LeBron James has received a ton of scrutiny in his first season back with the Cleveland Cavaliers. From vines highlighting indifferent defense, to tepid endorsements of coach David Blatt; from persistent questions about a decline in athleticism and missed game action to reduced shooting percentages, it's been a bumpy ride.
The Cavaliers have underwhelmed as a whole. Even in the midst of a six game winning streak, the Cavs stand just 25-20 and would be the fifth seed in the East. James has already missed more games than he has in any season in his career, and his shooting numbers are uniformly down from last season. We now know he played the first two months of the season banged up before shutting it down for a bit. His true shooting rate is down six points. After putting together this insane shot chart last year in Miami
he now is putting together this merely incredible one in Cleveland so far.
But here's the thing. James has still been fantastic, and since returning from injury continues to build momentum. Cleveland is outscoring opponents by just .9 points per 100 possessions this season. When LeBron James plays, though, the Cavs are beating teams by 7.1 points per 100 possessions. Cleveland is getting beat by 9.5 points per 100 possessions when he sits. He's really good.
Counting stats confirm it. He's second in the NBA in points per game, trailing only James Harden. He's 9th in assists, and hasn't had stable rotations or consistent running mates outside of Kyrie Irving to build a ton chemistry with. The Cavs give up 103.1 points per 100 posessions when he plays, which would put tie them with the 76ers for 14th best defense in the league. Their defense just isn't that bad when James plays.
The qualities voters look for in the Most Valuable Player award tend to change, sometimes arbitrarily. James will certainly get docked in the eyes of some for his body language and attitude. I think that this is probably pretty silly. We don't know what's going on behind the scenes or what James and Blatt have going on. We do know that Kyrie Irving says this is the closest team he's been on. We do know that Kevin Love has been saying all the right things all year long about sacrifice (and by the way, he keeps doing the little things to help the team win). And there are plenty of positive things between Blatt and James that aren't getting attention.
But I'll focus on two players that James is making better. The first is Kyrie Irving. Many wondered coming into the season how the two ball dominant players would co-exist. Would Irving be able to take a backseat? The answer is yes, and he deserves a lot of credit for it. But James does too. Irving's usage rate with LeBron on the floor is 20.8% and the Cavs are scoring a ridiculously good 113 points per 100 possessions. The Cavs defense stabilizes, and Irving has a better true shooting rate and assist to turnover ratio. These guys are complementing each other and putting a ton of pressure on opposing defenses.
The second player is Tristan Thompson. We all know that Thompson has trouble (read: can't) creating offense for himself, but having a world-class creator like James has unlocked him quite a bit. James has done this with players before, so it's important to give credit to both players. With James on the floor, Thompson's true shooting rate jumps 9.2 points. With James and Thompson sharing the floor, the Cavs are giving up just 101.9 points per 100 possessions, which would rank 12th in the NBA for the season.
James is going to find himself in more and more of these conversations if the Cavaliers continue to play well. His case is bolstered by the fact that the Cavs struggled so much while he was out. And it's important to note that the team didn't just struggle because he missed time. The team was playing without a functional third big before the trade for Timofey Mozgov. Shawn Marion missed games while James was absent, meaning the team was left without a single functional small forward.
Excuses and team deficiencies aside, this is a Cavs team that should win a bunch of basketball games between now and early summer. James is going to be the most valuable player team for a team that still has all of its goals in front of them. LeBron as the Most Valuable Player? You better start talking about it.
All stats used in this article courtesy of nba.com/stats.