NBA

NBA Finals MVP race: Making the case for LeBron James and Anthony Davis as Lakers approach 2020 championship

The NBA Finals aren’t technically over. Four teams have come back from 2-0 Finals deficits. The Heat did so in 2006 themselves. But with Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic still battling injuries, a 17th Los Angeles Lakers championship is starting to feel like more a matter of “when” than “if.” In their depleted state, Heat vs. Lakers isn’t even the most compelling battle of the Finals. Through two games, Laker vs. Laker has been the more interesting story. 

Since 1969, 51 NBA champions have been crowned. In those 51 Finals series, exactly 51 Finals MVPs have been named. No more. No less. There has never been a tie or a disputed ballot. When there are two great players in the Finals, someone has to lose the trophy. Yet both LeBron James and Anthony Davis have clearly played Finals MVP-caliber basketball against the Heat. The two best players in the series are now, if only silently, competing against one another as much as they are competing against Miami. Only one of them can win the award, and through two games, it would be almost impossible to pick between the two. 

But we’re still going to try. Below are the cases for both James and Davis, and ultimately, the selection of an early favorite. Note the word favorite. A winner cannot and should not be crowned until the conclusion of the series, and while one player may hold a small lead, it is entirely possible that the other makes up that gap between now and the final buzzer. Without further ado, it’s time to meet the candidates. 

The Case for Davis

Raw stats: 33 PPG, 11.5 RPG, 3 APG, 63.4 FG%, 60 3PT%, 100 FT%

Let’s start with the obvious: Davis has been the superior scorer in this series. It hasn’t been close. What Davis is doing in this postseason as a whole is practically unprecedented from a historical perspective, but he’s taken it to a new level in the Finals. In NBA history, 24 players have technically shot over 60 percent from the field and 50 percent from behind the arc in the Finals. The most points any of them has ever averaged is the 17.8 Kawhi Leonard posted in the 2014 Finals. Most of them were in single digits. Davis has matched that efficiency… and he’s doing it while scoring 33 points per game. 

His defensive impact can’t be quantified so simply, but virtually every statistic suggests that he has improved upon his already stellar regular-season performance. Miami is shooting just 33.3 percent in the non-restricted area portion of the paint in the Finals, and only 26.1 percent in the mid-range. That’s no accident. Davis is covering so much ground and taking so much away that virtually anything inside the arc that isn’t a dunk has been difficult. The Heat can’t find shots in his domain. LeBron remains a stellar defender, but Davis, at this moment in time, is the best defensive player on Earth. He’s even taken some turns defending Jimmy Butler. The sample is small, but he’s held Miami’s best player to 2-of-6 shooting in the series. 

When you combine those factors, Davis has proven to be indispensable to the Lakers from a team performance perspective. The Lakers have outscored the Heat by 33 points with Davis on the floor in the Finals, and have been outscored in turn by five when he sits. He is the only player on the roster whose absence has caused a negative plus-minus. The Lakers have actually done just fine without LeBron in this series. When he plays, they’ve outscored the Heat by 17. When he sits, they’ve outscored them by 11. This is especially important to Davis’ candidacy because James backers will argue that much of what LeBron does isn’t visible in a box score. That’s a completely fair statement, but if it isn’t showing up in plus-minus numbers either, it at least suggests Davis is responsible for some invisible contributions of his own. 

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Davis’ minutes as the sole Laker star have gone so well that Frank Vogel has been comfortable giving LeBron extended rests. He played only 36 minutes and 24 seconds in Game 1 and 39 minutes and nine seconds in Game 2. Those are his two lowest minutes totals in the Finals since leaving the Heat in 2014 aside from a 33-point loss to the Warriors in Game 2 of their 2016 series. Davis has played slightly more in this series, though that gap is negligible. Given how poorly the Laker bench played without LeBron during the regular season, there was a scenario in which LeBron would have to play 42-44 minutes for them to win big playoff games. Davis has made sure that isn’t the case, and in that sense, deserves a shred of credit for LeBron’s production. He helps keep him somewhat rested for the most important moments. 

That isn’t where much of LeBron’s Game 1 production came from. The Lakers entered the fourth quarter leading by 24 points… yet James still played most of the period. In that time, he racked up eight points, three rebounds and three assists on 4-of-6 shooting. Davis went 0-for-2 in the period, scoring four points on free throws and grabbing three rebounds, but in the competitive portion of the game, he was undeniably more productive. Now, in the grand scheme of things, this might just be a blip, but obviously, the competitive portion of the series should hold more weight than garbage time. 

And right now, Davis has an edge in that respect. LeBron is doing what he always does. He’s picking his spots, keeping the trains running and influencing the game in dozens of little ways we can’t even appreciate. But Davis is smashing the Heat to smithereens. He’s dominating them so thoroughly on both ends of the floor that, unlike with LeBron, we don’t have to wonder about the extent of his production. It’s all front and center, and if the plus-minus numbers are to be believed, it is where these enormous Laker leads are coming from. 

The Case for James

Raw stats: 29 PPG, 11 RPG, 9 APG, 54.8 FG%, 41.7 3FG%, 63.6 FT%

LeBron may be scoring less overall than Davis, but he is indisputably creating more offense. Through two games, Davis has scored 66 points and created 18 more off of assists. That’s a total of 84 points generated. LeBron has scored only 58 points… but has created 52 more through assists. That’s 110 points generated by him, and that number may even be selling him short. James also has three secondary assists to Davis’ none, and Davis is also getting better shooting luck off of his passes. Davis has six assists, but only 11 potential assists, meaning 54.5 percent of his possible assists have been converted into points. LeBron has 18 assists, but a staggering 42 potential assists. His conversion rate is just under 43 percent. James creates 3-pointers off of his passes. Naturally, more of those shots miss, which deflates his assist numbers, but the ones that go in create more value for his team. 

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Speaking of individual creation, it should be noted that James has to work much harder for his points than Davis does. Only 47.8 percent of LeBron’s field goals have been assisted in this series. That’s the lowest mark on the Lakers. Davis has had 61.5 percent of his field goals assisted, and that gap is likely to widen as the series progresses. Only 28.9 percent of LeBron’s regular-season field goals were assisted. Yet despite carrying this enormous burden, LeBron has turned the ball over only twice in the entire series. Davis, who handles the ball far less, has four turnovers so far. Davis may be leading the team in scoring, but the offense still runs through James without question. 

LeBron is not Davis defensively, but he is still quite good and deserves credit for taking the Butler assignment for the bulk of the first two games. It has allowed Davis to focus on his help responsibilities, ruining plays all over the floor. In other words, James is at least partially responsible for the success Davis has had defensively, and in one key regard, has actually outplayed him. LeBron has 19 defensive rebounds in this series. Davis has 12. 

Now, that’s partially by design. The Lakers love letting Davis leak out after shot attempts to kickstart transition. But LeBron getting a live rebound has the same effect. The Lakers rely on transition to generate offense, as they are only the 19th most efficient half-court team in the NBA, per Cleaning the Glass. Those rebounds matter. 

And then there’s the matter of Miami’s health. While the Heat spent much of Game 2 playing zone defense, in Butler, Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala, they still at least have a variety of wing defenders to credibly throw at James. The Heat without Bam Adebayo had no solution to Davis whatsoever. The two big men that took his minutes, Meyers Leonard and Kelly Olynyk, are defensive liabilities that are playable primarily due to offense. For a lengthy stretch in Game 2, Davis’ size just made him unguardable for the Heat. He shot jumpers over smaller wings and scored easily on putbacks. That is a contextual advantage LeBron hasn’t had. 

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That is LeBron’s candidacy in a nutshell. Davis has the edge in raw numbers right now, but when you start to consider where those numbers come from and what they’re actually saying, it’s hard to deny that LeBron does more to help Davis generate those numbers than Davis does for him. This is usually the case when evaluating primary ball-handlers against big men. While the two obviously work in tandem, it’s just easier for the guy who has the ball all of the time to impact a game than the guy who needs to get an entry pass first. 

The Verdict

It’s a toss-up right now. Either choice is entirely credible, and if there’s any justice here, the voters will get together before the final buzzer of the series-clincher and find a way to rig the ballots in a way that allows for James and Davis to split the award. There could hardly be a better acknowledgment of their shared dominance. 

But realistically, a winner needs to be chosen. Through two games, Davis deserves the slightest of edges. This is truly a 51-49 margin, but the fact that the Lakers have survived LeBron’s bench minutes so comfortably is the differentiator here. All season, the one glaring Lakers flaw was how poorly their offense played with James on the bench. Davis has solved that this postseason, and that has been proven emphatically in the Finals. It suggests a growth in overall offensive value that may not be quite as evident when LeBron is on the floor but exists no matter who his teammates are. The things that are working when LeBron sits are still available, and frankly still happening to an extent, when he is in the game, and when you factor in Davis’ otherworldly defense, he deserves a very, very slim lead. 

But that pick represents only the first two games. Davis is deserving at this very moment, but if you were to make a prediction, James would be the wiser pick by a similarly slim margin. Putting aside possible voter bias, it is incredibly unlikely that Davis continues to shoot at the level that he has so far in the Finals merely because nobody has ever shot this well across an entire championship series. Maybe Davis becomes the first, or maybe he regresses to something closer to his regular-season levels. James, meanwhile, is playing more sustainably, and if just a few more of the shots he creates for his teammates start to fall, it could boost him into triple-double territory for the series. There isn’t much of a difference between nine and 10 assists, but that round number helps hammer home what a difference there is in their playmaking. 

There ultimately isn’t a wrong answer here, at least not so far. LeBron and Davis have been equally spectacular, and no matter who ultimately brings home the trophy, the loser will have a serious case for the mantle of “greatest Finals performance ever to not yield the MVP.”


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