Do you remember the movie The Pianist? It’s the poignant if not particularly memorable Holocaust film that was supposed to launch a long and successful movie career for its namesake star, Adrian Brody. On March 23, 2003, he became the first (and still only) man under 30 to win an Academy Award for Best Actor. Not a bad start out of the gate.
17 years later, aside from that award, he’s best remembered as having only slightly more lines than the giant monkey in the King Kong remake (not the last one, the other one) and deftly avoiding execution throughout an entire Predator movie (not the last one, the other one). So no, things haven’t exactly gone according to plan.
Derrick Rose knows the feeling. In 2011, he became the youngest MVP in NBA history at 22 years old, yet he stands to become the only winner of the award not to make the Hall of Fame someday. Maybe there’s something to the idea of “nowhere to go but down” after all.
Regardless of the similarities here, unlike the Oscars, the annual Most Valuable Player race is absolutely a young man’s game. Despite the fact that the very best players often suit up for 15 years or more, wins by stars in their 30’s are incredibly hard to come by.
In the 64 years the trophy has been handed out, only eight times did it go to someone over the age of 30, and even that figure is a little deceiving. Half of those eight wins came during a four-year stretch from 1996 to 1999 when Michael Jordan and Karl Malone alternated victories for Chicago and Utah. Other than that somewhat anomalous stretch when many of the young stars who were supposed to carry the NBA’s torch either flamed out earlier than expected or never fully ignited, the only four over-30 champs were Wilt in 1968, Hakeem in 1994 and Steve Nash in 2006 – all 31 years old – and a 32-year-old Kareem in 1980.
So it’s more than a bit surprising that as the odds have taken shape heading into the 2019-20 season, LeBron James – who will unfathomably turn 35 in December - finds himself as a top-four favorite on most sites.
I know, I know…he’s either the greatest or second greatest player of all time, so using arguments that start with “This has never happened before!” don’t hold as much weight where he’s concerned. That said, there’s a lot of precedent he’d need to overcome
Let’s start with age. At 35, he would become the second oldest MVP ever behind Karl Malone in 1999. By itself, this isn’t terribly damning. When you combine LeBron’s greatness with the fact that, like Malone, he’s been known to keep himself in impeccable shape, a win wouldn’t seem like that much of a stretch based on age alone.
Except it’s not just based on age. Entering October, between the regular season and the playoffs, James has played over 10,000 more minutes (10,285 to be exact) than Malone had entering the 98-99 campaign. Moreover, Malone had missed just five games over his 13-year career up to that point, and never played fewer than 80 games in a season. James, meanwhile, just came off a year where he sat for 27 games with a groin injury of all things.
Would James have missed so much time if the Lakers were actually in it by the end of the year? Almost certainly not. Still, this isn’t a great sign, nor is the fact that James won’t have one massive advantage Malone did when he took home the trophy two decades ago: preparation.
You’ll remember that the 98-99 season came on the heels of a lengthy lockout that saw many players enter the year out of shape. Malone, a veteran and a notorious workout nut, had no such issue. As a result, he bested a historically thin field that saw Alonzo Mourning – a fine player but not exactly MVP material – finish second and a not-quite-there-yet Tim Duncan finish third as a sophomore.
Fast forward to now, and a distinctly different scenario is shaping up. Players are dropping like flies from Team USA to gear up for an NBA season that figures to most closely resemble The Hunger Games. A dozen teams can reasonably talk themselves into being contenders. It’s going to be a bloodbath, and there will be no shortage of players asserting themselves in what should be a tight MVP race all the way through.
On top of all that, there’s one more distinction would make a Lebron win truly unprecedented.
It’s been six years since he last took home the award. That would make this the longest drought between wins in NBA history. Throughout the 64 seasons the award has been given, only twice has a player gone longer than two seasons between victories: Wilt Chamberlain, who went five seasons between trophies in the early 60’s, and Michael Jordan, who went three. Each of those come with some caveats.
Wilt first won as a rookie who took the league by storm, demolishing the existing NBA records for points and rebounds per game. Once that shine wore off, he needed to round out his game over the next half decade before he was viewed as a more complete, MVP-worthy player. He then proceeded to win three straight.
Jordan’s explanation is far simpler. He won in 1992, lost to Barkley the following year, and then took a year and a half off before recapturing the crown in 1996.
LeBron? You’re telling me that now, for the first time since 2013, he’s poised to make a run at this thing? I wouldn’t put anything past him, nor would I be shocked if he took all of the above and used it as motivation to become the first man ever to win the award for three teams.
That being said…
There was an interesting tidbit in Wosney Lambry’s piece this week for The Athletic which runs counter to the theory that we’re about to see Beast Mode LeBron for 82 games. Regarding James’ pitch to Kawhi Leonard, Lambry – echoing a previous report by Sam Amick - had this to say:
There were several reports coming out of LeBron and Kawhi’s meeting which claimed that LeBron’s pitch was one of deference, that Lebron was looking for Kawhi to come in and be The Man. Every indication was that LeBron was more than ready to walk into the sunset of his career while letting Kawhi and Anthony Davis be the ones to lead the Lakers into a better tomorrow.
If that’s the case, going full throttle in an effort to claim one more individual accolade would seem to be the last thing on the King’s mind. If anything, it’s an indication that Anthony Davis – available at near 10-to-1 in some places – is a better bet than many of us think.