Posted April 18, 2013

The Case For: LeBron James as Most Valuable Player

LeBron James, Miami Heat, Rob Mahoney
LeBron James

LeBron James is the reigning regular-season and Finals MVP. (Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images)

With the end of the regular season fast approaching, we’re taking a closer look at each award race. We’ve already hit on the Sixth Man awardMost Improved, Defensive Player of the YearCoach of the Year and Rookie of the Year. Here, Rob Mahoney examines the race for MVP.

The NBA has its share of otherworldly scorers, standout defenders and exceptional playmakers, but let’s not kid ourselves: This year’s MVP race is an open and shut case. LeBron James has made this season his own, and it’s to his great credit that there are no dark-horse alternative to his dominance of the league. He is this season’s most valuable player, and to claim otherwise would require deep-running contrarianism or blissful ignorance of the league at large.

James, it seems, is forever in the act of becoming. His march toward the title in 2012 appeared to mark his self-actualization as a player, as he engaged the Heat’s small-ball style in a way that brought out the best in all involved. The replacement of a court-clogging big man with another perimeter shooter meant that the floor was open for James to attack without compromise, and that he did — to the tune of 30.3 points, 9.7 rebounds, and 5.6 assists per game throughout Miami’s playoff run. It was a remarkable stretch, but James didn’t rest on his laurels, returning in force months later to reclaim his persistent upward trajectory. He was already the best player in the league, but this season saw him rise to wondrous new heights.

Already a fantastic passer, James advanced his playmaking supremacy this season as the chief operator of a hyper-potent Heat offense. He easily averages 7.3 assists, with his never-failing court vision allowing him to see every play through to its most logical end. Further, his cross-court passes have never been more precise, as James manufactures 2.6 three-pointers per game by way of his assists alone (not to mention his other feeds that wind up uncredited due to a swing pass) — a mark that is tied for the league lead, according to Hoopdata. Precious few could make claim to being the best passer in the league, but the pinpoint accuracy of those highly difficult passes makes James a convincing choice.

When he’s not setting up others, James is finishing plays himself, whether as an unstoppable dribble-drive threat or an increasingly unshakable jump shooter. That one-time weakness (shooting) has become a corresponding strength; James has evolved from a handle-or-cut option into the fifth-best spot-up option in the league (52.8 percent shooting on spot-ups overall, 46.5 on spot-up three-pointers), according to Synergy Sports. James once aimed to heighten his scoring efficiency by curbing his three-point attempts, but that script has since flipped, with him now limiting his off-the-dribble attempts. That evolution has only made the combination of James and Dwyane Wade even more potent, as James can now open the floor for his teammate in the same way that the overall offense opened for him last spring.

One can trace a similar web of influence all across the floor, where James has unmatched command of the game and upholds massive levels of production while making things simple for every member of the Heat. It’s by James’ broad skill set that Chris Bosh is able to ply his trade as an astoundingly efficient shooter, that Mario Chalmers’ inconsistencies are managed and that Ray Allen’s defensive deficiency is swept away. It’s through James’ offensive versatility that Shane Battier becomes an X-factor rather than a mere role player. James’ talents balance out Battier’s so perfectly that the two can function as an ideal forward tandem. His is the game that makes everything work — be it in transition, half-court defense or the other mechanisms of the game that power the best team in the NBA.

We can try our damnedest to evaluate James quantitatively, but even that effort only takes us so far. Even in a league where excess is admired, James’ brilliance shines through most evidently in his restraint. He could claim the NBA scoring title if he were so inclined, but behind each of his on-court decisions is the knowledge of those shots not forced and those mistakes not made. In that, James not only toes the line between high-usage influence and incredibly efficient play that every star should strive for, but he also teases the latent potential of which we can only dream. As good as James and the Heat are, the wrinkles in their efficiency suggest they could be even better behind a maxed-out James embracing the outer reaches of his game. The postseason may be just the setting necessary to awaken that borderline-scary dimension of James’ performance, but then again the Heat may find no challenger worthy of that extra gear. LeBron, and the Heat, are simply that far ahead.

And so we open the case for this season’s MVP award only to promptly shut it. We can certainly celebrate the likes of Kevin Durant or Chris Paul, each having an outstanding season, and I’d encourage you to laud their exploits. But even calling those outstanding talents “MVP candidates” seems to denote an open competition for this award that simply does not exist.

My full fake ballot for this year’s MVP:

1. LeBron James, Miami Heat
2. Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder
3. Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers
4. Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat
5. Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies

14 comments
leehwgoc
leehwgoc

Folks complaining about Bryant's exclusion from serious consideration:

Right or wrong, the league MVP award is traditionally only for the best players on *THE BEST TEAMS*.

Lakers fans reflexively struggle with coming to grips with this since they are so used to different circumstances, but the reality here in 2013 is that the Lakers are not in that category.  And afterall, if Kobe is really so good, then why have the Lakers still only been a mediocre team, even with help from the best center in the game (people hate on Howard, but that's still true) on his team?

The only thing I really disagree with is Wade's inclusion in the discussion.  Seriously, Mahoney, he's Scottie Pippen to LeBron's Jordan these days.  And that's very respectable, but it also automatically removes Wade from even hypothetical MVP consideration.

AaronDunckel
AaronDunckel

You're spot on with LeBron - a dominant season in all facets, both on and off the stat sheet


Where you're off, Rob, is with some of your other choices

Im no NY or Lakers fan, but leaving off Bryant AND Carmello Anthony?   D-Wade has been a beast, and fills his role beautifully, but not at an MVP level... and Marc Gasol has had a spectacular season, but no way hes been more important to his team than Kobe or Carmello


I understand your choices for 1-3 perfectly.... but to not have Kobe or Carmello on the list AT ALL... is just ridiculous... Carmello has been the heart and soul of a top3 team in the East, and is on track to be scoring champ.  Kobe is 3rd in scoring and has been the only semi-sure thing in a tumultuous season in Lakerland


Lebron James
Kevin Durant
Chris Paul
Carmello Anthony
Kobe Bryant

StevenKatz
StevenKatz

You might be right?  but your list is a joke! this bias list makes me question your eye, where is Kobe Bryant on your bogus list?  they guy carried the Lakers all year he looked at times like MJ. his  game in Portland was nothing short of amazing 48 points on the road a do or die game for the road weary Lakers a Back to Back game as well and he did not sit! no he dose not have D Wayde or Chris Bosh to kick it too or even Ray Allen, it seems you don't follow the game enough to see reality or you just don't watch enough NBA,  where do live Miami? 

OK
OK

ESPN and The Queen's Personal Public Relations Staff in Bristol, CT have already given the MVP to The Queen.

Yawn.

PM630
PM630

There are a lot of great players who live in Lebron's shadow.  We'll all feel bad for Carmelo Anthony in a few years, when he finishes out his prime being known as the Clyde Drexler to Lebron's Jordan.

Guany01
Guany01

@StevenKatz For some strange reason during this season, people seemed to forget that kobe is one of 4 hall of famers on the lakers?! why is it acceptable for them to crawl into the playoffs in the 8th seed? because at times some guys were hurt? name one player on the cleveland team lebron took to the finals.. kobe has more than enough around him and chose to chase history as a scorer, for the first half of the season. he can be an after thought for mvp, but not top 3 at all. Lebron, kd and cp3 all Lead their teams better

AaronDunckel
AaronDunckel

@StevenKatz Kobe has been solid - he'd be 5th on my ballot, ahead of Wade - who would be off.  But comparing him to LeBron this year, dude thats just nuts


its not even close for #1.. you can argue for him to be on the list... but not #1

TedCikowski
TedCikowski

@StevenKatz Kobe Bryant lead the NBA in missed shots and turnovers committed for much of the year, he shot the Lakers out of several games and was one of the worst defenders in the NBA. He did have some superb games as well but you are brushing off his game against Atlanta where he shot 11 for 33 and 1-5 in the final two minutes or his very next game where he against shot 1 for 5 in the final two minutes. Check the efficiency ratings, Lebron was far and away #1 and Kobe was not in the top 5. And you can't "carry" a team when you are fighting to get to the #8 seed on a team with the most coveted center in the NBA and a power forward who made the last four all star games and a hall of fame point guard - sure there were inuries but they weren't very good even when all were healthy. 

leehwgoc
leehwgoc

@TedCikowski @StevenKatz

"Kobe Bryant lead the NBA in missed shots and turnovers committed for much of the year, he shot the Lakers out of several games and was one of the worst defenders in the NBA."

Lakers fans just don't get this.  Bryant is a guy who consistently pads his stats with VOLUME shooting.  But it's efficiency that more often actually wins games.

Besides, if we're going to consider the best player on a bad/mediocre team as worthy of MVP consideration (which, traditionally, the award doesn't), then why aren't you arguing for John Wall to be on the list, hmm?


OK
OK

@AaronDunckel

Wanna a little cheese with your whine for The Queen?