Different season. Same old King James. Lebron has cemented his place at the top of basketball and once again, he’s a frontrunner in the MVP race as he guides the defending champs to an improbable repeat.
It took a miracle and vintage Lebron to win the title last year and it seems that his classic engine is showing no signs of rust even as he rounds off his 14th season – yes, you read that right – in the league. It’s incredible just to spend 14 years in the NBA alone, but to be one of the top 5 players in the league for a decade or so is simply preposterous. When you’re chasing the ghost of arguably the greatest player to play the game however, these things are simply milestones along a journey that has a much higher summit.
Lebron is averaging at least 25 points, 6 boards, 6 assists and 1 steal for the 13th consecutive season since his rookie year, yet sometimes it easy to overlook just how amazing he consistently is. He’s having a career year with highs in assists and rebounds – 26.3 points, 8.5 boards, 8.7 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.6 blocks, .544 FG%, and .367 3P FG% – despite a drop in usage rate (30.1%), the lowest since his sophomore year in the league, and looks every part the same player we’ve come to expect over the past decade. It’s befuddling to think that’s he’s been a forgone exclusion in the MVP race the past few years since winning his last Maurice Podoloff trophy with the Heat in 2013 and it’s definitely pleasing that he’s rightfully back in the conversation.
The Playoffs are upon us and with it, the unleashing of that certain mythical beast – Playoff Lebron. That point scoring, dime dropping, board grabbing, steal getting, block artist who keeps on giving until the battle is won or the buzzer sounds. It’s a gladiatorial spectacle when James goes to work in the Playoffs, the kind matched only by the actual ‘fight to the death matches’ that happened in the Coliseum. The ability to turn it up a notch when the stakes are highest has however proven to be his blessing and curse. With everyone expectantly awaiting an unrestrained Lebron in the playoffs, his regular seasons performances have largely gone under the radar the past few seasons even though he’s been at the top of Eastern Conference since 2012.
This year, injuries and a stuttering Cavs have managed to shine light on his stellar work all season long. The Cavaliers outscore opponents by 8.2 points when he’s on the floor and get outscored by 9 with him off it according to Basketball Reference. That’s a net rating of 17.2 points – the best mark among all MVP front runners. They’re a top 3 offense when he’s on the floor and have the league’s worst offense when he sits. The offensive numbers are hardly surprising, he shares the floor with two other All-Stars as well as outside shooters who exploit his ability to drive to the bucket and kick the ball out. It’s on defense however that they’ve needed him most.
The Cavs defensive struggles have been well documented this year but they’re still a top 10 defensive team when Lebron is on the floor. Given that Kyrie’s defensive frailties are still well and truly present, Kevin Love has(despite his good work) generally been an average defender and injuries have kept lockdown perimeter specialist Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith out for periods of time, it’s a true testament to his effect on defense – something we have seen severally in the Playoffs and was the cornerstone of their miracle comeback. It’s even more impressive when you consider that he faces the starters of other teams and some of the NBA’s best superstars night in, night out.
When he goes to the bench however, the Cavs defensive rating (110.1) is closer to their team average of 110.4 and they are a woeful 22nd place in the rankings. It’s the kind of strong narrative that lends credence to his MVP claims even if it does cast a dubious shadow on the team that they have to rely on him so much.
He’s in the top 10 is multiple relevant stats including points (8th), assists (6th, no. 1 among non-guard players), effective field goal percentage (8th), win shares (8th), box plus/minus (4th), and player efficiency rating (5th). His Value over Replacement Player (VORP) – a stat which measure the impact of a player if they were to be replaced with an average player at their position – is an incredible 6.8, surpassed on by fellow MVP candidates, James Harden (8.5) and Russell Westbrook (11.5!!).
However, stats often don’t tell the full story and with James, this couldn’t be any truer. The Cavaliers follow his leadership from top to bottom and Lebron almost always dictates what type of night the team will have from the tipoff. Kyrie hasn’t had the most explosive season this year and even though he’s had his nights, it’s been Lebron’s unselfishness passing and stellar defense that have set the tone for this team all season long. I might go as far as saying – “No Lebron, no party” as the Cavs are 0-6 when Lebron doesn’t suit up at all. It’s a much more compelling story when a player can take an average team to heights much higher than they were expected to reach, and so it may count against Lebron that despite shouldering so much of the load on both ends of the floor for this team, they’re underwhelming season will come to define this MVP-worthy campaign he’s put together. Make no mistake though, this season Lebron is having is definitely MVP worthy.
It takes a special kind of talent to normalize greatness to the point where we do not even give it a second glance yet that is exactly what the King has managed to achieve in his glittering career. Maybe this is year, the normalization ends, and Lebron rightly gets a 5th MVP award to go with his 3 rings. Westbrook may be averaging a triple double, James Harden might have become the reincarnation of Steve Nash and Magic put together at point guard, and Kahwi may have blossomed into a worthy face of the model NBA franchise, but yet none of those teams lose their bearings completely when their MVP sits. The impact on the team and the need for him to do it all is especially captured in a career high 11 triple doubles that he’s notched this season yet Lebron’s unselfishness wouldn’t have him chasing for more.
Winning the NBA Finals is the goal and as any superstar can testify, a solid supporting cast is the foundation for any exploits the team’s stars may accomplish. Lebron found this out most painfully in the spring of 2015 as he nearly averaged a triple double in the Finals and led both teams in points, assists and rebounds only to end up losing in 6 games. Maybe, that’s why he was not intent on burnishing what was already an impressive regular season. Maybe it was more important that his teammates get in rhythm just in time for the most important part of the year. In that case, rewarding his selflessness would be a welcome message in an age that’s starting to value hero ball just a little too much.
There’s little to be said about Lebron that hasn’t already been said. He’s a one-man wrecking machine, a freight train that combines the power of a locomotive with the deftness of a ballerina. He’s not just barrelling down the court, he’s eyeing out spaces, reading positions and constantly working towards getting his teammates in the right positions to score and his team in the right position to win.
Michael Jordan had 6 rings. Lebron James has 3. MJ won five MVP awards. Lebron already has four. He may never match the rings totals – Cleveland look shaky to defend their crown this year and their window is fast closing plus there’s that super team out West who may dominate for the next few years – but an MVP award this year is surely one step closer to that ‘ghost of number #23’ he is hell bent on chasing.