Last season, I examined the two-headed MVP race between James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo through a different lens. Instead of going by statistics, wins, or even narrative, I took a page from college football and how it awards the Heisman Trophy. Sure, stats and wins matter in that discussion, too, but we often cite “Heisman moments” when making a candidate’s case—the plays, games, or incidents that stick with us and help bolster a player’s résumé.
In a season with only 12 games, these moments stand out more in college football than they do over during the NBA’s 82-game slog, but indulge me for a second: If the NBA is an entertainment product, shouldn’t its most valuable player also be its most entertaining?
This season’s race has not been as competitive as last season’s. Giannis, the reigning MVP, has only gotten better and more dominant, and his team is on pace for 70 wins. It’s hard to envision a scenario in which he doesn’t repeat. Over the past few weeks, though, LeBron James has all but cemented his second-place spot. And knowing him, he won’t be content to stop there. So, with the top two candidates facing off Friday in their second and last matchup of the regular season, here are their 2019-20 Heisman moments so far:
The Dunk on Nemanja Bjelica, November 15
I’m not sure whether this is what started LeBron’s use of the #WashedKing hashtag, but you could tell he relished this dunk because he posted about it on Instagram twice. This probably isn’t LeBron’s best dunk this season, but it was certainly impressive, and the fact that it came early in the season makes it look like a tone setter in retrospect. After not making the playoffs last year, LeBron came into the season refreshed and reenergized—and that has shown through in both his and the Lakers’ success so far.
The Instant Classic vs. Luka Doncic and the Mavs, November 1
This game was bliss. Luka and LeBron battling back and forth, trading ridiculous plays and shots in a contest that went to overtime and gave us more than we deserved. LeBron, of course, took over in overtime and won the game for the Lakers, finishing with a 39-point triple-double. This has been a running theme throughout this season: LeBron faces a younger star who could soon be ready to take the torch from him, but he holds onto it with a reminder that as long as he’s suiting up, he still has the last word. (Against Zion Williamson and the Pelicans last month, he dropped a season-high 40 points.) Really, the only young player who seems to have been able to scratch at the crown is Giannis.
The Kobe Dunk, February 6
On a physical level, this dunk was a feat of human engineering. LeBron glided through the air, seemingly cut through gravity, and somehow found the time and space to pull off a reverse windmill. The picture NBA photographer Andrew Bernstein took of the act immediately became iconic.
Year 17 pic.twitter.com/7iCOxAwK4g— NBA (@NBA) February 7, 2020
Not long after, the Lakers found video of Kobe Bryant doing the exact same dunk and matched it up with LeBron’s to give the dunk a completely new significance. It came just over a week after Kobe tragically died in a helicopter crash, and though LeBron was apparently not trying to emulate Kobe, it feels like whether the Lakers go on to win the title or not, this is the moment that will be remembered long beyond this season.
The Game-Winner vs. the Celtics, February 23
This was cerebral, clutch LeBron at his best. In a marquee game against the Lakers’ rivals, LeBron set up a long con. As he described postgame, he had been defended by Jaylen Brown for most of the night, and he spent a good chunk of that time backing Brown down and going toward the baseline. But with the game on the line, he went backward and into a long, off-balance fadeaway knowing Brown wasn’t expecting it. Swish. Game-winner. Game over.
Honorable Mention: Preseason Pass, October 16
October 17, 2019
I mean, come on.
The Statement Game vs. the Lakers, December 19
This one had it all. Both teams came into the game as the best in their respective conferences, and Giannis decided to use the stage to show that yes, he could hit 3s (five of them!), and that yes, he was coming after the King by crowning himself. In a 34-point, 11-rebound, seven-assist performance, Giannis dominated the game and helped the Bucks to a win. Postgame, LeBron tipped his cap to Giannis because, honestly, what else could he do? Part of me feels like the MVP race may as well have wrapped up in that moment.
The 50-Point Masterpiece vs. the Jazz, November 25
This was unquestionably Giannis’s best performance of the season. It’s not just the fact that he scored 50 points—his highest total so far this season—it’s that Giannis gave the Bucks a lead by scoring 16 points in the final six minutes of the third quarter and then carried them to a win by scoring 14 in the final six minutes of the fourth. This was a weekday game in the middle of November. No one would have blamed Giannis and Co. for rolling over, but he didn’t. Giannis never does.
The Block on LeBron in the All-Star Game, February 16
I know this isn’t technically part of the regular season, but you’re telling me you’re not going to remember when the All-Stars actually tried (shout-out Elam ending) and we got LeBron vs. Giannis for a few possessions? How could we possibly forget this play, when it looked like LeBron had Giannis beat, only for Giannis to pin this ball (á la LeBron) at just the moment before it became a goaltend? It was thrilling theater and also something like an unwilling passing of the torch. The symbolism was everywhere: Giannis isn’t just chasing LeBron; he’s caught up to him.
The Dunk vs. the Hornets, March 1
Oh my, Giannis! What are you doing pic.twitter.com/HZQAfN3Xo9— Michael Konygin (@gdfactoryclips) March 1, 2020
Trust me when I tell you that there are hundreds of Giannis dunks to pick from this season. It’s what he does best and most often. Watch this one in particular, though, and try to defend James Harden’s claim that dunking doesn’t take any skill. In one play, Giannis transforms from a ball-handling point guard to a wing with a killer spin move to a center with a thunderous dunk. He is gifted because of his size, but unstoppable because of his skills.
Honorable Mention: The Block on Harden, October 24
Giannis seems content to settle his and Harden’s medium-rare beef on the court.
It was more difficult to find Heisman moments for Giannis this season, and maybe that’s a valid criticism of my own rubric. But the truth is that Giannis’s consistent greatness blurs his individual acts together, creating a constant stream of highlight performances that should be appreciated even if they don’t sizzle in the same way some of LeBron’s moments do. LeBron leans into narratives and is a master storyteller—just look at his career history. Giannis, meanwhile, doesn’t seem to have any time for that. His game speaks for itself, and after this season, his two MVP awards will, too. Come Finals time, should both players make it, LeBron might be waiting for Giannis, ready to make one of his final stands. But for now, Friday’s matchup will have to suffice.