2020 Finals MVP
(Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

This wild roller-coaster of an NBA season is potentially a mere 48 minutes of basketball away from its long-anticipated conclusion. The Los Angeles Lakers, holding a 3-1 lead over the Miami Heat, only need to take care of business in game 5 to let the champagne flow. A 3-1 lead – as LeBron James knows better than most – isn’t insurmountable. That being said, Miami faces almost impossible odds to snatch games 5, 6, and 7.

As we stand, who would be the favorite for the Bill Russell Trophy as Finals MVP?

Let’s make a bold claim here: If the Heat can do the impossible and somehow steal this championship, Jimmy Butler will have to produce the greatest Finals MVP showing in league history. His monumental Game 3 set a standard that he’ll probably have to reach every game from here on out for the Heat to pull off the upset.

However, the most likely outcome is a Lakers championship, with the Finals MVP going to one of their two superstars: LeBron James or Anthony Davis. Coming into game 5, which Laker has their nose in front?

The case for LeBron James:

James is averaging 27.8 points, 11 rebounds, and 8.5 assists with 54/36/81 splits. An average finals series for LeBron. That’s the ludicrous standard to which LeBron is held. Sure, the 35-year-old has slipped defensively, as Jimmy Butler’s herculean game 3 demonstrated, but, astonishingly, James is still able to do what he’s doing on the biggest of stages, 17 seasons into his career.

His move to point guard this season has seen him shoulder as much offensive burden as he has since his first stint in Cleveland, even though his raw scoring numbers are not quite the same. He is simply the only consistent playmaker on this Lakers team. Sure, Davis can score, but he’s not exactly Nikola Jokic – or even Bam Adebayo – from the elbow.

The resurgence of Playoff [Rajon] Rondo has been delightful, though he’s coming off the bench for a reason. Rondo’s been great in patches, but he’s at a different stage of his career now (the fact that we can say that when he’s 15 months younger than LeBron is another feather in James’ cap). The stat that best encapsulates James’ play-making responsibilities in comparison to AD is this: LeBron has created 94 points from assists in this series; Davis stands at 34.

Through this series, LeBron is leading the Lakers in points, boards, and assists. In the entire history of the league, that feat has only been achieved five times: Magic Johnson in 1987, Tim Duncan in 2003, and LeBron with the Heat in 2012 and 2013 and 2016 with the Cavaliers. Every time, that player won the Finals MVP. Assuming that LeBron is still in that position whenever this series reaches its conclusion, this is undoubtedly the closest a teammate will come to breaking that run.

With the greatest respect to Davis’s efforts in these finals, it’s hard to make a convincing argument that players aren’t their teams most valuable when they lead in points, rebounds, and assists. It’s incredibly challenging to make that claim when LeBron has been so unerringly consistent. James has scored no lower than 25 points, rebounded no less than nine times, and never accrued less than eight assists – they’re his worst game by game numbers.

As always, LeBron James is hard to argue against.

The case for Anthony Davis:

In looking at AD’s case for Finals MVP, we’re ultimately considering two things:

  • The value of defense against offense.
  • How much do you penalize Davis for a sub-par Game 3?

Defensively, Davis has been ahead of James this series. Game 4 demonstrated that as clear as day. After Jimmy Butler bullied – yes, bullied – LeBron on his way to a 40 point triple-double in Game 3, Davis took on much more of the responsibility of guarding Miami’s offensive catalyst in game 4. Butler still posted a solid boxscore, though the eye test told a different story. Whereas in Game 3, Butler was able to shoulder barge his way into the paint for an array of layups, pullups, and turnarounds, he was hampered continuously and forced to kick the ball out in the last game. He could get downhill on Davis, though AD’s superior length and athleticism proved too big a hurdle for Butler at the rim.

The Heat offensive rating was a paltry 92.5 with Davis on the floor in Game 4. For the 6 minutes that he sat, that ballooned to 183.3! That is some small sample size in those numbers, but it demonstrates the impact Davis had on Miami and Butler, especially. Watching the game, it was apparent how easily Butler could get to where he wanted against James or whoever switched onto Butler – he pummelled poor Markieff Morris.

Defensive dominance generally doesn’t equate to a Finals MVP, though we’ve seen both Kawhi Leonard (2014) and Andre Iguodala (2015) claim the prize for their defense, primarily on LeBron. Davis is infinitely more productive offensively than Kawhi or Iggy were in their Finals MVP campaigns.

To the second point: does AD’s no-show in Game 3 matter?

Frankly, if AD played to his regular standards in Game 3, we’ve probably already witnessed the Lakers claim the Larry O’Brien Trophy in a sweep. That Heat win might not matter to the overall result, but in as far as assessing an MVP in a seven-game series, it comes into consideration.

Davis spent game 3 in foul trouble, posting a substandard 15/5/3 line while playing with a disturbing lack of urgency. Frankly, it looked like he was coasting – something a finals rookie might do at 2-0 up in the series, to be fair.

Even with that down game, Davis is putting up 25.8 points, 9.3 rebounds, 4.3 assists, a steal, and 1.8 blocks, while shooting a blistering 60.6% from the floor, 54.5% from deep, and a perfect 17 of 17 from the charity stripe. LeBron has taken on the most responsibility on offense, but Davis has been majestic at that end as well. Combined with this usual stellar defense, it that enough to take the Finals MVP?

The verdict:

The on/off stats for LeBron James through four games are very surprising: Los Angeles has outscored Miami by 11 with LeBron on the floor; they’ve outscored them by 12 when he rests. That has been put forward as a solid argument for Davis’s Finals MVP candidacy. Diving deeper shows some stark shooting luck variations in those numbers, though. Miami is shooting a miserable 27.6% from behind the arc in LeBron-less minutes.

Rather than some random shooting luck, it’s perhaps best in a race this tightly contested to consider how the award is voted for. The NBA hands eleven journalists a slip of paper to make their nominations on shortly before the end of the series’s last game. That’s why you often see the Finals MVP go to the player with more memorable moments. Think of KD’s trey over LeBron in 2017, or Tony Parker’s teardrops in 2007. Arguably, Steph Curry and Tim Duncan were the better players in those series, yet it’s the moment that remains in the memory and ultimately influences the decision.

In that sense, AD has this award wrapped up, as it stands. His double play of the block on Butler and the back-breaking three-pointer in Game 4 are all caps MOMENTS.

Davis’ moments come up against LeBron’s narrative. The King is attempting to be the first player to win the Finals MVP trophy with three different franchises. Like Michael Jordan was perhaps unfairly affected by voter fatigue before him, James might suffer from a similar fate in this series.

So, who’s in the front right now? By the slimmest of margins, it’s Anthony Davis. Not for a moment does that imply that Davis is the better player for all his gifts. But in this series, he’s been a more significant influence in his team’s victories, Game 3 be damned.

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