The 2021-22 NBA regular season wraps up next week, with just a handful of games for each franchise to play before the play-in tournament…
After an astounding announcement from the NBA Board of Governors that the NBA awards – consisting of Most Valuable Player, Rookie of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Most Improved Player, and other major NBA awards – would be based off performance in all games leading up to and excluding the NBA Orlando bubble, the discussions have already begun on who the favourites are for each respective NBA award, and of course especially the big one, the MVP award.
In the MVP discussion, fans are already forming the debate into a two-player race between Milwaukee Bucks young gun Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Year 17 Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James. Although this two-way player race is not an actual competition, it really should be, as no other players in the league stand a chance against these two stars.
James is statistically having one of his best seasons in Year 17, to the point where his MVP argument tells its own tale. Leading his Lakers to the best record in the western conference, and second best record in the league, James is indispensable to his team. The Lakers’ net rating (how much better or worse the team is when a specific player is on the court) falls by 13.4 points per 100 possessions without him on the court.
When it comes to the playing style and skill of James, as anticipated, there are very few things that he can’t do on the basketball court. Despite being one of the NBA’s leading scorers, it might not be the best part of his game.
He may not always be guarding the strongest assignments, but he is attacking against some of the most engaged half-court defence since his Miami Heat days, playing against back courts such as Paul George and Kawhi Leonard of the Los Angeles Clippers, and Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown of the Boston Celtics.
James’ increased effort is the icing on the cake aside his league-best play-making, averaging a career-high 10.6 assists per game, and the Lakers’ reliance on him as a three-level scorer: on rim drives, post move baskets and reliable three-point scoring.
Previous Los Angeles Laker Demarcus Cousins believes that the Los Angeles Lakers are not only a championship favourite, but considers James is the standout MVP candidate, stating: “I think he is the MVP, he is 35 and doing what he does with grey hair… what else can I say?”
However, across the coasts to Milwaukee, Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks is making just as good of a case for his second MVP award in a row.
Despite criticisms that Antetokounmpo’s Bucks are only leading the league record wise because of his strong supporting cast, breaking down Antetokounmpo’s output over a large sample puts his playing style into perspective.
The numbers don’t lie – the ‘Greek Freak’ as he is better known has been playing like the one-of-a-kind player he is on the offensive end. Despite his weak three-point shooting across his career, Antetokounmpo this season is third in points per game, fourth in rebounds per game, and averages one block and one steal per game. Antetokounmpo has worked hard to overcome his lack of perimetre shooting and is now comfortably hoisting open three-pointers.
The key reason for the Milwaukee Bucks’ domination in the Eastern Conference, however, is attributed to their overpowering defence. Although they play a structured, team-oriented defence, Antetokounmpo leads the charge, with his team ranking fifth in the league for points allowed per game, only allowing 107.4 from opponents on an average night.
Antetokounmpo has no apparent individual weaknesses on defence either. An elite help defender, capable of guarding the post and perimeter, his six-foot-11 height and seven-foot-two wingspan combined with elite speed and athleticism makes Antetokounmpo an imposing figure for any player attempting to put the ball in the basket. In fact, Antetokounmpo’s name has swirled in the conversations for the Defensive Player of the Year award.
So the big question is who will win? While early polls determine Antetokounmpo is the marginal leader for the award ahead of James, both players’ individual and team playoff runs will be the pivotal factors in the league’s decisions.
Although commissioner Adam Silver has stated playoff runs will not be a determining factor in the MVP voting, it can be hard for voters to not include the fact that a 35-year-old LeBron James brought another championship to Los Angeles, or a fairly young Giannis Antetokounmpo brought the first championship to Milwaukee since 1971.
Both players have had incredible regular season runs, and the forthcoming months will be an exciting sequence of events as the players go head-to-head to see who will be crowned NBA champions and league MVP.