The Los Angeles Lakers began their series against the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals on Friday night by continuing their hot run, easily defeating Denver 126-114.

LeBron James entered that game knowing that Giannis Antetokounmpo had been voted as the league MVP for the second consecutive year. James was the only other player to receive a first place vote with 16. Giannis led the Bucks to the league's best record and they cruised through the regular season, often looking like the preeminent favorites to win the championship this year, so his win was certainly justified. But at this point in his career, LeBron James has earned all of the accolades that one can hope to achieve, and for him the only hardware that matters to his legacy are rings.


LeBron has helped this Lakers team navigate a deeply talented western conference by continuing to perform at a level rarely seen by an athlete in their seventeenth professional season. No player in today's NBA has a presence, especially in postseason play, like LeBron does, and during his career we have seen him in nine NBA Finals including eight straight from 2011-2018 during his time with the Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers.

Players like LeBron, Jordan, and Kobe put together compelling cases to win league MVP in virtually every season they played, but for players like that who have put themselves in the GOAT conversation, championships are the standard by which they are judged.

That isn't to say, however, that the news of Giannis' win is of no importance to James and the Lakers, it likely provided the extra motivation for the team to come out and perform like they did in Game 1 against the Nuggets. As Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray both racked up three fouls early, the game never looked in doubt for LA in the second half. In his post game press conference James was asked about the MVP voting, and surprisingly his response was very transparent about being upset by the way the votes came down.

"It pissed me off," started James, "because out of 101 votes, I got 16 first place votes," and LeBron also referenced the changes in voter criteria he has noticed during his long career, "I'm not going to sit up here and talk about what the criteria should be or what it is, it's changed over the years since I've got into the league I know that."

LeBron sounds off on receiving only 16 first-place MVP votes

LeBron sounds off on receiving only 16 first-place MVP votes www.espn.com

LeBron James explains why he was frustrated with this season's MVP voting but says he is fine now after his initial reaction.

MVP voting in the NBA does seem to vary on a year to year basis. Recently Russell Westbrook had won in the 2016-2017 season after becoming only the second player to average a triple double in NBA history. Westbrook accomplished that feat again in the following two seasons, but finished fifth and tenth in MVP voting in those seasons. James Harden, the 2017-2018 MVP, had an arguably more impressive campaign the following season averaging 36.1 points, 7.5 assists, and 2 steals per game but finished second in MVP voting, losing to Giannis last year.

NBA MVP voters do tend to play into the popular narrative when considering who to cast their vote for, and while that may leave players and fans questioning their decision there is one thing that cannot be left up to writers and that is who wins the NBA Championship.

Antetokounmpo also beat out James' teammate Anthony Davis for Defensive Player of the Year and joined Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon as the only players to win both awards in the same season. But that means that AD also went into Game 1 of the WCF with a bit of a chip on his shoulder after being overlooked for an award many thought he would win, and it showed as he put in 37 points and grabbed 10 rebounds last night.

Using the season awards losses as motivation in this series can only go so far, and ultimately they are chasing a ghost in Antetokounmpo as he and his Bucks are no longer a threat having been eliminated by the Heat already. But Davis joined the Lakers and LeBron to win a championship which never seemed like a realistic goal for him while with the New Orleans Pelicans, but in just their first year together in LA, the duo appear to be in sync and focused on achieving that goal.

For James, however, he's chasing something much different. Not only is LeBron trying to supplant Jordan as being known as the best to ever do it, but even in his second year with the Lakers, James doesn't feel completely welcomed by the fan base mostly due to their appreciation and loyalty to the accomplishments of the late Kobe Bryant. But both of those players have more rings, and LeBron haters use that as the fuel for their fiery opinions against him. James' career accomplishments are well known including four league MVP awards, three NBA Championships, three Finals' MVP's, currently owns the second best Player Efficiency Rating (PER) in NBA history, and will likely finish his career with most career points and inside the top five in assists. Not bad for a Kid from Akron.

One thing we know for sure is that a match up between Giannis' Bucks and LeBron's Lakers are something that we all want to see as basketball fans, but something we've been reminded of from this postseason is that there are no certainties in sports. There might not have been a clearer path for the teams to meet in the Finals than this season. Next year will see the return of a healthy Steph Curry and Klay Thompson for the Warriors as well as Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving for the Brooklyn Nets. Both will immediately be placed among the favorites to win next year.

The Lakers have a formidable opponent in front of them in Denver and cannot afford to give this resilient Nuggets team an opening to come back like in the Jazz and Clippers' series. If LeBron is able to win his fourth NBA Championship this year it will put him within realistic reach of getting his fifth to draw even with Kobe and maybe quiet some of the Laker faithful that still refuse to bow to the King. But that is yet to be seen.

No matter the number of rings LeBron finishes his decorated career with, the mark he has made on this league is indelible, and as the number of superstars in the league continue to grow they all have their eyes on the throne. Although LeBron lost out on adding a fifth MVP award to his trophy case this year, he has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that when it comes to winning-time basketball he is still King of the hill and everyone else might just have to wait until he decides it's time to go home for Giannis or anybody else to take his spot.

Bogdan Bogdanovic

USA Today

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