LeBron James took another step toward winning his fourth NBA championship on Friday as his Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Denver Nuggets, 126-114, in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, but it was another No. 4 that nagged at him after the game. James finished as the runner-up for the NBA's MVP award for the fourth time in his career when the voting was announced Friday.
Out of a possible 101 first-place votes, he earned 16. Winner Giannis Antetokounmpo landed the other 85 and won the award running away. James commended the Milwaukee Bucks superstar, who has now won back-to-back MVP awards, but was not happy about how he did in the voting. In his eyes, he at least deserved a greater share of the votes.
"It pissed me off," James told reporters after his Game 1 victory. "That's my true answer. It pissed me off because out of 101 votes I got 16 first-place votes. That's what pissed me off more than anything. I'm not saying that the winner wasn't deserving of the MVP, but that pissed me off. I finished second a lot in my career, either from a championship, and now four times as the MVP. Like I said, I never came into the league saying 'I'm gonna be MVP' or 'I'm gonna be champion,' I've always said I just want to get better every single day and those things will take care of themselves. Some things are just out of my hands, some things you can't control, but it pissed me off."
James went back in time to discuss some older gripes he had with NBA awards voting, citing a peculiar loss to Marc Gasol for the 2012-13 Defensive Player of the Year award as evidence, to him, that the voting system is flawed.
"The voting scale is a little weird to me sometimes," James said. "Take 2012, just stick with me here, 2012-13, I had a chance to be Defensive Player of the Year and MVP in the same season. In that season Marc Gasol was awarded Defensive Player of the Year, but he made Second-Team All-Defense. So that doesn't make sense. It's like being MVP of the league, but you make Second-Team All-NBA. That's when I really started to look at things kind of differently, like, how does that make any sense? It's like being Rookie of the Year and then being second-team All-Rookie. And then I looked at the Most Improved this year, and rightfully so, Brandon Ingram was amazing and I thought he should've won it, but did you see the votes Devonte' Graham got? He averaged four points last year compared to 17.5. If that's not improving, what is? It's just a weird thing sometimes that, I don't know how much we are really watching the game of basketball, or are we just in the narration mode? The narrative."
Ultimately, James indicated a preference for consistency in voting criteria, thinking that different seasons produced different kinds of results.
"I don't know, I'm not gonna sit up here and talk about what the criteria should be or what it is," James said. "It's changed over the years since I've gotten into the league. It's just changed, it's changed a lot. Sometimes it's, you know, the best player, not the best team. Sometimes it's the guy with the best season statistically. It's changed over the course of my career. You don't know. Giannis had a hell of a season, you can definitely say that."
On paper, Antetokounmpo appears to have the better case. His Milwaukee Bucks won more games than LeBron's Lakers. He scored more points more efficiently, rebounded better, and despite a defensive renaissance from James, Giannis was clearly superior on that end of the floor in winning Defensive Player of the Year. The basketball world largely accepts that LeBron is the better player, but during the regular season, Giannis provided more value to the Bucks than he did to the Lakers by most measures, and he did it without a teammate the caliber of Anthony Davis.
Davis, unsurprisingly, supported LeBron's candidacy.
"He deserves it. What he's been able to do for our team, the things he's been doing individually on a consistent basis, night in, night out, it's not even a question who deserves it," the superstar forward, who lost Defensive Player of the Year to Giannis, said.
Ultimately, LeBron is fighting for a much more important trophy. He wants to be an NBA champion for the fourth time, and Giannis, for all of his regular-season success, is no longer in the running for that honor. If he hoists the Larry O'Brien trophy next month, any issue he has with the regular-season MVP award will likely be forgotten.