It’s a trophy that gets discussed but nobody quite puts a focus on it like Mike James of AS Monaco. Emmet Ryan writes about how James is the fire that makes discussing the MVP of Euroleague Basketball worthwhile
Every year it feels like we have this discussion. Every year the answer seems to guarantee one thing. Mike James will be at the top of the Euroleague MVP discussion but he won’t win it. This season, it feels a little different.
All that noise
Before diving into the case for Mike James as Euroleague MVP for this season, or his past cases, let’s not forget pre-season. There was a lot of noise around Mike James and most of it wasn’t sought by the man himself.
AS Monaco made a marquee signing in the summer in the form of Kemba Walker. It was a big splash for the club, signing a four time NBA All Star. Out of seemingly nowhere, Mike James was not the biggest name on his own roster. Indeed, it looked like he may not even be the guy on his own team.
There were also rumours that somebody would come in big for him. Olympiacos was the name most often mentioned. Even in my wildly distracted mental state at the time, I couldn’t avoid the what would happen to Mike James debate.
Mike James took all of that noise and decided to not bother letting it get to him. If Kemba Walker wanted his spotlight, he’d have to take it. Mike James was all about proving he’s still the man, both at AS Monaco and in Euroleague.
Even in a comparatively quiet evening on Friday in Istanbul, by his standards, James showed why he is different. The flow of the game meant that, even with 6 of 14 shooting, he was taken away from the heat of the action more than usual. Still, he tallied 16 points and proved vital when it mattered in an 80-78 victory over Anadolu Efes.
Walker’s impact has been an afterthought. If anything, he’s about ready to be chalked up as a bust in Euroleague. For all of his success Stateside, Walker is only averaging 4.5 points and 12 minutes a game. The story never became one about him vs Mike James. It was always what we knew it to be, Mike James vs the World.
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This is probably the best roster Mike James has ever had to work with in Euroleague. There’s certainly an argument for the Baskonia team he was on that made the 2016 Euroleague Final Four. The Mike James as Euroleague MVP talk hadn’t really started back then. That team belonged to Ioannis Bouroussis on the floor. James was important but he wasn’t the guy yet. At least none of us were writing that.
That really began the following year, where he was the clear leader for an under strength Panathinaikos team. A stint with them again after trying his hand in the NBA reminded everyone of who he was.
It has however been in his most recent seasons, at a time when he should be declining as a player, that the case for James as MVP has become most evident. It took playing some extraordinary basketball in his prime through troubled situations to really get there.
Brilliance in the wilderness
If a player puts up fantastic numbers but his team doesn’t want him, does it make a…no that analogy doesn’t even begin to work. Ignore that. The run of Mike James from the 2018-19 season through the 2020-21 campaign is bizarre.
There was a pandemic during the back half but it was still wild. He won the Alphonso Ford trophy for the first time that first campaign. His 19.8 points per game (ppg) came with 6.4 assists (apg) and 3.8 rebounds (rpg). Those are MVP calibre numbers but he posted them on a team that was disappointing. James still made the All-Euroleague second team but his 14-16 Olimpia Milano side missed out on the playoffs. Then they brought in Ettore Messina. This should have been the kick start to a potential MVP campaign.
It was, just not in Milan. Messina made it clear that he felt there was no room for James. It was bizarre then and it still is now. No matter, he went to CSKA Moscow where things never seemed to gel off the court. It was a two year countdown to James eventually leaving but his numbers still impressed.
His 21.1 ppg came with 4.3 apg and 3.3 rpg in the first season. There were no end of season awards because of the pandemic. He came back went 19.3 ppg, 5.7 apg, and 3.1 rpg before bolting to the Brooklyn Nets to end his unhappy time in Moscow.
The real cases
There was a lot of noise around the case for Mike James making a run at Euroleague MVP before he landed with AS Monaco. The biggest shot so far undoubtedly came two seasons ago. The odds were always going to be against him.
A loaded FC Barcelona team was led by a returning Nikola Mirotic who ended up claiming the season’s top honour. James was named to the All-Euroleague first team but it felt like he was denied his true right. That season was sumptuous from the AS Monaco man. The numbers weren’t all that different to the prior years, 16.4 ppg, 5.8 apg, and 3.2 rpg, but the impact was unmistakable.
No man looked more capable of entering a takeover mode when it mattered in Euroleague that year than Mike James. He put the V in Euroleague MVP and it felt like he would soon get his. A magical all-round year from Sasha Vezenkov denied him last season but, probably a bigger slight to him, he was only on the All-Euroleague second team.
He defies time because it is his time
As I mentioned earlier, by normal standards Mike James should be declining. He’s 33 now and past what should be his absolute peak years. Yet he looks set to win his second scoring title this season, unless Markus Howard truly gets hot late, and is still playing his game.
This is a man who believes in his first step with the right to do so. Through 23 games, he’s averaging 19.2 ppg, 5.4 apg, and 4.3 rpg. All of this while having less reason to need to take over games, as Elie Okobo and Jordan Loyd are both delighting for AS Monaco this season.
It’s clear that winning Euroleague MVP matters to Mike James. He’s not shy about his views in life and wants the respect he feels he has been denied. There’s some merit to his case. Only an unforeseen injury will deny him the all-time Euroleague scoring record this season yet his only awards beyond that scoring title are two second team and one first team selection for the All-Euroleague team.
That might seem low but getting multiple awards in Euroleague is quite difficult. Only one man can claim more than one MVP award for example. James however wants no excuses, he wants the glory. A championship with AS Monaco matters, obviously, but his hunger for MVP makes him compelling.
So, will he win it?
As things stand, this feels like a two horse race for Euroleague MVP. James is one of them and the other is Facundo Campazzo. The numbers for Campazzo lean heavily on his assists, 6.9 per game, and him being seemingly the best player on the best team in Euroleague this year.
Beneath James in PIR, the alternative to PER used in Europe, are two men who feel like Mike James in years past. Shane Larkin, who was denied a MVP by the pandemic, and Chima Moneke are both having great seasons on teams that probably won’t be packing their bags for Berlin and the final four.
Injuries aside, this really does feel like it there to lose for Mike James. Sure, this time, he’ll get the recognition he lusts for. As things stand, he’s got my vote.