The scattering of star free agents and destruction of the Warriors dynasty this past summer created a power vacuum in the NBA. Well, that’s what was supposed to happen until two teams quickly filled the void.
Roughly one-third of the way through the 2019-20 season, the Bucks and Lakers have established themselves as the dominant forces in their respective conferences. Heading into a highly anticipated Thursday night battle at Fiserv Forum, Milwaukee and Los Angeles hold identical 24-4 records and lead the league in net rating (Bucks at plus-12.4, Lakers at plus-8.7). On top of that, each team is coming off the end of a lengthy winning streak (Bucks at 18 straight games before a loss to the Mavericks, Lakers at seven straight games before a loss to the Pacers).
MORE: SN’s NBA All-Decade team
This success is only possible with a complete buy-in from players and coaching staffs, but it does also point directly toward the performances of two of the league’s biggest stars — LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo. There’s a reason these All-Star forwards are the top candidates in the current MVP race.
Before fans of James Harden or Luka Doncic freak out, yes, those guys have been nothing short of spectacular. And let’s not dismiss Anthony Davis, who has thrived alongside James and should be in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year.
However, at this moment, James and Antetokounmpo are checking the most boxes, whether it’s individual numbers or contributions to an elite team on the offensive and defensive ends. These debates are always fluid, but with “King James” and “The Greek Freak” set to square off, now is a good time to examine the MVP arguments for both sides.
MORE: Lakers vs. Bucks by the numbers
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
Stats: 31.7 points, 12.8 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 1.3 steals, 1.2 blocks, 56.4 percent shooting, 32.1 percent 3-point shooting, 31.2 minutes
Advanced: 34.6 PER, 61.8 true shooting, 38.6 usage, 5.5 win shares, 12.5 box plus-minus, 7.19 real plus-minus, 3.1 value over replacement player
The MVP argument: After capturing his first MVP award at age 24, Antetokounmpo has somehow improved. Antetokounmpo is on pace to become only the fourth player ever to average more than 30 points, 12 rebounds and five assists over a full season. The others: Wilt Chamberlain (twice), Oscar Robertson and Elgin Baylor.
He leads the league in points in the paint (19.2) once again, along with total field goals (317), player efficiency rating (34.6) and usage percentage (tied with Harden at 38.6). He also tops the rest of the NBA in defensive rating and defensive win shares, per Basketball Reference. He is scoring a point per minute. That’s insane.
Most importantly, Antetokounmpo contributes to winning on a nightly basis. The Bucks are No. 2 in offensive efficiency and No. 1 in defensive efficiency in large part because of his consistent effort. Milwaukee is still solid with Antetokounmpo on the bench, but the Bucks are unstoppable with him on the floor. And if he is able to hit pull-up 3-pointers at a respectable rate, how do you guard this team?
Giannis is the rare player who refuses to back down and must be talked into taking a break. He doesn’t care about the opponent, day of the week or TV broadcast — Antetokounmpo is always in seek-and-destroy mode. That old-school mentality separates him from the rest of his peers.
It’s difficult to poke holes in Antetokounmpo’s MVP case, and that’s why he could easily go back-to-back.
LAKERS VS. BUCKS: How to watch Thursday night’s game
LeBron James, Lakers
Stats: 25.9 points, 7.4 rebounds, 10.6 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.6 blocks, 49.8 percent shooting, 35.3 percent 3-point shooting, 34.7 minutes
Advanced: 26.8 PER, 57.5 true shooting, 32.5 usage, 4.7 win shares, 9.1 box plus-minus, 8.90 real plus-minus, 2.7 value over replacement player
The MVP argument: It didn’t take long for James to shake off the stink of last season and return to his old form. In Year 17, the four-time MVP turned himself into the ultimate facilitator. He is running away with the assist title and creates the most points off assists (26.6) of any player in the NBA. He has dished out at least 30 dimes to five different teammates, including 86 alone to Davis, which is nearly 30 percent of his assist total (297).
He is masterful at manipulating opponents with his eyes and then finding the open man along the perimeter or in the paint.
James’ scoring has dipped slightly as a result, but he is fully capable flipping that switch when necessary. Just look at his 39-point effort against the Mavericks back in November, which pushed the Lakers to a thrilling overtime victory.
LeBron is also trying something new in 2019-20 — defense! He lands in the top 10 in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus stat, which estimates a player’s impact on team defensive performance. Head coach Frank Vogel obviously deserves credit for a renewed focus on that end, and Davis is seemingly everywhere on the floor. James’ impact shouldn’t be ignored, though. He simply wasn’t closing out like this last year.
If you don’t want to hear out this writer, listen to the reigning MVP.
“It’s crazy. Obviously, for me, that’s one of my goals to be able to play at a high level for the next 10 years, but he’s about to turn 35 this month and he’s moving like that, playing like that, and just playing smart,” Antetokounmpo recently told reporters. “It’s insane to see what he’s able to do, but he’s LeBron James.
“He’s different. He’s an alien. So you expect it from him, but yeah, it’s crazy.”
The rest of the MVP field could close the gap, but right now, this is Antetokounmpo’s award to lose.
Milwaukee went 7-0 with Khris Middleton out. Brook Lopez is only shooting 29.0 percent from 3-point range. Nothing matters as long as Giannis is available.
Assuming the Bucks win 60-plus games and Antetokounmpo stays near this level of production, good luck finding a way to prevent him from holding the MVP trophy in 2020.