Charles Barkley is a man with opinions. One of them is that Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks should clearly win the 2020 NBA Most Valuable Player award. And the Hall of Fame player turned Turner Sports NBA analyst is not happy that anyone with a platform is saying otherwise. In a radio interview with ESPN's Dan LeBatard (it starts about 20 minutes in), Barkley ranted about the idea that LeBron James should win MVP, taking shots at fellow television analysts for using James' season with the Los Angeles Lakers to manufacture a two-person race.
"Giannis is the runaway MVP and the other networks are trying to change the narrative," Barkley said. "Like, 'Well, LeBron should be the MVP.' First of all, no he should not. Giannis should be the MVP by far."
Barkley's took issue with one line of argument in particular: That Antetokounmpo's accomplishments aren't as special because of the Bucks' competition. He said that, if James was still in the East, playing with a supporting cast like Antetokounmpo's ("a bunch of nobodies," in Barkley's estimation, which is an entirely different discussion) and his team was dominating the league (he misstates Milwaukee's 53-9 record as 59-8 and 59-6, but that's neither here nor there), nobody would try to diminish it by saying that he's doing it in the inferior conference.
"You've got these fools, idiots and jackasses on TV," Barkley said to LeBatard. "Listen, LeBron's amazing, but what Giannis is doing is incredible. And we can give LeBron love because he's an amazing dude, amazing man and a great, great, great player, but this thing where they're trying to say, 'Well, the MVP race is close' -- let me tell you something, Dan: If LeBron was back in Cleveland, playing with a bunch of nobodies, he was 59-6, no matter how good a year everybody else was having, nobody would be saying, 'Oh, no, man, maybe somebody else should win MVP 'cause he plays in the Eastern Conference.' That's total B.S., and it makes me mad because I'm not like these other people. When somebody tells me something on TV I'm (not) like, 'Well, it must be true, this dude said it.' No, dude, I'm actually watching the games. What Giannis and the Milwaukee Bucks are doing is incredible, and if that man gets screwed out of the MVP because everybody wants to swing on LeBron, it's going to really piss me off."
In the interview, Barkley did not specify which analyst annoyed him. But there are two obvious suspects, both of whom were on national TV on Monday making the case that James, not Antetokounmpo, should win the award. And both brought up the conference disparity:
- Kendrick Perkins on "First Take" on ESPN: "When LeBron James was in the East, the whole thing was that, 'Oh, he's in the East.' So we robbed him -- well, I wouldn't say robbed him, but he lost out on four MVPs when he returned back to Cleveland. He lost out on four MVPs, why? Because he was in the East. During that time, those MVPs went to Western Conference players, am I correct? Because they were making noise in the West. Steph Curry, they had a 73-9 team. [Stephen A. Smith interjects to say James Harden and Russell Westbrook won MVP awards.] K.D. won one or whatever, right? Here's my thing: Why are we not keeping the same energy for Giannis? He's in the East. The East is weaker. No LeBron James, no Kawhi Leonard. Why is the argument not the same? Now here it is: LeBron takes his talent to the Western Conference, his team is No. 1 in the West, he's averaging a double-double, he's balling out."
- Colin Cowherd on "The Herd" on Fox Sports 1: "Let me ask you this: LeBron James is the No. 1 seed in the West, which is significantly better than being the No. 1 seed, Giannis, in the East -- does that matter? And LeBron is doing it in my opinion with a less talented roster 1 through 8 or 9 than Milwaukee. How is he not the MVP?"
Lakers coach Frank Vogel -- not an unbiased observer -- also recently argued in favor of James. "Of course he is, it's not even debatable," Vogel told reporters Thursday when asked if the 35-year-old was having an MVP-type season. Vogel declined to talk specifically about Antetokounmpo, but said definitively that he believes James should win.
"The body of work that he puts forth for our team, I don't think it really compares to everybody else," Vogel said. "There's a lot of great performances throughout the year with other players, so I don't want to take anything away from anybody else, but it's pretty unbelievable what he means to us on both sides of the ball: His defensive IQ, the ways he impacts the game with his strength, athleticism, scoring the ball the way he does but also leading the league in assists. And the most important stat is how much we're winning, so to me, it's his. It's that simple."
Vogel is right that James is having an MVP-caliber season. But while I often disagree with Barkley, I think the rant was mostly on point. With six weeks left, it's difficult to construct an evidence-based case that James' season, while unprecedented for a player his age, has been better than Antetokounmpo's, unless you take Milwaukee's success with Antetokounmpo on the bench as damning of its franchise player. The East vs. West argument would be more compelling if Antetokounmpo's Bucks were not 19-4 against the West, with a plus-9.4 net rating, and if his stats weren't almost identical against Eastern and Western teams. (Antetokounmpo actually has scored more on a per-minute basis and shot a better percentage from 3-point range against the West.)
Antetokounmpo and his team are having a regular season for the ages. He has meaningfully improved after winning his first MVP, and the Bucks have been so ridiculously good that they've only needed him to average 30.8 minutes. James is somehow still finding new ways to impress, and maybe he'll close the gap by thoroughly outperforming Antetokounmpo down the stretch. That is still at least theoretically possible. For now, though, I anticipate that Barkley will ultimately be pleased with how the race turns out.
Oh, almost forgot: The Bucks will visit the Lakers at 10:30 p.m. ET on Friday. Seems relevant.