Photo courtesy of ESPN.
Giannis Antetokounmpo deserved the NBA MVP award this year, and the race wasn’t all that close. Over the past few weeks, the NBA regular season awards were given out, featuring such honors as Defensive Player of the Year (won by Antetokounmpo), Rookie of the Year, and the All-NBA teams (Antetokounmpo was also featured on the All-NBA first team), but of all these awards, the most prestigious is, of course, the Most Valuable Player, or MVP.
When Giannis, also known as The Greek Freak, won the 2020 MVP award, there was a sudden outcry from many fans that LeBron James, the Los Angeles Lakers star and one of the most famous people in the world since being drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2003, was robbed of the award and that Antetokounmpo simply wasn’t deserving.
Never mind The Greek Freak leading his Milwaukee Bucks to the best record in the NBA.
Never mind his anchoring of the league’s best defense and leading its seventh-best offense, both of which were ahead of James’ Lakers (eleventh best offensive rating and third-best defensive rating).
Never mind Antetokounmpo leading the NBA in points per 75 possessions (adjusting for possessions accounts for differences in minutes played and pace of play by different teams).
Never mind Antetokounmpo leading the league in most advanced metrics like win shares per 48 minutes and box plus-minus (both are intended to appraise a player’s overall value to their team), as well as posting the highest player efficiency rating (a stat that attempts to weigh all offensive contributions of any player against the average NBA player that season) of any player across a season in NBA history.
Never mind all that.
James was just better, said James’ fans.
The MVP debate came to my attention recently when, early one morning before swim practice, my friend mentioned that he thought LeBron deserved the award. As any sane, dedicated NBA fan would, I went on a long tirade about Antetokounmpo’s deservedness for the award, mentioning several of his aforementioned accomplishments this season. The crux of my opponent’s argument (in all fairness, I didn’t give him much time to speak) was that Giannis was on a better team than James and that the Bucks would still be a good playoff team without Giannis, whereas the Lakers would be far worse without LeBron. I have seen this argument in countless Bleacher Report comment sections, so I suppose I should address it.
First of all, I think many people making this case have forgotten about the Laker’s other star, Anthony Davis. Davis was an MVP candidate in his own right this season, shown by his inclusion as an All-Star starter and as a member of the All-NBA first team. The Bucks also feature an auxiliary star to The Greek Freak, Khris Middleton, but while Middleton was voted an All-Star, he wasn’t (and never has been) on any All-NBA teams. Despite this, perhaps there is some truth to the fact that the Bucks without Giannis are better than the Lakers without LeBron. This, though, is misleading. Sure, the Bucks might feature an overall better-constructed roster for regular-season success, but they were indeed better than the Lakers this season, with Giannis basically always looking like the best player on the team, whereas James was all too often outshined by Davis.
Quite frankly, I think there are three real reasons many fans think James should have won MVP. First, simply put, he’s LeBron James, and he’s on the Lakers. The Lakers are perhaps the most storied and accomplished franchises in basketball and professional sports, and their fanbase is massive. This massive fanbase would naturally want their star to win the MVP (even I, an Atlanta Hawks fan, really wanted Trae Young to be selected to an All-NBA team, and I was fully aware he didn’t deserve it). Also, over a seventeen-year career, LeBron James has acquired a vast fanbase, and I think a lot of fans just think, “Well he’s LeBron James, his good season must be better than anyone else’s good season,” and this just isn’t true. My second proposed reason partially stems from this implicit fan bias. Many people think LeBron is the best player in the league, which is completely valid, although Antetokounmpo has an argument there as well. The problem is that the MVP isn’t given out to the best player in the league, but to the player who had the best season. If the award were given out to the best player in the league, both LeBron and Michael Jordan would probably each have about ten MVPs, but, in actuality, they don’t even have ten combined. The third and final reason I think people say that LeBron was robbed is a matter of recency bias due to LeBron’s and Giannis’ very different levels of playoff success this year. You see, the NBA regular season awards are voted on as soon as the regular season ends, and the postseason (the playoffs) is naturally not taken into account, as it hasn’t happened yet. Put simply, the MVP and all other NBA awards, apart from Finals MVP, are regular-season awards. However, all of these awards are announced as the playoffs are happening. The Lakers and Bucks began this year’s playoffs identically, each being the number one seed in their conference, each losing the first game of their seven-game series, and each winning the next four games to advance to the second round. From there, their paths diverged greatly. Antetokounmpo’s Bucks lost in only five games to the Miami Heat, while James’ Lakers beat the Houston Rockets in five games. When fans saw Giannis accepting the MVP award from his home in Athens, Greece, many thought it was ludicrous he should win the award over LeBron, whose team was still competing for a title in the NBA’s Bubble in Orlando, Florida. But again, playoff success simply doesn’t factor into the NBA MVP voting, so the argument that “the real MVP would still be in the playoffs” is absolutely ludicrous, unless the one making it expects NBA award voters to both have the omniscience to know the results of the playoffs before they happen, as well as those voters committing to voting not according to what the MVP is, but according to the incorrect notion that the MVP accounts for playoff success.
Giannis and the Bucks’ playoff woes are worthy of a deeper look, though, apart from the MVP conversation. As mentioned before, Milwaukee was ousted in the second round by the Heat. To some fans, this was proof that a team with Antetokounmpo as its star couldn’t win in the playoffs. This complete blaming of stars for a team’s faults is not uncommon, in fact, it seems to happen in most cases of underperforming teams. The Bucks, for example, are coached by Mike Budenholzer, who, despite being one of the best coaches in the NBA, operates an offense that has, so far in his career, been easily game-planned for in the playoffs, where teams are able to focus harder and longer on a single opponent. Budenholzer isn’t unique in this limitation, as teams like the Utah Jazz of the late 1990s, which featured two future Hall of Famers in John Stockton and Karl Malone, never won a championship. Of course, this was partially due to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls not often letting other teams win championships in the ’90s, but the Jazz offense’s production always greatly declined as soon as the postseason was underway. This postseason failure (Budenholzer also disappointed in the playoffs in 2014 coaching an Atlanta Hawks team that featured four all-stars and was the top seed in the Eastern Conference), as well as seeming to be allergic to playing stars big minutes (about 40 or so per game) in the postseason has provided a striking blemish on Budenholzer’s otherwise stellar coaching record. The Bucks’ problems don’t end with Budenholzer, though. Their team always lacked a reliable perimeter playmaker apart from Middleton, and teams with that problem rarely do well in the playoffs. Just look at recent champions and you’ll find multiple high-level perimeter creators on each team. The Golden State Warriors had Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson (an underrated off-the-dribble threat), Draymond Green (an underrated passer), and Shaun Livingston. The Toronto Raptors had Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry, and Fred VanVleet. The Cleveland Cavaliers had LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. In essence, the Bucks lacked multiple perimeter creators which those teams possessed, and so Giannis was seen in that role by many fans, but that is not, and was never, what Giannis truly is (Pascal Siakam of the Raptors was in a similar situation. He underperformed in this year’s playoffs and was criticized by many fans for his inability to score well, because he averaged about twenty-three points per game in the regular season. Siakam, though, wasn’t generally a threat off-the-dribble in the half-court, much like Giannis, scoring his points largely in transition and as a cog in the offense, not as its primary initiator). In essence, Giannis is more akin to Shaq in the legendary duo of Shaq and Kobe, while most superstars today (like the three most recent Finals MVPs, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, and LeBron James, who combined for 7 of the last 8 Finals MVPs) better resemble the Black Mamba.
Shaquille O’Neal is actually an excellent comparison for Antetokounmpo. O’Neal, also known as Diesel, Superman, The Big Aristotle (my personal favorite), Shaq Fu, and simply Shaq, possessed and Antetokounmpo possesses a dominance in the paint ( the area of the court near the basket) on both offense and defense that is largely unique to those two stars in recent decades. Notably, Shaq almost exclusively found team success when paired with an All-NBA-level perimeter star. He first made the Finals with the Orlando Magic, where he played with Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway (three-time All-NBA, twice on the first team). Next, Shaq famously won three consecutive championships alongside the legendary Kobe Bryant (fifteen-time All-NBA, eleven selections on the first team) on the Los Angeles Lakers. He won his final championship in 2006 on the Heat with Dwyane Wade (eight-time All-NBA, twice on the first team). Clearly, O’Neal was most effective when playing with a high-level perimeter star, even while possessing his legendary individual dominance. The problem is that Antetokounmpo is waiting for his Kobe, his D-Wade, or his Penny, because Khris Middleton, even though he is a very good player, simply isn’t a star of their caliber.
One interesting trend with criticisms of superstars who fall short in the playoffs is that they can be erased through later success, never to be thought of again. Take Dirk Nowitzki, another European superstar forward. The German star was harshly criticized in 2007 when his first-seeded Dallas Mavericks lost in the first round of the playoffs to the eighth-seeded Golden State “We Believe” Warriors (like Antetokounmpo in 2020, Nowitzki won NBA MVP in 2007), a year after losing in the NBA Finals to the Miami Heat after taking an initial two games-to-none lead in that series. Nowitzki was branded a “choker” by critics for these performances, and this was at least partially deserved, as he underperformed in both series, especially against the Warriors, although both the Warriors and the Heat played rather well in their respective series, with the latter featuring a superhuman performance from a twenty-four-year-old Dwyane Wade. But, if you ask any NBA fan about Nowitzki’s playoff performance today, they would likely tell you about Dirk’s incredibly clutch performance to upset LeBron James’ Miami Heat in the 2011 Finals. That series cemented (and largely created) Nowitzki’s legacy as a “clutch” player. But going back to Antetokounmpo, Nowitzki shows how a player can underperform in the playoffs early in their career, yet be looked back upon as someone who stepped up in big moments. Perhaps in years to come, we will look back upon the current slander against The Greek Freak and see it as merely a stepping stone to greater heights, as we largely do with Nowitzki.
The final and critically important reason to pump the brakes on declaring Giannis a failure of a basketball player is just that the NBA playoffs provide a small sample size to accurately determine a team or player’s quality. The Milwaukee Bucks played ten games in the playoffs this year. Giannis Antetokounmpo has played in forty-three playoff games in his entire career, and nineteen of those were on teams that suffered relatively unsurprising first-round exits. Since his ascension to superstardom in the 2018-19 season, Antetokounmpo has played in exactly twenty-four playoff games. An NBA regular season is eighty-two games, so is judging a player and team’s overall viability based on less than a third of a season fair? One interesting thought experiment relating to this is to picture two perfectly identical NBA teams in terms of quality. When playing a seven-game series, one team has to win each game. So, each matchup, given the fact that the teams are perfectly alike, is essentially a fifty-fifty coin toss, and one team, despite being exactly like the other, could potentially win four games in a row, but, more importantly, one of those teams has to win four of the seven games regardless. So, is the team that wins four games and the series better than the other? No, because the teams are perfectly identical. This experiment says that the best team will simply not always win. Obviously, it is extreme to propose two perfectly identical teams, but nonetheless, it shows how in the game of basketball, or in really any sport, small sample sizes can lead to results that aren’t indicative of which team is, in reality, better.
I go into all of this detail because it is fascinating to see how people not only have implicit biases for teams and players they root for, but also for recency and winning (or losing) biases. Recency bias is more widely known: people tend to view more recent results with more weight than results found at an earlier time. This is clearly evident for Antetokounmpo in the MVP debate. Giannis’ contributions over the regular season are passed over in favor of LeBron’s more recent success, which doesn’t even factor into the MVP voting. Winning bias is the idea that, when something is successful, people look to see why it was successful, not look at it with an objective lens. Losing bias is the exact opposite: when something fails, people look to see why it fails, not to evaluate it as a whole, with its combined successes and failures. So, people overlook the Bucks’ regular-season success and their five-game “gentleman’s sweep” of the Orlando Magic in favor of seeing how the team seemed to implode when facing the Heat, forgetting the incredibly close game two, where Giannis scored twenty-eight points and the Bucks only lost by two points, as well as the heroics of game four, where the Bucks won in overtime despite Giannis getting injured. These biases, along with a healthy dose of sensationalism, lead people to see the Bucks season as a total failure. Sensationalism and bias were also shown in the Lakers’ first-round matchup against the Portland Trail Blazers and their superstar point guard, Damian Lillard. After the Lakers performed their own “gentleman’s sweep,” many Lakers fans declared “Lame Time,” a play on “Dame Time,” a saying used to proclaim Lillard’s ability to take over a game in the fourth quarter. However, Lillard didn’t play badly in the series. In fact, the Trail Blazers were battered after losing two key players, Rodney Hood and Trevor Ariza. Hood injured his Achilles earlier in the season and Ariza elected to stay home from the NBA Bubble for personal reasons. The Blazers then had to fight their way into the playoffs in the seeding games before the postseason began. They were heavy underdogs to the top-seeded Lakers, who were fresh, having locked in their playoff seed early in the Bubble. Moreover, Lillard actually suffered an injury in game four, which sidelined him for part of that game and all of game five, where Portland was eliminated. Also, Lillard managed to score thirty-four points in two of his three complete games in the series, one of which was a game one upset. So, despite his team losing, Lillard didn’t play badly, but sensationalism set in, causing some fans to criticize his performance. Antetokounmpo suffered much the same fate, as his performance did drop off in the playoffs compared to his regular-season production, but he was more defined by his team’s losses rather than his own shortcomings, especially given many fans began to view him as in a lower tier of stars than LeBron, who many champion as the league’s clear best player after the shortcomings of Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard, whose team was also upset in the second round of the playoffs when the second-seeded Clippers fell to the Nuggets.
Giannis Antetokounmpo deserved the MVP award more than LeBron James did and remains arguably the best player in the NBA, plain and simple. Although I have lamented the biases many fans have when it comes to believing who the MVP is and in their general perception of players, quite frankly, the fact that Antetokounmpo was given the MVP despite all the less legitimate reasons to grant the seventeen-year veteran and legend James the honor gives me hope. The fact that the voters for the award chose the candidate with the better resume, with the less recognizable name, on the less famous team, lets me know that sometimes, people have the ability to make a rational, smart choice based on facts, even if it’s just for an ultimately meaningless award in a single season of a generally meaningless sport. It acts as at least a small counterweight to a massive irrational decision made in America in 2016. I’m talking, of course, about Chandler Parsons’ four-year, 94.8 million dollar contract with the Memphis Grizzlies. Absolutely insane.