dynamic duo was so easy, how come Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are sitting at home?

James also led the team through tragedy. He was the first player’s voice heard by the fans in the wake of Kobe Bryant’s tragic death. In late January, James stepped to the Staples Center court before the Lakers’ first game after Bryant’s passing, picked up a microphone, and bonded a grieving team while speaking for a grieving city.

“The one thing that we always shared was that determination to just always want to win and just want to be great,” James told the crowd, referring to Bryant. “I want to continue along with my teammates, to continue his legacy, not only for this year but for as long as we can play the game of basketball that we love because that’s what Kobe Bryant would want.”

The distressed and distracted Lakers could have crumbled. Instead, they grew stronger, tightened their grip on the top of the Western Conference, and capped the abbreviated end of their normal season with early March wins over Milwaukee and the Clippers. Yeah, in that victory against the Bucks, he outplayed Antetokounmpo.

At the time, James downplayed the MVP race, preferring to focus on a championship for which the Lakers now seem destined. And truly, he doesn’t need it for his legacy, he’s already won four MVPs.

But he has now finished second four times. He has one fewer than Michael Jordan. And even though he’s been the best player in the league for nearly 15 years, he hasn’t won an MVP award since 2013.

And seriously, 16 out of 101 votes?

“I never came into this league to be an MVP or be a champion, I’ve always just wanted to get better and better every single day, and those things take care of itself,” he said, later adding, “But it pissed me off.”

Later in Friday’s postgame interview James tried to soften the MVP snub headlines, saying, “I’m fine, don’t get it twisted … we’re 1-0 in the Western Conference Finals … I’m going back to my room, drink some wine and sleep very well tonight.”

But yeah, against the Nuggets, he certainly played peeved, overcoming an injury scare to facilitate and dominate, and his teammates hung on for the ride.

“It definitely sparks him and like he’s got a chip on his shoulder, like he’s got something to prove,” said Davis, who finished with 37 points and 10 rebounds. “So we see it, and he knows it, and the team knows it, and … we know he’s going to show it.”

On this night, he rose after crumpling. You saw James twist his left ankle while stepping on the foot of Denver’s Jerami Grant on a layup, right? It was at the start of the second quarter, the Lakers led by just one, and suddenly James was on the ground wincing and holding his ankle and lacing tight his sneakers.

You were worried, right? Then James missed one of two free throws, hobbled back on defense, still grimacing with every step, and you were really, really worried and then … the MVP took over.

Moments after the apparent sprain, James came back down the court, took a pass from Alex Caruso and threw down a thunderous two-handed dunk. Then he later slammed an alley-oop dunk, ran around the swifter Gary Harris for a layup, then simply bowled over poor Jamal Murray for another layup, after which he screamed.

It was the kind of sound you make when you’ve just engineered a game-deciding 17-1 run. It’s the sort of noise that symbolizes a quarter in which you score 13 points with only two fewer baskets than the entire Nuggets team. It’s a shout worthy of a chant.

There are many, many reasons it’s so unfortunate these Lakers must make this championship run so far from their Staples Center home. On Friday night, one of the biggest regrets was the fans' inability to serenade their favorite Laker with his rightful title, elusive yet earned, silenced yet shouted.

 “MVP!…MVP!…MVP!”