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Los Angeles Lakers

What would it take for LeBron James to win the MVP award?

Giannis Antetokounmpo is going to win the MVP...

... or is he?

LeBron James continues to defy any realistic expectation for what should be possible by a player in his 17th season and playing at a level that once more begs the question as to how he hasn't been named the NBA's Most Valuable Player since way back in 2012-13 with the Miami Heat.

It's a streak that appears likely to continue as Antetokounmpo rampages through the Eastern Conference with a historic campaign on a team that still might reach the mystical 70-win threshold.

There's little doubt that Milwaukee's 25-year-old superstar is the overwhelming favourite and for good reason.

MORE: Who else is in the MVP conversation?

No other player in NBA history has matched his gaudy scoring, rebounding and assist numbers on a per-minute basis despite the fact that he ranks 75th in the entire league in minutes per game. Only two players in NBA history have ever scored more on a per-minute basis and OH-BY-THE-WAY, he also might win Defensive Player of the Year.

It should be an open and shut case... and perhaps it ultimately will prove to be just that.

But.

There's still enough chatter around the play of James that it begs the question as to A) whether or not he can make it competitive and B) what would it take to actually happen?

For what it's worth, Basketball-Reference's handy MVP tracker - which incorporates information from past winners to help predict the MVP winner - only has Antetokounmpo with a 57 percent chance of winning it. And though it's nearly five times the odds of anyone else, it's far from a given. James is currently second with a 13 percent chance of claiming the league's most prestigious individual honour.

There's a world in which the 13 percent plays out. Here's how it would unfold...

Friday is a must-win for LeBron

Award voters love a good narrative. And there are defining moments that can help shape said narratives and continue to fan the flames well into the future.

When the Lakers and Bucks first met back in December, both teams entered with identical 24-4 records. It was a statement game that carried as much weight as is possible for one in the middle of December.

James racked up a triple-double with 21 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists in a loss that wasn't nearly as close as the final score of 111-104 would indicate. Antetokounmpo finished with 34 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists as the Bucks opened up a 21-point lead midway through the second quarter and led by double-digits for nearly the entire rest of the game.

When voters fill out their ballots in April, they'll need a compelling case to vote LeBron ahead of Giannis. That case includes how they fared head-to-head which means that LeBron can't afford to lose once more.

If the Bucks roll once again, it's a sign that at least for the regular season, it's simply the year of Giannis.

But if LeBron is able to outplay the reigning MVP and lead the Lakers to a win, it could be the first step in a series of events that leads to a fifth MVP.

Bucks fall short of 70 wins

There have been two 70-win teams in NBA history.

The best player on both of them - Michael Jordan with the 1995-96 Bulls, Stephen Curry with the 2015-16 Warriors - emphatically won the MVP. Jordan received 109 of a possible 113 votes while Curry became the first unanimous winner in the history of the award.

Again... voters love narratives and if the Bucks win 70, Giannis will win the MVP regardless of what happens on Friday.

And yet there's doubt in Milwaukee's ability to get there.

Entering this week, the Bucks had the NBA's hardest remaining schedule when accounting for home/road and days of rest. Case in point? The 16-point loss in Miami which came on the second night of a road back-to-back against a rested Heat team playing its fourth straight home game.

Should the Bucks lose to the Lakers on Friday, they'd need to go 17-2 to finish with 70 wins against a slate that includes two games against the Raptors, two against the Celtics and one against the Rockets, Nuggets and 76ers, the latter of which isn't until April 7 by which point Joel Embiid could be back in the lineup.

FiveThirtyEight currently projects the Bucks to finish 67-15 which would be a boon for LeBron's MVP chances.

Lakers run away with the West

They don't need to catch the Bucks.

But they do need to convincingly win the Western Conference which all of the sudden is in doubt given the recent surge from the LA Clippers. The Lakers currently hold a five-game lead over the Clippers that isn't as comfortable as it might appear to be on the surface.

They still have two more games left, the first of which is this upcoming Sunday. The second one, originally scheduled for January but postponed in the wake of Kobe Bryant's death, is on April 9 which will be the last game of a back-to-back-to-back for the Lakers who will be playing their fifth game in six days.

Considering the Clippers won each of the first two meetings, it's not a stretch to imagine them finishing off the regular season sweep and making the Lakers sweat out the one seed atop the West.

If LeBron is going to catch Giannis, the Lakers need to keep the Clippers at arms length and probably win at least one of the two remaining meetings if not both of them.

Emphasis on the word "valuable"

It's the Most Valuable Player award. Not Best Player or Most Outstanding Player or Player With The Best Stats. The ambiguity of what "valuable" even means leaves open the door for James to nudge past Antetokounmpo.

LeBron's overall numbers aren't likely to change all that much.

He's going to lead the NBA in assists.

He's going to average over 25 points per game.

He might once again shoot over 50 percent from the field.

He might lead the league in triple-doubles (currently one back of Luka Doncic).

All of that is good enough and yet ultimately it doesn't really matter that much. Regardless of what he does in the box score, it won't compare to the Greek Freak who as we went over earlier is simply on another level when it comes to counting stats.

Which is why a case for James could be fueled by more advanced metrics that lean into a nuanced approach which suggest that James - not Antetokounmpo - has been the more valuable player.

With James on the floor, the Lakers are a whopping 11.4 points per 100 possessions than when he's been on the bench. In the over 900 minutes he's sat, the Lakers have actually been outscored by 10. It's not just garbage time either as the Lakers have also been outscored in the over 500 minutes that Anthony Davis has played without James.

For the Lakers to be the Lakers, they need LeBron in a way that just isn't the same for Bucks and Giannis.

LeBron and AD
Infogram

With Giannis on the floor, the Bucks have steamrolled opponents by 16.7 points per 100 possessions which is almost unthinkable. And yet due in part to Milwaukee's depth (not to mention the play of All-Star Khris Middleton), they've still managed a net rating of +5.2 whenever he's been out of the game, a figure that would rank third in the Eastern Conference behind only the Celtics and Raptors.

Take LeBron off the Lakers and they're hovering somewhere around .500. Take Giannis off the Bucks and they're still easily a playoff team in the East and maybe even one contending for home court in the first round.

Moreso than any other player, LeBron James changes the trajectory of his team. The trick is convincing voters that it's enough to warrant voting him ahead of a 25-year-old in the midst of his own historic season.

Without even venturing down the path of what LeBron has meant to the Lakers beyond basketball, which by the way adds to the narrative component and right or not will be weighed by some when sorting through it all, the fact that he's doing all of this in Year 17 further adds fuel to the 'LeBron for MVP' fire.

We may never see this again. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar finished fifth in his 17th season. That's the only other time in NBA history that a player cracked the top five in Year 17 or later.

It's truly an amazing story. After missing the playoffs for the first time in over a decade and ending a run of eight straight trips to the NBA Finals, James bounced back beyond our wildest imagination, engineering a return to contender status for one of the league's marquee franchises.

It's a script perfect for Hollywood and has been proven time and again, that matter when it comes to winning awards.

So that's it.

That's LeBron's path to winning the MVP.

Is it likely? Of course not.

But never say never.

The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.

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