It’s been three seasons since LeBron James won an NBA MVP award, and as recently as the end of last year’s regular season, it was fair to wonder if his MVP days were done. Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant are younger and fresher and James hadn’t even finished in the top-two of voting in the last two seasons. James was obviously still great, but the title of “basketball’s best player” had seemingly been taken from him.
Then, as you may be aware, LeBron James went on an absolute tear through the 2016 playoffs and then put together an all-time great Finals performance, averaging 29.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 2.6 steals and 2.3 blocks against the Warriors. In the process, LeBron made us all look very, very silly for even considering that any player in the league was better than him, and we all collectively kind of agreed to forget that we considered anyone else.
With his place at the top of the NBA pyramid re-secured, I’m here to make the case for why LeBron James should be the prohibitive favorite for the 2017 NBA MVP award.
Why LeBron Won’t Win MVP
Before we dive into why James should be the MVP, let’s discuss why James might get passed over.
Unfortunately for James, there’s almost no historical precedent for winning another MVP this long since a player’s last award. Wilt Chamberlain had five seasons in between his wins in 1960 and 1966, but the only player in the modern era to have three seasons in between MVP wins was Michael Jordan, who, y’know, retired in between some of those years.
Other than that, it’s never happened for any other player with multiple MVP wins. Once the new alpha dogs arrive in the league for a few years, most players don’t get back to the top of the mountain.
Another thing working against James is ironically his consistency. He averages nearly the exact same stat line ever year. You know James is going to put up some combination of 25-27 points, 6-7 rebounds and 6-7 assists every single year. Pay no mind to the fact that everyone in the league would kill for those numbers - we’ve come to just be used to lines like this, and they don’t impress us anymore, even if they should.
This older, wiser version of LeBron James knows not to kill himself in the regular season, so there shouldn’t be much of an expectation of a large stat jump unless his broken three-point jumper suddenly fixes itself. The Cavaliers as a whole don’t exactly put their best performances on in the regular season, and are justified in doing so after last year’s title win, but it’s hardly great resumé material.
Luckily for James, a player’s stats aren’t the only factor in an MVP vote, and all the narratives are lining up in James’ favor.
Why LeBron Will Win MVP
We’re re-appreciating the King: As I mentioned earlier, I think we’re all a little sorry for writing James off as the NBA’s best player, and he’s certainly reclaimed the throne. With the concept of “value” being as nebulous at it is, having the perception that he’s the best player in the league will earn him a ton of votes out of hand.
Curry’s Voter Fatigue: Stephen Curry is unbelievable, but there’s just almost no chance he three-peats as MVP. There’s only been three such instances in NBA history, and with Kevin Durant taking some of Curry’s volume from him, it’s unlikely he pulls off the third consecutive win.
Durant Backlash: Kevin Durant can call up LeBron to talk about how the media feels about you after a controversial move to join a super-team. James absolutely had a stronger case for the 2011 MVP over Derrick Rose, but the combination of the Heat being totally reviled and a nice narrative in Chicago burned James, and he didn’t take home the hardware. Durant could be in for a similar backlash.
Curry/KD Cannibalization: It’s fair to expect Durant and Curry to eat into each other’s production, and that’s not actually a bad thing for the Warriors success. KD and Curry will get easy looks for one another, but it’s only reasonable to expect their individual volumes of production to drop as they account for one another on the court.
Top Seed Requirement: Russell Westbrook is a hot name, and is actually the co-favorite alongside LeBron for MVP honors at +300 at Sportsbook.ag, but unless he somehow drags the Thunder to a top-two seed, he’s out of luck.
MVPs, by team wins and overall league seed:— Adithya (@brownasthenight) September 29, 2016
16: 73 (1st)
15: 67 (1st)
14: 59 (2nd)
13: 66 (1st)
12*: 57.2 (4th)
11: 62 (1st)
10: 61 (1st)
09: 66 (1st)— Adithya (@brownasthenight) September 29, 2016
08: 57 (3rd)
07: 67 (1st)
06: 54 (4th)
05: 62 (1st)
04: 58 (2nd)
03: 60 (1st)
02: 58 (2nd)
01: 56 (2nd)
00: 67 (1st)
As our friend Adithya here proves, unless you have a top-four team in the entire league, you just have no chance to win. Superstars can affect their team’s success to an insane degree in the NBA, so it makes some degree of sense that the winners of the MVP awards are on the best teams, even if it is unfair to some very good players on awful rosters. For this reason, you can almost certainly disqualify players like Westbrook, James Harden, Paul George and Anthony Davis.
East Contenders Don’t Have Blue Chippers: Having established that, if a non-LeBron MVP is to be named, it likely won’t be a player from the Eastern Conference. Most projections have either the Celtics or the Raptors as the two seed in the conference, and with all due respect to Kyle Lowry, neither team has a super-duper star on an MVP-level plane. Both teams are very good, but Lowry or Al Horford almost certainly won’t be taking any awards from LeBron.
CP3 and Blake Will Split the Vote: The Clippers are a hot pick to finish with the second-best record in the West, and that could very well lead to buzz for either Chris Paul or Blake Griffin for MVP love. The issue for the Clippers is that if they do make such a leap to a two-seed, it’ll require monster seasons from both Paul and Griffin in equal measure. That’ll make it hard for one to stand out to the point that they will take home MVP honors.
Spurs/Warriors Regression: The Spurs and Warriors had absolute dream seasons last year. The Spurs won 67 games and the Warriors won 73, which helped propel Stephen Curry and Kawhi Leonard to finishing first and second respectively in the MVP voting. It’s fair to expect a degree of regression for both teams, and the Warriors are already making it very clear that they’ve learned a lesson from putting too much stock in the regular season. These teams will likely win less game next year than they won the year prior, and it’s going to look like regression, even if there isn’t much loss in the actual quality of the on-court product.
Narrative momentum matters a lot when it comes to MVP voting. LeBron James doesn’t actually have to have a fundamentally different season than he has in the last three years to win the award because the climate is ripe for it. All other contenders for the award have easily foreseeable mitigating factors, and while James has some of his own, the path to an MVP is the clearest for James.
James made waves for his controversial response to whether Stephen Curry deserved to win MVP in 2016, and it’s clear he thinks he deserves the award every year. He’s reclaimed his status as the best player in the league, and this year, we should have every expectation he’ll take home the hardware to confirm that.