After leading the Milwaukee Bucks to the NBA’s best regular-season record once again, Giannis Antetokounmpo will be awarded his second straight Most Valuable Player honor after an earlier-than-expected playoff exit. This is sure to raise the ire of fans of both LeBron James and his Los Angeles Lakers, as the runner-up for the award and his team remain in the Western Conference finals as title favorites.
But remember that it is because James was not the regular-season MVP that he has been able to maintain his status as the most important player on a championship contender so late into his legendary career. He picks his spots, dials himself back defensively in order to sustain peak performance when the game most demands him, and does enough to win. The playoffs require more, and he dials it up to meet that moment.
The 35-year-old had his run establishing himself as the game’s best player every night during the regular season, winning four Maurice Podoloff trophies between 2009 and 2013 (and finishing second to Derrick Rose in 2011), but somewhere between winning his first title with the Miami Heat in 2012 and his last with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016, James learned exactly what his team needs from him to win another ring.
It does not always work out. His Cavaliers ran into the Golden State Warriors buzzsaw for four straight years, and he instantly recognized last year’s Lakers as an abomination. He did what he could, leading them to the West’s fourth-best record before suffering a groin injury and watching his work fall to pieces over the ensuing month. Convinced he could not win with the roster he joined in L.A., James returned, somewhat apathetically, only to shut down two months later, short of the Finals for the first time since 2010.
But James knew what he needed. He needed Anthony Davis, a new coach, teammates with playoff experience and veterans he could mold into role players on a legit contender. And he went to work.
This is a lesson Antetokounmpo should take with him into this offseason.
James committed not to reestablishing himself as the best regular-season player, but to ensuring Davis and the rest of his teammates were prepared to meet his level of play come postseason. That he can still snare first-place MVP votes from Antetokounmpo while doing so is a testament to his greatness. James did not make an All-Defensive team, but he did help orchestrate a top-three defense. He finished outside the top 10 in scoring for the first time since his rookie season, instead leading the league in assists for the first time.
The transformative players of the past 30 years have all experienced this growth in their games. Michael Jordan was a one-man wrecking ball before he molded Scottie Pippen and his Chicago Bulls teammates into his likeness, figuring out who he could and could not trust with a title on the line — and being unafraid to let them know where they stood in that pecking order. The same could be said of Kobe Bryant between stints with Shaquille O’Neal and Pau Gasol. Rodney McCray and Smush Parker learned the hard way.
So, too, have countless Heat, Cavaliers and Lakers under James, perhaps none more so than the young Lakers who were ousted in favor of Davis over the summer. “I want them to learn,” James said at the end of last season, “but also we have to understand that they're young as well and they're going to make mistakes. You just try to limit the mistakes as much as possible, but if you look at the best teams in our league right now, just look at the guys they rely on every single night to be able to come through for them.”
It might be time for Antetokounmpo to have a similar conversation with the front office about Eric Bledsoe and with Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer about extending minutes and trimming the fat from his rotation.
The Lakers shed that weight and are still in the conference finals with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma, Alex Caruso and Markieff Morris comprising half the playoff rotation. There is a lesson in that, too. The playoffs require an extra gear, one James has ridden for almost a decade. Rewatch the first quarter of Game 5 against the Houston Rockets in the conference semifinals. James smelled blood in the water and sank his teeth into a team led by James Harden, the 2018 regular-season MVP who finished third this year.
James attacked the rim from the opening tip. He scored or assisted on three of the Lakers’ first five field goals, capped by a coast-to-coast dunk that gave the Lakers a 13-2 lead and forced a Rockets timeout. On three straight possessions after the timeout, James drove for a layup, blocked Russell Westbrook and drove again, earning a pair of free throws. The rest of the Lakers met James’ intensity, and by the time he made a step-back 3-pointer to force another timeout up 23-7, the game was all but over — the series was over.
Meanwhile, Antetokounmpo was outworked by Jimmy Butler in the Eastern Conference semifinals, just as the young Boston Celtics are taking their lumps in the conference finals. It is time for Antetokounmpo to find that extra gear.
It clicked for James following the Heat’s Finals loss to the Dallas Mavericks in 2011, on the heels of a similar no-show against the Celtics in Cleveland a year earlier, when he won his second straight MVP award. He returned a more efficient shooter, no longer willing to share a marquee with Dwyane Wade, in full command of a contender. He was the regular-season MVP once again, but more importantly, when push came to shove in Games 6 and 7 of the 2012 Eastern Conference finals against Boston, he was the playoff MVP.
James was 27 years old then. He is still the playoff MVP today. But remember Antetokounmpo is only 25.
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