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Why Lakers star LeBron James is set to make history with another MVP

At this stage of LeBron James’ storied career, winning an MVP isn’t simply about making a statement in the present. It’s about making history.

Another trophy would tie James with Michael Jordan and Bill Russell in regular-season MVPs (five) and place him one behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for most MVPs in NBA history.

Speaking of Abdul-Jabbar and records, LeBron James joined the Lakers legend and Karl Malone in the 35,000-point club in L.A.’s loss to the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday. With about for more All-Star-caliber seasons, James can feasibly catch Cap on the all-time scoring list. He probably won’t catch Abdul-Jabbar in MVPs, but another Maurice Podoloff would undoubtedly mean more to the King.

James passed another milestone, but the Lakers fell in their first real test without Anthony Davis, as the Nets rolled. On Saturday night, the Lakers will be faced with the challenge of dealing with Bam Adebayo (and Jimmy Butler) without AD, as the Lakers host the Miami Heat (12-17) in a 2020 Finals rematch.

If your glass is half-full, you could argue that Davis’ recent “calf strain” carries a few silver linings.

For one, it allows Davis to earn extra rest for at least four weeks. The All-Star has dealt with various bumps and bruises this season, which Frank Vogel partially attributed to the condensed off-season.

Davis’ absence will also push the Lakers’ versatile and deep rotation, which could prove beneficial in the postseason.

“All these guys that are going to get a little extended run here, more opportunity, are going to catch a better rhythm that they may not have been able to get when we’re at full strength,” Vogel said.

Finally, Davis’ injury undeniably strengthens LeBron James’ MVP narrative.

You don’t have to read too closely in-between-the-lines to glean that the 36-year-old wants to win his fifth MVP in his 18th season. As ESPN’s Brian Windhorst broke down, James has publicly vented his frustrations about the MVP results on multiple occasions throughout his career, including in 2016 (when Steph Curry won) and 2018 (when James Harden won).

Last season, after Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo won his second consecutive MVP, James acknowledged he was “pissed off” about not receiving a first-place vote.

Notably, and surprisingly, James has played every game this season — and has played each one like somebody who is consciously campaigning.

Even before Davis went down, LeBron James had seized control of the MVP narrative, existing mainly via the media and in the discourse. Earlier this month, James easily topped an ESPN straw poll of awards voters to this point, and that sentiment continues to echo.

On a recent episode of “The Lowe Post” podcast, ESPN’s Zach Lowe opined that, even though James trails Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic and Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid in the statistical case, the King still holds pole position for the award.

Last season, James’ teammates openly advocated for him, but it’s highly probable that the presence of another superstar (Davis) weakened his case.

In 2020-21, the Lakers, the fanbase, and seemingly the entire sports media apparatus are intent on starting the awards chatter earlier. To this point, that discussion has centered on the 2020 Finals MVP.

The King’s hold on the narrative is understandable. While “voter fatigue” has robbed LeBron James of multiple MVPs throughout his never-ending prime, the voters should be refreshed after taking eight years off picking the best player in the game. Plus, his performance in the bubble and continued night-to-night “greatness” have served as a stark reminder to the basketball world: he is the best player on the best team, full stop.

“He’s doing everything he’s always done,” Davis said told reporters last Tuesday. “He’s averaging almost a triple-double, he’s playing unbelievable basketball. What I’m saying is nothing you guys haven’t heard already, but from the start of the season to now he’s shown why he’s in the MVP race, and I think he’s No. 1 in that race. He’s continuously playing at a high level for our group.”

James had led the Lakers to a 22-8 record, three games behind the Utah Jazz in the loss column. He’s averaging 25.9 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 7.9 assists per game and has been generally committed on defense. He’s shooting 37.2% from three on a career-high 9.3(!) attempts per game, which Vogel has credited for opening up the team’s offense and helping the Lakers beat teams “over-the-top.”

James’ value has been most apparent in crunch-time, further helping him seize the early momentum in the MVP race. Per Lowe, in “crunch-time” (the final five minutes of close games this year), LeBron James is shooting 24-of-49 from the floor, and the Lakers are 10-3 with an elite +52.

More importantly, his leadership has helped steer the Lakers through an utterly complex campaign, and the example he’s set by decidedly not (blatantly) managing his load after the championship run has rubbed off on the rest of the squad.

“That’s why he’s probably going to be this year’s MVP: carrying the load offensively and quarterbacking the defense — the No. 1 defense in the league — and taking these tough assignments and making these plays down the stretch,” Vogel said last Thursday. He’s playing terrific.”

Now, with Davis set to miss a hefty chunk of the season — and lead ball-handler Dennis Schröder potentially out for multiple games due to health and safety protocols — James has a golden opportunity to further cement his case with a slew of nationally televised, high-profile showdowns. So far, the Lakers are 4-2 without Davis, but 0-1 against good teams. The five wins have been nail-biters against lottery teams.

Following the Heat game and a favorable matchup vs. the Washington Wizards, they’ll head to Utah followed by home bouts against the Portland Trail Blazers, Golden State Warriors, and Phoenix Suns. They’ll head north to face the Sacramento Kings on March 3. Considering the competition, perhaps it’s no surprise that five of those seven games will be on national TV (six if you count the Wizards broadcast on NBATV), which should keep LeBron in the spotlight heading into the All-Star Game.

If LeBron James can continue delivering late-game heroics, triple-doubles, and the Lakers finish the first half strong, his grip on the narrative will only tighten. By the time Davis returns, James could have the MVP award all sewn up, and be ready to focus his attention on the more important hardware, another Larry O’Brien Trophy.