Someone says it every spring. “LeBron James should win MVP every year.” It’s an intellectually honest approach to a fundamentally imperfect problem. LeBron has been the best player in the NBA, with only minor interruptions, for at least a decade, and Occam’s razor suggests that the most valuable player, by definition, is usually the best one.
That just isn’t the line of thought most voters follow. The concept of value is nebulous enough to justify almost any definition, and more often than not, that definition winds up being something other than whatever it is James provides. That is how LeBron, who can argue dominion over the entire NBA for something like 15 years, winds up winning only four MVP trophies. As of Friday’s reveal of 2020’s MVP voting, he has now been the runner-up for that award four times.
LeBron was not happy about that, and he made his displeasure known at his postgame press conference following Game 1 of the Western Conference finals.
“It pissed me off. 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. I’m not saying that the winner wasn’t deserving of the MVP, but that pissed me off. I finished second a lot in my career, either from a championship, and now four times as the MVP. Like I said, I never came into the league saying ‘I’m gonna be MVP’ or ‘I’m gonna be champion,’ I’ve always said I just want to get better every single day and those things will take care of themselves. Some things are just out of my hands, some things you can’t control, but it pissed me off.”
This is nothing new. LeBron is upset practically any time someone other than him wins a major award, but going back to that original thought, are those feelings warranted based on LeBron’s standing as the NBA’s undisputed king? Let’s go through each of his gripes and weigh their validity to form a clearer overall picture.
LeBron in 2011, already replete with enemies in the wake of The Decision, chose to play nice with Derrick Rose during the regular season. In February 2011, LeBron’s teammate Chris Bosh said publicly that he’d vote for Rose. Soon after, James agreed with him.
“I think [it’s] Derrick Rose,” James told ESPN’s Michael Wallace in March of 2011. “What he’s done for that team, with all the injuries they have and them being first in the Eastern Conference — they’re playing some really good basketball.”
And then the playoffs rolled around, and a funny thing started happening. LeBron, whose Miami Heat absolutely decimated Rose’s Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference finals, stopped using Rose’s name. He referred to Chicago’s point guard only as “the MVP” when speaking to media, according to the Chicago Tribune. Despite his regular-season accomplishments, Rose earned that contempt in the series itself. After losing Game 1, the Heat swept Chicago in the next four to move onto the NBA Finals. James, a 6-9 forward, guarded Rose, a 6-2 guard, down the stretch of Games 4 and 5. He held him to 1 of 15 shooting. Rose wasn’t particularly valuable when the Bulls needed him to be.
But the truth was, Rose wasn’t nearly as valuable as LeBron at any point in the 2010-11 season. Rose’s Bulls won more games, yes, but they did so behind a No. 1 ranked defense he had little to do with. The offense that Rose supposedly carried finished the season ranked No. 11. The Bulls were so good on defense, and improved so much on that end of the floor when he went to the bench, that they were only 2.7 points per 100 possessions better overall with Rose in the game compared to when he sat. The Heat, on the other hand, were 10.6 points per 100 possession better with LeBron in the game than they were with him out of it.
The individual numbers favor him just as much. LeBron led Rose in the following statistics: points, rebounds, blocks, steals, minutes, field goal percentage, effective field goal percentage, true shooting percentage, offensive win shares, defensive win shares, VORP, box plus-minus, PER, net rating and on/off net rating differential. Rose led James by 0.7 assists per game, 0.02 percent from behind the arc and 9.9 percent at the free-throw line. That’s Rose’s entire list. It’s so short because he was wrongfully awarded the MVP and therefore earned LeBron’s derision.
The fact that he won it speaks more to the flawed thought process of the voters than to his own performance. James was so unpopular after The Decision that voters flocked to Rose, ironically the same sort of hometown kid in Chicago that LeBron once was in Cleveland. They were wrong, and it made James forever wary of awards voters.
Marc Gasol — 2013 Defensive Player of the Year
There has never been a defensive player quite like Heat-era LeBron. Perhaps a shade below legends like Kawhi Leonard and Scottie Pippen as a man-to-man defender, James made up for it by becoming one of the best team defenders in NBA history. The Heat relied on one of the most aggressive defensive schemes the league has ever seen, trapping ball screens whenever possible and jumping passing lanes at a moment’s notice because they knew LeBron’s athletic gifts would cover for their mistakes. Few players have ever covered so much ground, yet at his absolute apex, he lost the Defensive Player of the Year award to Marc Gasol.
“It sucks,” James told the Palm Beach Post. “It sucks. It sucks.”
When asked if that was his best defensive season, James responded “Probably. I mean, I guard everybody on the floor. I don’t know if there’s one player in NBA history who’s guarded one through five (positions). It’s over with now, but that’s cool.”
But losing the award, in itself, isn’t what nags at LeBron. To this day, it is the way he lost it that bothers him.
“The voting scale is a little weird to me sometimes,” James said on Friday. “Take 2012, just stick with me here, 2012-13, I had a chance to be Defensive Player of the Year and MVP in the same season. In that season Marc Gasol was awarded Defensive Player of the Year, but he made Second-Team All-Defense. So that doesn’t make sense.”
So how did that happen? Defensive Player of the Year is voted on by media members. All-Defensive teams, until the 2013-14 season, were voted on by the NBA’s head coaches, who preferred Joakim Noah and Tyson Chandler (who tied) to Gasol. Three other Defensive Player of the Year winners have been left off of the First-Team All-Defensive team: Chandler in 2012, Dikembe Mutombo in 1995 and Alvin Robertson in 1986 were subject to the same odd disparity.
James does have a point that inconsistent voting methods can produce inconsistent results, but should he have won Defensive Player of the Year over Gasol? Well, the answer is ultimately subjective. The Grizzlies (ranked No. 2) were better defensively than the Heat (No. 9) by a fairly comfortable margin, but they also had First Team All-Defense guard Tony Allen, four-time honoree Tayshaun Prince and a roster equipped with far more overall defensive talent than Miami’s.
Gasol had a slight edge in most overall defensive metrics, but those numbers are notoriously unreliable. The award is ultimately subjective, and likely came down to a voter preference for centers over wings. For most of NBA history, that preference was accurate. The league has since shifted further and further toward the perimeter, but where exactly the 2012-13 season falls on that spectrum isn’t quantifiable. James had a valid argument. So did Gasol. Gasol ultimately won, but LeBron had a reasonable gripe with the way that the voting was conducted. After all, he tied with Allen for the most First-Team All-Defense votes at any position. If coaches had picked the award itself, he may well have won.
LeBron did in fact win the 2012-13 MVP. He won it in a landslide. But he didn’t win it unanimously. A single first-place vote went to James’ close friend Carmelo Anthony and despite their relationship, the vote bothered him so much that he declared he knew the media wouldn’t make him the first-ever unanimous MVP even before the vote took place.
“I was heated,” James told Chris Haynes, then of Cleveland.com. “But I knew all along [I wasn’t getting a unanimous vote]. I just knew it, man.”
The voter turned out to be Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe.
“I just felt like Carmelo Anthony elevated his team this year to new heights. This Knicks team has essentially been a laughing stock in the NBA for 10 years. They reached the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. They won 54 games. They won 12 straight in April,” Washburn said. “I just felt like he was the most valuable player obviously on his team and to his team. If this is a best player in the league award, LeBron James wins this every year. We Know that.”
The Knicks won 54 games. The Heat won 66. The Knicks won 12 straight games. The Heat won 27. The numbers were so preposterously tilted in LeBron’s favor that he actually lapped Anthony in a number of value stats. James doubled Carmelo’s total in Win Shares (19.3 to 9.5), Box Plus-Minus (11.7 to 4.3) and VORP (10.3 to 3.9). Carmelo won the scoring title, but LeBron beat him in rebounds, assists, blocks, steals and virtually every measure of offensive efficiency. We’re comparing a minus-defender to the Defensive Player of the Year runner-up. This is a walkover.
The “LeBron would win this award every year if it went to the best player” line of thinking feeds into LeBron’s distrust of the voting process.
Three years after LeBron lost his unanimous MVP award, Stephen Curry finally won one. LeBron didn’t exactly dispute Curry winning the award, but he did muse on the concept of value that suggested a bit of resentment after the way he lost the unanimous distinction three seasons earlier.
“I think sometimes the word ‘valuable’ or best player of the year, you can have different results,” James told Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal. “You know, that’s not taking anything from anyone that’s ever won the award.”
“Look at Steph’s numbers,” he said. “He averaged 30, he led the league in steals, he was 90-50-40 [shooting percentages from the free-throw line, field and 3-pointers], and they won 73 [games]. So, I don’t, do you have any debate over that, really, when it comes to that award? But when you talk about most ‘valuable’ then you can have a different conversation, so, take nothing away from him, he’s definitely deserving of that award, for sure.”
The implication in those words was that, while Curry posted the best numbers that season, he didn’t do the most to help his team win. Whether he did or didn’t is subjective (though most statistical markers comfortably favor Curry), but LeBron’s best argument came after the trophy had already been awarded. James, playing on an inferior team, famously overcame a 3-1 deficit to beat Curry’s Warriors in the NBA Finals. LeBron outplayed Curry in that series by practically every statistical and anecdotal measure, and as a result, he won the championship.
The award is, obviously, only given for regular-season achievement. LeBron’s supporters could fairly argue that punishes James for treating his body strategically. With championships and MVPs under his belt, he tends to pace himself until the postseason arrives, allowing other players that he is better than to accumulate more perceived value to their teams. In high-leverage moments, though, he is obviously the more valuable player, which begs the question: why are we judging value by the least valuable games on the schedule? The answer, sadly, is that’s how it’s always been done, and James’ playoff performance was rewarded with the Finals MVP trophy.
What cost LeBron his unanimous MVP in 2013 easily could have won him a fifth in 2018. This time around, James Harden was the conventional candidate as the best player on the best team. But James, by virtue of leading an inferior Cavaliers team into the playoffs, could have snagged the inconsistent “value” vote.
If value is something that is quantifiable and accumulated over the course of each played game, even the less important ones, James was the obvious winner. He played all 82 games. Harden played in 72. With some basic math, Harden would have had to have been around 14 percent “better” than James in his games to accumulate more value based on that missed time, and he quite clearly wasn’t. Harden, like Carmelo before him, scored more than LeBron, but did so less efficiently. James was the better rebounder and defender, even on auto-pilot. Harden held a slight lead in most advanced metrics. He likely was more valuable when he played, but did he play enough to bridge that gap? LeBron didn’t think so.
“I would vote for me,” James told The Associated Press. “The body of work, how I’m doing it, what’s been happening with our team all year long, how we’ve got so many injuries and things of that nature, guys in and out, to be able to still keep this thing afloat, I definitely would vote me.”
Harden ultimately won the award, and while most would characterize it as deserving, factors that worked against LeBron in the past continued to here. Narrative was his enemy in the end, as voters were thankful that Harden’s Rockets had risen to challenge the seemingly unbeatable Warriors. They were similarly unhappy with intangible concepts like LeBron’s body language and the manner in which his team conducted itself during the season. Cleveland’s pre-trade-deadline chemistry was quite obviously bad. What role LeBron played in that is unquantifiable. But he was punished for it, and he was punished for his four previous trophies. Harden, a two-time runner-up, had never won the award. LeBron had four times. Voter fatigue likely played a role in his loss to Rose (depriving him of five straight awards).
And then, when the playoffs came around, LeBron proved his superior value in meaningful games once again. James dragged the preposterously undermanned Cavaliers through the Eastern Conference in averaging 34 points, 9.2 rebounds and 8.8 assists before the NBA Finals. We all know what happened from there. J.R. Smith forgot the score. LeBron broke his hand. Golden State swept Cleveland. Unlike 2016, James made it through a season as the undisputed best player without any hardware to show for it.
Funny enough, 2020 was the year in which narrative was used most in LeBron’s favor. With the numbers clearly favoring Giannis Antetokounmpo, pundits used topics like LeBron’s age and the adversity the Lakers had to overcome to argue in his favor.
It didn’t work. Antetokounmpo rightfully won the award, by the defined criteria. Virtually every statistical marker worked in his favor aside from passing numbers. His team won more games despite lacking an Anthony Davis-caliber sidekick, and while the Lakers struggled when James sat, Milwaukee fell off by just as much without Giannis, their baselines just happened to be higher. Giannis won Defensive Player of the Year comfortably, and while James put up some of his best defensive performance in years, he didn’t come close to that level. LeBron didn’t dispute Antetokounmpo’s worthiness for the award. He did, however, take issue with the award’s margin.
Again, LeBron criticized the shifting standards for the award. After coming up short in the past, he was understandably annoyed that the same logic was not used to boost his own candidacy. Basketball merit should be the only concern. But LeBron, again sees inconsistent definitions of value. He cited narrative specifically when talking about his 2013 Defensive Player of the Year loss, saying “I don’t know how much we are really watching the game of basketball, or are we just in the narration mode? The narrative.” He then went on to question the inconsistent logic used by voters.
“I don’t know, I’m not gonna sit up here and talk about what the criteria should be or what it is,” James said. “It’s changed over the years since I’ve gotten into the league. It’s just changed, it’s changed a lot. Sometimes it’s, you know, the best player, not the best team. Sometimes it’s the guy with the best season statistically. It’s changed over the course of my career. You don’t know. Giannis had a hell of a season, you can definitely say that.”
The post-award story is playing out just as it did in 2016 and 2018. Giannis was knocked out of the postseason in the second round. LeBron is still playing, and is still widely regarded as the player anyone would want on their team if the goal was to win a championship. His issue remains with the process more than the result. The MVP is a regular-season award. Giannis hit most of the checkpoints that an MVP tends to hit in the regular season — even if he himself has hit those same checkpoints in other years without taking home the trophy. Clearly, LeBron believes that the MVP award isn’t the best way to measure which player is actually the most valuable, which brings us to the overarching point here.
The verdict: LeBron’s gripes should be judged individually, but he has a point
Some of these individual complaints have more merit than others. At the very least, the 2011 award should belong to James and not Rose, and he should have been the first unanimous winner in 2013. Beyond that, he had a reasonable case for the award in 2018, and though they went unmentioned, he could also mount convincing arguments in 2008, 2014 and 2017. The 2013 Defensive Player of the Year award comes down to a matter of preference. The 2016 and 2020 MVPs, by the letter of the law, do not. Curry and Antetokounmpo were rightful winners.
But the overarching message of LeBron’s complaints is far more salient. How meaningful can an award titled “Most Valuable Player” be if it consistently ignores the player we intrinsically know to be the most valuable in pursuit of the only goal any team actually values? Why bother giving out a trophy for seemingly different things every season?
Broadly, LeBron is asking to be better recognized than the current awards structure allows. This is a problem that has existed well before his career. Michael Jordan only won five MVP awards. Does anyone honestly believe that Jordan played eight seasons in a Bulls uniform in which he was not the most valuable player in the league? The Bulls certainly couldn’t have gotten more value by swapping him for someone else. The same can be said for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, whom you could argue has a reasonable case as the MVP for every season in the 1970s and several in the 1980s. The NBA consistently does a disservice to its best players in its inability to accurately capture and appreciate their greatness. If LeBron is the best player every year, why does he only have four trophies to show for it?
There are easy fixes here. The NBA could expand the awards to include both the regular and postseason. It could offer a more concrete definition of value for voters to follow, or create a separate “best player” award to acknowledge when circumstantial factors prevent a certain player from winning the MVP. Almost anything would be better than the current arrangement.
These awards exist to serve as historical snapshots of a season. Players care about them because they want to be recognized for their achievements. But if the wrong players are recognized for the wrong reasons, do these awards even have historical value? Probably not. With the benefit of hindsight, we can say that something is wrong an award that is meant to serve as a sport’s highest individual honor so rarely actually honors its best individual. Maybe LeBron shouldn’t win the MVP award every year as it’s currently structured, but that says quite a bit more about the faulty structure of the award than the person who isn’t winning enough of them.