We don’t know yet whether the 2019-20 NBA season is over. But if this is it, I thought it might be nice to take a minute to acknowledge the best of what we watched. This has been a chaotic and challenging campaign, one that began with an international incident over advocacy for free speech in China, saw the deaths of titans David Stern and Kobe Bryant, and now has been derailed by an unprecedented global health crisis. But some pretty great and entertaining shit happened in there, too, thanks to the talent and showmanship of the world’s greatest basketball players.
I don’t have a ballot for the NBA’s year-end awards. If I did, though—and if we had to vote based on the roughly 80 percent of the season that we actually got to see—here’s how I’d have filled it out. We’ll run through all of the awards, one post at a time this week, because we all must do our part right now, and the least I can do is give all of you the opportunity to roast me for my choices.
Most Valuable Player
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
2. LeBron James, Lakers
3. James Harden, Rockets
4. Anthony Davis, Lakers
5. Kawhi Leonard, Clippers
What LeBron did this season has no precedent in the annals of NBA history. No one in Year 17 or beyond has ever posted a higher value over replacement player—even though James played only 60 games—or more win shares per 48 minutes. No player age 35 or older has ever turned in a better box plus-minus. Only five players ever have averaged at least 20 points, five rebounds, and five assists per game past 35; James topped them all in scoring (25.7 points per game) and assists (10.6), leading the league in dimes for the first time in his career while propelling the Lakers to the top of the Western Conference.
James has been the best player on the best team in his conference, and renewed his commitment to defense to help spark the Lakers’ transformation into one of the league’s toughest units. And as he showed on more than one occasion—most notably during a four-game stretch just before the shutdown in which he powered signature wins over Zion Williamson’s Pelicans, Antetokounmpo’s Bucks, and Leonard’s Clippers—his best can still be better than anyone else’s. (I’m not sure I’d have picked anybody over a healthy LeBron-AD combo in a seven-game series.) He absolutely deserves to be in the MVP conversation; it’s just that, as I wrote a couple of weeks back, that conversation is going to be pretty short.
Antetokounmpo has been the best player on the best team in the league—best by winning percentage, and best by a mile in net rating. (The gap in point differential between the first-place Bucks and second-place Lakers is the same as the difference between L.A. and the no. 10 Nuggets, according to Cleaning the Glass.) Giannis’s 2019-20 ranks fifth all time in player efficiency rating and ninth in BPM. He followed up last season’s MVP run by cranking his usage up to Hardenian levels while maintaining Hardenian scoring efficiency, which seems pretty good for a guy who allegedly lacks skill and only scores because he’s big. And oh, by the way, he’s also the multipositional defensive menace at the heart of one of the best defenses in NBA history. He began his MVP encore by playing even better than he did last season, and he never stopped; he’s been the most consistent superstar in the NBA all year long.
Only 11 players have won back-to-back MVP awards, and all of them are or will be Hall of Famers; it is a mark of all-time excellence. Giannis earned his place on that list this season. LeBron’s performance was historically good for a player his age and at this stage in his career; Giannis was historically great, period. It’s absolutely crushing to consider that he won’t get the chance to put a cherry on top with his first championship. Alas.
It’s funny: I spent way more time thinking about the back half of this vote than the top of it. I considered a bunch of players for the final three spots on the ballot—about 25 or so; I have a stat-diving sickness and addiction to due diligence—and there were, as ever, a ton of worthy candidates.
Chris Paul served as the cool-as-a-cucumber pulse of a Thunder team that wa