In his first stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers, LeBron James won back-to-back MVP awards, in 2008-09 and 2009-10. The next season, due partly (I assume) to backlash in the aftermath of The Decision, LeBron did not win the MVP. But then he won the next two as a member of the Heat, before relinquishing it last season to Kevin Durant.
LeBron's reign from 2008 to 2013 -- winning four MVPs in five seasons -- is pretty remarkable. Only Bill Russell had ever done that before. Think about that. Michael Jordan's five MVPs were spread over a decade. Wilt's four were spread over eight years. Kareem came close, winning five out of seven between 1970 and 1977, but even his run was interrupted twice.
The point of this history is to help illustrate that, when it comes to the NBA MVP, voter fatigue plays a role. The media doesn't like to recognize the same player over and over again. It's boring. That's why, since the media started voting, only Larry Bird has won three in a row. Arguably, Jordan should have won more than five. And LeBron almost definitely should have won five in a row, if not six.
So when a lot of media-types almost unanimously predicted he would win it before this season, I was skeptical. The fact that he had won so many recently, combined with all of the preseason hype, meant that he was not going to be judged against his peers. Rather, he was going to be judged against the absolute best version of himself, which is a pretty hard thing to live up to, athletically, for a guy who turned 30 years old.
Therefore, LeBron is probably not going to win the MVP this season. And that's too bad. Because he really should.
LeBron's numbers are good.
Any discussion about the MVP is probably going to start with individual statistics. LeBron's numbers this season weren't quite as good as they'd been in some of his past seasons, but that doesn't mean that they were bad. Here's how he stacked up against Stephen Curry, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and Anthony Davis in terms of traditional stats per 36 minutes (via basketball-reference.com):
There isn't a strong case that one player has over another, statistically. They've all had nice seasons.
LeBron turned a bad team into a legitimate title contender.
Do you remember last season? Maybe you blocked it out. Kendon wrote about it the other day, so that will help refresh your memory. The Cavs went 33-49 in a terrible conference. They had no hope. No future. They were awful.
Now they're the number two team in the East, and one of the favorites to win the title. Not just the favorites to win the weak East, they are one of the favorites to win the whole thing. Meanwhile, the team LeBron left missed out on the playoffs entirely.
Westbrook had an amazing season, but his team missed the playoffs. Davis may well be the future of the league, but his team barely snuck in. Harden has managed to carry the Rockets all season long, but they ended up only three games better than the Cavs, despite the Cavs' 19-20 start to the season. There simply isn't another player who, on his own, can transform a bad team into an elite one. LeBron has been doing it his entire career, and he did it again this season.
Curry, of course, can claim that he was the best player on a very good team -- the team with the best record in the league.
Arguably, Curry has a much better supporting cast around him. At the very least, he is surrounded by players who have played together and knew what they were doing from day one. Still, since January 15th, the Cavs were 34-9 (32-7 when LeBron played). The Warriors were 36-10.
The MVP is an award that should encompass the entire season, but if the argument for Curry is that he is the best player on the best team, consider that his team was only better than the Cavs for the first couple of months of the season. Given that the Cavs were, understandably, still finding themselves, is that really enough to base the award off of? Two months when his team excelled while LeBron's team struggled?
LeBron makes everyone around him better.
Kyrie Irving had the best season of his career. So did Tristan Thompson. So did Timofey Mozgov (since he was traded to the Cavs, anyway). J.R. Smith has suddenly become a great teammate.
All of these players deserve some credit for the growth they've shown. But it's not a coincidence that this is all happening right now.
LeBron basically plays every position.
His usage percentage this season was 32.3, the highest it has been since his last season in Cleveland. Among MVP candidates, only Westbrook's was higher. The Cavs' offense regularly runs through him. He led the team in assists. He even calls his own plays!
In addition to being the de facto point guard much of the time, he also plays in the post. And on the wing. And does whatever else he needs to do. There isn't a player in the league who is more versatile.
But LeBron took two weeks off!
This is, perhaps, the best argument against LeBron's case. Being the Most Valuable Player means carrying the team night in and night out. If this is the reason the media decides to vote for somebody else, I guess I can't fault them for that.
Unless that somebody else is Westbrook or Davis, because LeBron played in more games than either of them. It may feel different with LeBron, because of the notion that he "took time off," while Westbrook and Davis had "actual injuries."
But anybody who watched LeBron early in the season could see that he was very possibly hurt. He may well have been dealing with an injury or combination of injuries that we'll never know the full extent of. If the team had simply said he had a knee injury or a back injury and he was going to miss time, the narrative about those two weeks would have been completely different.
Either way, carrying a team is hard. It wore LeBron down. He sat out for two weeks. Then he came back, and played at an incredibly high level while turning the Cavs into a great team.
Even with all of that missed time, he only played 120 fewer total minutes than Curry this season.
The Cavs depend on LeBron more than any team depends on any player.
With LeBron, the Cavs were 50-19. Without him, they were 3-10.
According to NBA.com/stats, when LeBron was on the court, the Cavs had a net rating of 9.8. With him off the court, that dropped to -6.9, a difference of 16.7. For comparison, the difference in the Warriors' net rating with Curry on/off the court was about the same, 17.1 (LeBron's on/off numbers showed a greater difference prior to last night's games, but Curry's increased while the Cavs managed to beat the Wizards without LeBron).
Listen, I'm willing to concede that it's close between Curry and LeBron. Curry has been great, and the Warriors have been great. But without him, where is that team? Probably still in pretty good shape. Maybe not title contenders, but not bad.
Without LeBron, the Cavs would likely be garbage. With a healthy Kevin Love, maybe they would have had enough to get to the playoffs in the East. But that's not even a reasonable thought experiment, because Love wouldn't be on the Cavs if not for LeBron. So, they'd be garbage. Just like they were for the last four years.
Instead, LeBron has given them a chance to win the title. He means the most to his team. And most people still agree that he's the best player in basketball. He would mean the most to any team he happened to be on.
For me, that pretty clearly makes him the most valuable player, and thus he should win the Most Valuable Player.