LeBron James is almost certainly entering his final season with the Los Angeles Lakers, because he wants to play with his son, Bronny. And if the one-and-done rule is eliminated soon as the Rice Commission has recommended and as Adam Silver wants, whoever drafts Bronny next June will get his dad, too.
How will this motivate LeBron? And will it motivate him enough to become the oldest NBA MVP ever?
James has been very upfront about what he hopes to accomplish over the remainder of his NBA career. Of course he wants to win, but more than anything he wants to play on the same team as his son, who will be a senior next season for Sierra Canyon H.S, which finished last season ranked 18th nationally.
So it becomes a question of where that will be, what kind of a season James will have in El Lay, and whether the NBA and the players’ union ditch the one-and-done rule sooner rather than later.
Lest we all forget, LeBron was in contention to lead the NBA in scoring last season before he missed the final two games of the season and failed to reach the minimum number of games needed to qualify. That was especially distressing to your faithful correspondent, who spotted James at +8000 in January to lead the league in scoring and Benjamined it. As it turned out, Joel Embiid took the scoring title at 30.6 points per game while James finished at 30.3.
Those were the only two players to average more than 30 points last season, and it was James’ highest scoring average since 2005-06, his third season in the league.
Which goes to show that this freak of nature remains the only person in human history to refuse to age as he gets older.
And he is anywhere from +2500 to +3000 in the legalized U.S. sports gambling market to win MVP. The favorite is Luka Doncic at +460, followed by Embiid at +500 and Giannis Antetokounmpo at +650. Other players with shorter odds are two-time defending MVP Nikola Jokic (+1000), reigning NBA Finals MVP Steph Curry (+1300), Jayson Tatum and Kevin Durant also at +1300 and Kawhi Leonard at +2000.
James will be 38 years old when the upcoming season concludes, but his 38 is not a normal 38. This will be his 20th NBA season, and next season (when he plays with Bronny if the rules allow for it) he will join Robert Parish, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Garnett and Kevin Willis as the only players aside from Vince Carter (22) to play 21 seasons.
If he wins MVP, James will shatter the record for the oldest player ever to win the award, Karl Malone in 1998-99 when he was 35. It should be noted that Peyton Manning was 95 days away from being 38 when he won the NFL MVP award in 2013.
So an MVP would be unprecedented, but your faithful correspondent (who has covered Jordan, Malone, Kobe Bryant and countless other former MVPs) can assure you that LeBron James is the greatest basketball player ever. And yes, that includes the most dominant basketball player ever, Wilt Chamberlain, as well as the most successful title-winner ever, Bill Russell.
And one thing that has been driven home over the past several years, even before sports gambling was legal in the United States outside of Nevada and Delaware: You never, ever, ever want to bet against the guy.
And another thing: Voters absolutely love to vote the narrative. What, you ask, is the narrative? It is what people are talking about most over the course of any given season. And if the NBA and the Players Association heed the advice of Condoleezza Rice and her commission, they will start allowing players to jump from high school straight to the NBA as James once did. Commissioner Silver came out in favor of it last week in Las Vegas, and collective bargaining discussions between the owners and the players are already in their early stages. So there you have the narrative.
James wants it, and everyone in the NBA wants to make James happy. Yes, even the media voters.
So let’s look at the players listed with shorter odds than LeBron and make a case for them getting or not getting the award.
Luka Doncic: He is a worthy favorite because his team has made huge improvements this offseason (adding Christian Wood and JaVale McGee, which in theory could lead to Doncic becoming the first player since Russell Westbrook in 2016-17 to average a triple-double. That distinction earned Westbrook the MVP award that season. But Dallas also will need to rise above last season’s fourth-place finish in the Western Conference, and it says here that the three teams that finished ahead of them – Phoenix, Memphis and Golden State – remain better. So if the Mavs finish fourth again, or even third, that will dissuade voters from balloting for Luka.
Joel Embiid: He finished second in the voting last season, perhaps because he openly acknowledged his desire to win the award, which some voters did not like. Next season he will have a full year playing alongside James Harden, and nobody will be asking him about Ben Simmons anymore. That removes a tremendous distraction, and Embiid certainly has the talent to win it. But his team appears to be about the same as last year’s team, which finished in a three-way tie with Boston and Milwaukee for second in the East behind Miami. The Celtics have gotten better with the addition of Malcolm Brogdon, the Heat are in the mix for Durant and Donovan Mitchell, and the Bucks are quiet. Too quiet, maybe. If it comes down to a popularity contest between James and Embiid, James wins that one 100 times out of 100.
Giannis Antetokounmpo: The Greek Freak will never not be in the mix, but he won the award in 2018 and 2019, and he would have to raise the bar somehow to make it three. That could come from improved 3-point shooting (29.3 percent last season) or getting his assists per game above 6 for the first time. But the bar is set high for him, fairly or unfairly.
Nikola Jokic: The last player to win this award in three consecutive seasons was Larry Bird in 1984, ‘85 and ‘86, and Jokic will have running mates Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. back to lighten his load. A big part of the reason why he won last season was the Nuggets’ sixth-place finish and 48 wins despite missing two of their three best players. The big Serbian would have to do something beyond extraordinary to make it three in a row and join Bird.
Stephen Curry: When he won this award for the second consecutive year in 2016, he averaged 30.1 points and shot a career-best 45.7 percent from 3-point range. Averaging 32.0 points per game two years ago was not good enough, and one has to wonder what he has to do in order to convince voters he is the man. A significant jump from his 25.5 points per game average last season could do it. His main wingmen, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, are not as dominant as they once were. Not a bad hedge bet.
Jayson Tatum: With Brad Stevens adding Malcolm Brogdon for a bag of hammers and taking some of the playmaking pressure off Marcus Smart, it remains to be seen if Brogdon will make it easier for Tatum to be in position to score so that he can raise his scoring average from 25.6 and, more importantly, his field goal percentage from 42.6. Boston should win the East unless Miami somehow manages to get Durant or Mitchell.
Ja Morant: After winning Rookie of the Year and Most Improved Player, this is the natural progression, no? It might take Memphis winning the West for him to get it, but that is not out of the question.
Kawhi Leonard: After a year away, what will be look like? And will the presence of Paul George and newly acquired John Wall detract from whatever he accomplishes? The Clippers are coming off a 42-40 ninth-place finish, and a win total approaching 60 would help him.