Each week during the 2020-21 NBA season, we will take a deeper dive into three of the league’s biggest storylines in an attempt to determine whether the trends are based more in fact or fiction moving forward.
LeBron James is hands down the MVP
At 36 years old, LeBron James is a considerable favorite to win his fifth regular-season MVP award, both from a betting standpoint and among potential voters polled by ESPN’s Tim Bontemps. His defending champion Los Angeles Lakers are 20-6, one loss behind the Western Conference-leading Utah Jazz.
“Bron does it on both sides of the ball,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel told reporters on Wednesday. “That’s why he’s probably going to be this year’s MVP. He’s carrying the load offensively and quarterbacking the No. 1 defense in the league and taking these tough assignments and making these plays down the stretch.”
(For the record: James has been great on both ends in the clutch, and the Lakers do have the best defensive rating in the NBA by a sizable margin, but Anthony Davis is the favorite to win Defensive Player of the Year. Free safety is a better analogy on defense for James, who primarily roams off non-shooters.)
It is a sound argument. James is the best player of his generation. His statistics are in line with his career averages, and much of what he brings to the Lakers is immeasurable, as we saw on last year’s title run.
It is also somewhat of a narrative argument. There is a line of thinking that Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo did not deserve to win his second straight MVP over James last season. It is one James shares, and most others who support this theory use his postseason performance as supporting evidence.
But it is a regular-season award, and Antetokounmpo earned it by a wide margin that the voting reflected. His numbers were superior to James', and he carried a greater defensive burden as the anchor of the team with the NBA’s best record. He is inching closer to doing it again this year, by the way, but a narrative that blindly gives the award to James this season also precludes Antetokounmpo from winning a third straight.
There is a case to be made for James beyond the symmetry of him joining Michael Jordan and Bill Russell with five MVPs, one behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s record. (That quartet spans the sport’s history, each warranting GOAT consideration.) Look no further than ESPN’s all-encompassing Real Plus-Minus statistic, which boasts James atop this year’s leaderboard, followed by Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry.
But let’s not pretend James has the award in the bag. There are at least seven other candidates in the race right now and nearly two-thirds of the regular season remaining: Curry, Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and Damian Lillard. You might even be able to stretch that list further.
I listed the stat lines per 36 minutes and advanced metrics for those eight players below, removing names to show just how close the race could be. [Read: points-rebounds-assists (true shooting percentage), steals/blocks, player efficiency rating, on/off net rating, value over replacement player, win shares]:
Player 1: 33-12-3 (67.2 TS%), 2.9 STL/BLK, 31.1 PER, +19.3 ON/OFF, 1.7 VORP, 3.9 WS
Player 2: 27-11-9 (64.9 TS%), 2.2 STL/BLK, 31.0 PER, +8.1 ON/OFF, 2.8 VORP, 5.2 WS
Player 3: 31-12-6 (61.7 TS%), 2.5 STL/BLK, 28.0 PER, +4.0 ON/OFF, 1.7 VORP, 3.7 WS
Player 4: 28-6-5 (61.2 TS%), 2.4 STL/BLK, 27.2 PER, +24.0 ON/OFF, 1.6 VORP, 3.9 WS
Player 5: 29-5-7 (63.3 TS%), 1.3 STL/BLK, 26.7 PER, +12.3 ON/OFF, 1.6 VORP, 3.6 WS
Player 6: 32-6-6 (65.6 TS%), 1.3 STL/BLK, 25.6 PER, +11.5 ON/OFF, 2.0 VORP, 3.6 WS
Player 7: 30-8-5 (66.0 TS%), 2.2 STL/BLK, 25.8 PER, +14.4 ON/OFF, 1.3 VORP, 2.7 WS
Player 8: 27-8-8 (59.7 TS%), 1.6 STL/BLK, 23.9 PER, +16.4 ON/OFF, 2.1 VORP, 3.8 WS
Kudos if you correctly guessed the order. If not: Embiid, Jokic, Antetokounmpo, Leonard, Lillard, Curry, Durant and James. As you can see, James is last among the group in scoring efficiency and PER. He is second behind Jokic in VORP and third behind Embiid and Leonard in on/off net rating (i.e., the Lakers are 16.4 points per 100 possessions better with James on the court, as opposed to when he is on the bench).
Nearly half (47 of 100) of potential voters polled by ESPN did not even give James a first-place vote right now, so the race is far from over from an analytical standpoint. The narrative is another story entirely.
LaMelo Ball is good
I wasn’t just a LaMelo Ball skeptic. I was convinced he was going to be a bust.
From what I had seen on his world tour, he was a terrible shooter, a poor defender and too careless with the ball. Plus, he is a Ball. He is the product of a hype machine that had twice previously failed to cash the check LaVar Ball had written. This was the recipe for Lonzo Ball, who possesses similar strengths and weaknesses, and who is on the trade market for a second time since being drafted second overall in 2017.
Only, I was wrong. LaMelo Ball is not just good. He is already one of the most thrilling players to watch in the entire NBA. The ugly shot and underwhelming defense have not prevented him from enjoying success two months into his young career, and both should improve with time. It is his command of his strengths that has been so fun to see. He sees the game in a way others do not and is a marvel in the open floor.
“More than anything, he has great feel for the game,” Charlotte Hornets teammate Gordon Hayward told The Athletic’s Sam Amick in a recent interview. “He’s kind of like — to me, he’s got that same type of feel as like Luka [Doncic], as Russ [Westbrook], where they just are around the ball and the ball kind of just comes to them. With rebounds and [being able] to make the right plays and always kind of being at that right position, to me he has that same type of feel and energy for the game. I think he’s gonna be really good."
Ball is averaging 14.3 points on respectable 44/36/79 shooting splits, with 6.1 assists, 5.8 rebounds and 1.4 steals in 27 minutes per game. Since earning a starting job at the beginning of the month, he is averaging a 22-5-6 on 45/49/89 splits. He leads all rookies in total points, rebounds, assists and steals, and is second to first-year Sacramento Kings guard Tyrese Haliburton in 3-pointers made. Rookie of the Year is his to lose.
His Hornets are 12-14, good enough for the sixth-best record in the Eastern Conference. Most importantly, they have a direction: Build around LaMelo Ball. Gordon Hayward has proven to be a perfect playing partner to Ball, and Charlotte features a handful of talented young players. Ball’s shooting and defense may still limit their ceiling in the long run, but at least the Hornets can start building from a solid foundation.
Tanking is dead
The combination of flattened draft lottery odds and an expanded playoff field means there is less incentive than ever to tank, especially in a wildly unpredictable shortened season. There is still plenty of incentive.
Only one team in each conference — the Detroit Pistons and Minnesota Timberwolves — can throw in the towel as we near the season’s midway point. Even they are a mini win streak away from joining the fray. Only five losses separate the fourth- and 14th-place teams in each conference. This has nearly every team, even the 6-16 Washington Wizards, convinced they can at least earn a spot in the play-in tournament.
Conversely, 10 teams are within two games of dropping to a top-eight slot in the lottery. None has a shot at the title. Eighth is right around where flattened odds take a dive. The team with the seventh-worst record has a 34.4% chance at a top-four pick. Those odds drop to 26.2% in the eighth spot and 17.3% in ninth.
Right now, the 10th-place New York Knicks would be in the play-in tournament with a shot at a playoff spot. They even just added Derrick Rose to make their push. But making the playoffs is the difference between being out of the lottery entirely or having a better than one-in-three shot at a top-four pick in a loaded draft.
Cade Cunningham is widely considered a No. 1 prospect on a future superstar level. Jalen Green and Evan Mobley are not far behind, and there is potential star talent beyond them. These are difference-makers for a franchise, worth far more than the experience of pushing to become first-round fodder for a true contender.
It is for this reason we could see an epic amount of tanking in the second half of the season, and that does not even account for the fact that playoff gate receipts are not the incentive they have been in prior years.
Take the Hornets, for example. They are seventh in the East, a tiebreaker away from sixth and a guaranteed playoff spot. But just three games separate them from the Orlando Magic, who currently have the league’s fourth-worst record, which means a near 50% shot at a top-four pick and a 12.5% chance at Cunningham.
Would it be better for Charlotte to lose to the Brooklyn Nets in the first round and pick 17th overall or be a coin flip away from another potential superstar? No one should know the answer better than Hornets owner Michael Jordan, who had the eighth-best lottery odds three months ago and hit on his 6.7% shot at Ball.
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