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NBA Finals MVP Race: Defending LeBron James and Anthony Davis as Lakers Approach the 2020 Championship

The NBA Finals aren’t technically over. Four teams returned from 2-0 in the Final. The Heat did it in 2006 themselves. But with Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic still grappling with injuries, a 17th Los Angeles Lakers championship is starting to seem more a question of “when” than “if”. In their state of exhaustion, Heat vs. Lakers isn’t even the most exciting fight of the finals. In two games, Laker vs. Laker was the most interesting story.

Since 1969, 51 NBA champions have been crowned. In those 51 Finals Series, exactly 51 Finals MVPs were named. Not anymore. Not less. There has never been a tie or contested vote. When there are two great players in the final, someone has to lose the trophy. Yet both LeBron James and Anthony Davis clearly played finals MVP-caliber basketball against the Heat. The two best players in the series now, albeit only in silence, compete against each other as much as against Miami. Only one of them can win the prize and, through two games, it would be nearly impossible to choose between the two.

But we̵

7;ll try again. Below are the cases for both James and Davis and ultimately the selection of one of the first favorites. Note the word favorite. A winner cannot and should not be crowned until the end of the series, and although one player may maintain a small lead, it is entirely possible for the other to bridge that gap between now and the final buzzer. Without further ado, it’s time to meet the candidates.

The Davis case

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

Let’s start with the obvious: Davis was the best scorer in this series. It wasn’t close. What Davis is doing this post-season as a whole is virtually unprecedented from a historical standpoint, but it has 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 highest number of points any of them ever scored on average is Kawhi Leonard’s 17.8 in the 2014 finals. Most of them were single-digit. Davis has matched that efficiency … and he’s doing it by scoring 33 points per game.

His defensive impact can’t be quantified so simply, but virtually every stat suggests he improved his already stellar performance in the regular season. Miami is only shooting 33.3% in the unrestricted part of the paint area in the Finals and only 26.1% in the midrange. It’s not a casuality. Davis is covering so much ground and taking away so much that pretty much anything inside the arc other than a dunk was difficult. The Heat can’t find hits in his domain. LeBron remains a stellar defender, but Davis, right now, is the best defender on Earth. He also took turns to defend Jimmy Butler. The champion is small, but he kept Miami’s top player shooting 2 out of 6 in the series.

When these factors are combined, Davis has proven to be indispensable to the Lakers from a team performance standpoint. The Lakers beat the Heat by 33 points with Davis down in the Finals, and were beaten in rounds of five when he sits down. He is the only player on the roster whose absence has caused a plus-minus negative. The Lakers have done really well without LeBron in this series. When he plays, they outperformed the Heat by 17. When he sits down, they beat them by 11. This is especially important for Davis’ candidacy because James supporters will argue that much of what LeBron does is not visible in a score box. . This is a perfectly correct statement, but if it doesn’t even appear in plus-minus numbers, it at least suggests that Davis is responsible for some of his invisible contributions.

Davis’s minutes as the Lakers’ only star went so well that Frank Vogel was comfortable giving LeBron long breaks. He played just 36 minutes and 24 seconds in Game 1 and 39 minutes and 9 seconds in Game 2. These are his two lowest total minutes 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 a bit more in this series, even if the gap is negligible. Given how badly the Laker bench played without LeBron during the regular season, there was a scenario where LeBron would have to play 42-44 minutes to win big playoff games. Davis made sure it wasn’t, and in that sense, he deserves a shred of credit for producing LeBron. It helps keep him a little rested for the most important moments.

That’s not where much of LeBron’s game 1 production comes from. The Lakers entered the fourth quarter with a 24-point lead … yet James played most of the period. During that time, he racked up eight points, three rebounds and three assists on 4-for-6 shots. Davis went 0-for-2 in the period, scoring four points on free throws and collecting three rebounds, but in the competitive part of the game he was undeniably more productive. Now, in the grand scheme of things, this may just be a blip, but of course, the competitive part of the series should hold more weight than junk time.

And right now, Davis has an advantage in that regard. LeBron is doing what he always does. He’s choosing his seats, keeping trains running, and influencing the game in dozens of little ways we can’t even appreciate. But Davis is cutting the heat to pieces. It is dominating them so thoroughly on both ends of the floor that, unlike LeBron, we don’t have to wonder about the extent of its production. It’s all front and center, and if we are to believe the plus-minus numbers, that’s where these huge Laker contacts come from.

The case of James

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

LeBron may score less overall than Davis, but he is unquestionably creating more offense. In two games, Davis scored 66 points and created 18 more with assists. This is a total of 84 points generated. LeBron only scored 58 points … but created 52 more thanks to assists. That’s 110 points generated by him, and that number might even short-sell him. James also has three secondary assists against none of Davis, and Davis is also improving his shooting luck thanks to his passes. Davis has six assists, but only 11 potential assists, which means 54.5 percent of his possible assists have been converted into points. LeBron has 18 assists, but 42 potential assists. Its conversion rate is just under 43 percent. James creates 3 points with his passes. Of course, more of those bad shots, he deflates his assist numbers, but those that come in create more value for his team.

Speaking of individual creation, it should be noted that James has to work much harder for his points than Davis. Only 47.8% of LeBron’s field goals were assisted in this series. This is the lowest score of the Lakers. Davis had 61.5% of his field goals assisted, and that gap will likely widen as the series progresses. Only 28.9% of LeBron’s regular season field goals were assisted. Yet despite this huge burden, LeBron only shot the ball twice in the entire series. Davis, who touches the ball much less, has so far made four turnovers. Davis may be leading the team in scoring, but the attack still goes through James no doubt.

LeBron isn’t Davis in defense, but he’s still pretty good and deserves credit for taking Butler’s job for most of the first two games. It allowed Davis to focus on his helping responsibilities, ruining games across the pitch. In other words, James is at least partly responsible for Davis’ success on the defensive and, in one key aspect, actually overcame him. LeBron has 19 defensive rebounds in this series. Davis has 12.

Now, this is partially by design. The Lakers love to get Davis out after shot attempts to initiate the transition. But LeBron getting a live rebound has the same effect. The Lakers rely on transitioning to generate attack, as they are only the 19th most efficient midfield team in the NBA, according to Cleaning the Glass. Those rebounds matter.

And then there’s the Miami health issue. While the Heat spent much of Game 2 playing zone defense, in Butler, Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala, they still have at least a variety of wing defenders to believably throw at James. The Heat without Bam Adebayo had no solution for Davis. The two great men who took his minutes, Meyers Leonard and Kelly Olynyk, are playable defensive liabilities mainly due to offense. For a long time in Race 2, Davis’ size made him defenseless in the heat. He shot jumpers on smaller wings and scored easily in putbacks. This is a contextual advantage that LeBron didn’t have.

In short, this is LeBron’s candidacy. 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 carriers versus big men. While the two obviously work in tandem, it’s just easier for the guy who has the ball all the time to impact a game than the guy who needs to get an entrance pass first.

The verdict

It’s a problem right now. Both choices are entirely credible, and if there’s justice here, voters will gather before the series-clincher final buzz and find a way to manipulate the ballots in a way that allows James and Davis to split the prize. There could hardly be a better recognition of their shared domain.

But realistically, you need to pick a winner. Through two games, Davis deserves the minimum of edges. That’s really a 51-49 margin, but the fact that the Lakers survived LeBron’s bench minutes so comfortably is the difference here. Throughout the season, the Lakers’ only obvious flaw was how bad their attack played with James on the bench. Davis solved this problem after the season, and this was emphatically demonstrated in the Finals. It suggests growth in overall offensive value that may not be as noticeable when LeBron is on the pitch, but exists regardless of who his teammates are. The things that work when LeBron is seated are still available, and frankly, they are still happening to some degree, when he is in play, and when you factor in Davis’ otherworldly defense, he deserves a very, very subtle edge.

But that choice only represents the first two games. Davis deserves it right now, but if I had to make a prediction, James would be the wisest choice by an equally slim margin. Putting possible voter bias aside, it’s incredibly unlikely Davis will continue to shoot at the level he has had in the Finals so far simply because no one has ever done so well in an entire league series. Maybe Davis becomes first, or maybe he regresses to something closer to his regular season levels. James, meanwhile, is playing more sustainably, and if only some of the shots he creates for his teammates start to drop, he could push him into triple double territory for the series. There isn’t much difference between nine and 10 assists, but that number of rounds helps to show what difference there is in their way of directing.

Ultimately there is no wrong answer here, at least not so far. LeBron and Davis were equally spectacular, and no matter who eventually brings home the trophy, the underdog will have a serious reason for the mantle of “greatest final performance ever for not giving up the MVP”.

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