Wednesday’s game between the Los Angeles Lakers and Utah Jazz was supposed to be an anticipated meeting between two of the best teams in the Western Conference and a possible playoff preview. But after a close first quarter, the Jazz pulled away and quickly proved why they have the NBA’s best record and are considered as a title contender, dominating the shorthanded Lakers, 114-89.
It was the fourth straight loss for the defending champions and L.A.’s fifth in the last six games. The Lakers, especially their younger players, continue to adjust in the absence of All-Star big man Anthony Davis, who is recovering from a calf injury, and point guard Dennis Schroder, who has been held out due to the league’s health and safety protocols.
After the game, LeBron James, who finished with 19 points, four rebounds, and four assists in 28 minutes, still believed that the Lakers can turn things around later in the season.
“It’s always about staying confident, continuing to give my teammates the courage and the confidence out there on the floor and to make plays,” he told reporters after the game, per Yahoo Sports. “It’s a tough stretch for us, but this won’t define what we will be for the rest of the season and for the long haul.”
It wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine the Lakers racking up wins weeks from now and reminding the rest of the league why they are still considered as the favorites to lift the Larry O’Brien trophy at the end of the season. But the same can’t be said of James’ chances of winning a fifth MVP award, which will likely be affected by the Lakers’ losing streak, their longest since Dec. 2019.
James has played in each of Los Angeles’ 33 games, averaging 25.6 points, 8.1 rebounds, 8.0 assists, and a steal while shooting 50.2 percent from the field and 35.1 percent from beyond the arc. Those numbers are similar to his production in recent years, a testament to his ability to continue to play at a high level even at age 36 and in his 18th season in the league.
But as the losses continue to pile for the Purple and Gold, his case for a fifth MVP trophy has gone from being rock-solid to being open to debate. While other contenders are putting up better numbers than James, the league has previously given the MVP to the best player on the best team, which he seemed to be back when the Lakers had the league’s best record. But that isn’t the case anymore now that they sit in the third spot in the Western Conference behind the Jazz and the Los Angeles Clippers.
Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid, for instance, is averaging 29.8 points, 11.3 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.3 steals, and 1.3 blocks while shooting 52.7 percent from the field and 40.5 percent from outside. Those are better than The King’s numbers, and the Sixers have remained on top of the Eastern Conference with a 21-11 record, and have won three of their last four games.
Meanwhile, Denver Nuggets big man Nikola Jokic is also closing in on James in the MVP race, as he is putting up 27 points, 10.9 rebounds, 8.4 assists, and 1.7 steals while shooting 56.2 percent from the field and 40.8 percent from downtown. The Nuggets have won just two of their last five games, but they remain seventh in the West with a 17-14 record, largely thanks to The Joker’s efforts.
But despite their recent losing skid, James still has a case to win his first MVP award since 2013, back when he played for the Miami Heat. After all, the Lakers have played just 33 of their games, which means that the team isn’t even at the halfway point of the season and will have 39 more games to regain their form heading into the playoffs.
If he plays most if not all of their games this season and continues putting up similar numbers, and the Lakers start winning again, he could still end up being named as the MVP. But winning is an important part of his case to win the award, as other contenders like Embiid and Jokic are putting up better numbers.
If Los Angeles somehow remains second in the West behind only the Jazz by the end of the regular season and James misses only a handful of games while continuing to put up 25-8-8 a night, he could win his fifth MVP. The Lakers currently have a 5-7 record against teams over .500, and if James wills his team to signature victories over other contenders, that could also strengthen his MVP case.
After stating that he should have received more votes in last year’s MVP voting after finishing second to Giannis Antetokounmpo, James hasn’t explicitly said that he is gunning for the league’s top individual award this season. It’s clear, however, that he seems determined not to take a break this season, despite having played more minutes than any active player, which some see as an unnecessary risk that could pose problems for the Lakers later on in the playoffs.
A four-game losing streak in a 72-game season at a time when his team is missing two of their top three scorers could hurt James’ case for an MVP, but it will not end it. Other contenders for the award may have closed in or even overtaken him at this point in the season, but there’s plenty of basketball left to be played for The King to assert his claim as the league’s best player.
The Lakers’ schedule does not get any easier, with games against the Portland Trail Blazers, Golden State Warriors, Phoenix Suns, and Indiana Pacers, all of which are in the playoff race, in five of their next six games. This next stretch of games could make or break his chances of lifting another MVP trophy.
If the Lakers start winning and maintain their spot near the top of the West, James could be right back in the MVP conversation. A longer losing streak and a tumble down the standings, however, could further hurt his MVP case. Schroder will be back in their next game, while Davis should return sometime after the All-Star break. With his co-star out for a few more weeks and his team in need of someone who will carry the load on most nights, this gives James the perfect opportunity to breathe life back into his case for a fifth MVP award.