Before the Lakers' 126-114 Game 1 win over the Denver Nuggets to tip off the Western Conference finals, the league announced the MVP voting for the 2019-20 season on Friday, and James came in second to the Milwaukee Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo.
It was the fourth time in his 17-year career that the Lakers' star finished as the runner-up for the league's most prestigious individual award, tied with Jerry West and Larry Bird for most all time.
"Pissed me off. That's my true answer," James said after pumping in 15 points with 12 assists in the series opener. "It pissed me off, because out of 101 votes, I got 16 first-place votes. That's what pissed me off more than anything.
"You know, not saying that the winner wasn't deserving of the MVP. But that pissed me off. And I finished second a lot in my career, either from a championship, and now four times as an MVP."
James was referencing his NBA finals record of 3-6, a winning percentage that often gets brought up as the first thing separating him and Michael Jordan, who was 6-0 in the championship round.
It was James' closest second-place finish, with 209 MVP voting points separating him and Antetokounmpo. In 2017-18, he finished 227 points behind James Harden. In 2005-06, he ended up 236 points behind Steve Nash. And in 2013-14, he was 341 points behind Kevin Durant.
James, 35, has won league MVP honors four times in his career (2009, '10, '12, '13).
"I never came into this league to be MVP or to be a champion," James said. "I've always just wanted to get better and better every single day, and those things will take care of itself. But some things is just out of my hand and some things you can't control. But it pissed me off."
James took aim at the undefined criteria for the award, which leaves voting up for interpretation. The NBA's annual awards are voted by a global panel of 100 media members from across print and broadcast journalism, plus a single fan vote.
"I don't know how much we are really watching the game," James wondered aloud about the panel.
"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 gotten into the league," he said. "Sometimes it's the best player on the best team. Sometimes it's the guy with the best season statistically. Sometimes ... I mean, you don't know. You don't know. But you know, Giannis had a hell of a season; I can definitely say that."
Antetokounmpo, 25, won his second straight MVP, doing so in similar fashion to James' first two MVPs: His team led the league in regular-season wins but flamed out in the playoffs.
Antetokounmpo also was named Defensive Player of the Year this season, joining Jordan (1987-88) and Hakeem Olajuwon (1993-94) as the only players to win that award and MVP in the same season.
James finished second to Marc Gasol for Defensive Player of the Year in 2012-13 -- the year James won his fourth MVP -- and he said it still perplexes him.
"I had a chance to be Defensive Player of the Year and also MVP in the same season," James said. "And that year Gasol was Defensive Player of the Year, but he made second-team All-Defense, OK. So that doesn't make sense. It's like being MVP of the league but you make second-team All-NBA. That's when I really started to look at things kind of like differently. I was like, how does that even make any sense?"
Unsurprisingly, James' teammates took up his case for the award after the game too.
"He deserves it," Anthony Davis said. "What he's been able to do for our team, the things he's been doing individually, on a consistent basis, night in, night out, just it's not even a question who deserves it."
The numbers back up Davis' endorsement. L.A. was a plus-173 in 862 minutes with James on the court without Davis in the regular season. In the 677 minutes L.A. played with Davis on the court without James, the Lakers were a minus-29, according to research from ESPN Stats & Information.
Lakers coach Frank Vogel also advocated for James.
"You guys all know how I feel about it," he said. "To me, he's the MVP of the league this year. No disrespect to Giannis. Giannis had a great season. He's a great player. What LeBron does for our team, to me, is unparalleled."
Before finishing his thoughts on the subject, James made it clear his overall focus remains on the Lakers' team success.
"I mean, I'm fine. Don't get it twisted," James said. "I'm perfectly fine. We're 1-0 in the Western Conference finals. I'm absolutely fine. So don't -- like I was pissed off at the reaction earlier when I saw it. I'm absolutely great now. I'm going back to my room, drink some wine and sleep very well tonight. Let's not get it twisted. I'm great. It's just the voting scale is a little weird to me sometimes."