As LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo face off, comparisons run wild, but winning MVP is where they end

LOS ANGELES — On Friday night, at Staples Center, the game’s two best players will face one another in a showdown that has invariably bent the league’s attention toward the idea of what LeBron James vs. Giannis Antetokounmpo actually means.

There is a long list. A possible preview of this summer’s NBA Finals, and each team’s leaders. A glimpse of the future and the past competing as near-equals. A showdown of would-be 2020 MVPs, with Giannis, the reigning award winner, a clear favorite to be so honored again; and LeBron, at age 35, the most likely candidate to pull the upset if the Greek Freak somehow stumbles down the regular season’s homestretch.

Both players, of course, are competing at absurd levels this season. LeBron is notching 25.4 points, 7.8 rebounds and 10.7 assists per game, and behind his play and leadership the Los Angeles Lakers have vaulted back to the top of the Western Conference after many years in the wilderness. The Milwaukee Bucks’ superstar, Giannis, is boasting an absurd 29.6 points and 13.8 rebounds per game, his 3-point shooting has jumped to 30.9 percent from 25.6 last season on 60 percent more attempts per game, and so on. He is on a remarkable tear and, no, James Harden, it’s not simply because he can dunk a basketball.

They also helm the game’s two most dominant teams. All of this inevitably leads to comparisons, and in comparing LeBron and Giannis the misbegotten notion has emerged that somehow Giannis’ inside track on another MVP trophy puts him in the same stratosphere as LeBron. 

It does not. And nothing — not a thing — that happens Friday at Staples will change that.

The idea that Giannis has already surpassed LeBron, heard too often from people who should know better, misses the point entirely. The real evaluation of whether Giannis is the heir apparent to LeBron can only be measured starting in mid-April.

Because the game is filled with MVPs who stole the limelight in the regular season only to fade in the playoffs. 

Ahem, paging Mr. Harden.

LeBron’s true greatness comes from, and has been cemented by, his ability to take the failures earlier in his career — like the 2011 NBA Finals — and turn them into a deep well of willpower and experience that makes his skill at its most dangerous come the playoffs.

Greatness in the NBA is a ladder you climb, until the next rung is simply too high. One by one, most players find how high they go and go no further. Make the league. Stick there. Start there. Excel there. Win games there. Dominate. Make the playoffs. Win in the playoffs. Win an MVP. Make a Finals. Win it all.

And in the past decade, as stats and triple-doubles and 3-point shots and ball movement have re-calibrated the game and how we view excellence, a strange thing has happened. Our judgments of regular-season greatness — of the best — have not translated to this final NBA step, of winning an NBA championship, with the same frequency.

In the first 10 years of this century, only two players claimed a regular-season MVP yet never went on to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy: Steve Nash and Allen Iverson. We had four such MVPs last decade: Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and, yes, Giannis.

The 1990s had only two MVPs fail to win a championship: Charles Barkley and Karl Malone.

The ’80s? Every single MVP from that era is also an NBA champion.

This is the problem with Harden’s comments about Giannis, and about those angrily proclaiming that Giannis has already passed LeBron James. They fail to realize the real finish line is painted carefully on the calendar in June, when you either win the last game of the season, or you don’t.

Take Harden: He has had his moments, and the teams, capable of bursting into an NBA Finals. And he came up short, personally and as a team. In the end — and, again, this isn’t easy stuff — the true greats bend the game to their will. Awards and regular-season platitudes are window dressing for this rarified hoops elite.

That is the next step for Giannis, if he can take it, not some imaginary regular-season measuring contest against a player like LeBron James, who’s won three NBA championships. Win it all or else the hardware becomes as much a marker of what you didn’t accomplish as what you did.

Giannis will almost certainly get there. He has, unlike Harden and Westbrook, so much further to grow as a player. Just 25 years old, the only limitations to his future in the game hinge on his postseason play. Last year, with the Bucks up 2-0 in the Eastern Conference finals, the Raptors pulled out an overtime win to salvage the series and eventually the season. There was a killshot there, and Giannis missed it, just as LeBron did back in 2011.

The fact Giannis’ response has been to take last year’s MVP season and up it bodes very, very well for Milwaukee. If Giannis, like LeBron, has truly turned that heartache into real heart when he next gets his chance, the Giannis-as-the-next-great-player talk goes from interesting and worthy conversation to fact.

But there are a lot of players out there who will try and make a claim on the league as LeBron, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and the others age. Luka Doncic, Anthony Davis, Zion Williamson, Trae Young, Ja Morant, Jayson Tatum … the list of would-be challengers to the throne always run long.

It’s this simple: The future of the league comes in the form of one who wins championships. Once Giannis does that — and he certainly can — we can circle back to the LeBron-Giannis comparisons. 

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