There’s Historical Precedent for LeBron James Winning His 5th MVP Despite Playing for a Losing Team
Age is just a number for the great LeBron James.
At 37 years old, LeBron is playing some of the best basketball of his career. By numbers alone, he’d be an easy candidate to win the NBA MVP award. Yet due to the season-long struggles of the 18-19 Los Angeles Lakers, James is being overlooked as a bonafide candidate.
However, even if the Lakers fail to turn things around, there’s a strong case to be made for the King still winning his fifth MVP. And he wouldn’t be the first player to win the award despite playing on a losing club.
LeBron James is putting up MVP-caliber numbers
The first half of James’ fourth season in LA didn’t go as planned. Ankle and abdomen injuries cost him 10 total games, while a brief stint in health and safety protocols and a suspension cost him an additional one game each. But from the start of December onward, the future Hall of Famer has been playing at a whole new level.
In 14 December contests, James averaged 30.7 points on 55.5% shooting from the field and 40.4% from three. He ended the month scoring 30 or more points in seven straight games, his longest such streak since 2013. The last of which came during a 139-106 win over the Portland Trail Blazers, where the new 37-year-old finished with 43 points, 14 rebounds, two steals, two blocks, and zero turnovers.
Thanks to an amazing month, LeBron now owns season averages of 28.6 points (which would place him second in the NBA behind Kevin Durant if he had enough games to qualify), 7.5 rebounds, 6.6 assists, 1.7 steals, and 1.1 blocks. Out of those five stats, only assists don’t exceed his career averages.
LeBron wouldn’t be the only player to win MVP on a losing team
Although the King is on a scorching pace that would otherwise place him in the MVP conversation, the Lakers are holding him back. While candidates like Durant, Stephen Curry, and Giannis Antetokounmpo all play for championship-caliber teams, James’ Lakers are just 18-19.
While it might seem impossible for the MVP Award to go to a player on a losing team, it has happened before.
In 1956, Bob Pettit became the first recipient of the NBA MVP Award. Pettit, who averaged 25.7 points and 16.2 rebounds, won the award comfortably despite playing for the 33-39 St. Louis Hawks. 20 years later, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won his fourth MVP Award, averaging 27.7 points and 16.9 rebounds for the 40-42 Lakers. To this day, Kareem remains the only MVP to win the award on a team that failed to reach the postseason.
Additionally, only three players won the MVP on a playoff team that won less than 60% of its games. Bob McAdoo was the first, winning MVP in 1975 on the 49-33 Buffalo Braves. Moses Malone did it twice, winning in 1979 for the 47-35 Houston Rockets and in ’82 for the 46-36 Rockets. Finally, LeBron’s new teammate Russell Westbrook won his lone MVP in 2017 after averaging a triple-double for the 47-35 Oklahoma City Thunder.
Ultimately, the Los Angeles Lakers need to turn a corner for LeBron James to have a serious MVP case
It’s somewhat encouraging to see that even if the Lakers aren’t a juggernaut, LeBron can be in the running for his fifth MVP. That being said, history also shows that the King’s chances will be significantly improved if LA digs out of its hole over the next four months.
Out of the 66 MVP winners since 1956, 42 played on the team with the best regular-season record. At this point, it’s safe to assume LA won’t be anywhere close to doing that. Still, that means LeBron can join the other 24 players who won the award based on more than their team’s regular-season record.
Given LA’s sub-.500 record and the strength of other candidates across the league, the cards are admittedly stacked against James. But in year 19, the King is as good as ever. Plus, his age makes his performance this season all the more incredible. If the Lakers were among the top teams in the West, the MVP discussion would likely be tilted in James’ favor.
If LA struggles to get on track and finishes no more than a game or two above .500, one can still appreciate LeBron’s value and acknowledge where this team would be without him. Though in all likelihood, the Lakers will need a LeBron-led surge up the standings to earn him a legitimate spot in the race.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.