With the regular season winding down and the actual season about to begin, it’s time to give out the NBA individual awards. Just like every other year, the most discussed award is the MVP. Of course, there are the usual debates about the other awards. How has Jerry Sloan not won Coach of the Year yet? How do you compare the defense of Dwight Howard (whose defensive rebounding and shot blocking show up heavily in the box score) to someone like Shane Battier, who does a lot of stuff that isn’t reflected statistically? Is it cool that someone like Jason Terry qualifies for 6th Man of the Year when he plays more minutes than the guy he is “backing up”? All very good questions. But the MVP is the most celebrated and often most controversial award. Part of the reason is that the “V”, value, is hard to quantify. Is it the most talented player? The best player on the team with the best record? How about someone who sparks a dramatic turnaround for an organization, or fulfills a unique role on a top team? All of these are used as arguments for different people every season, and there are no easy answers.
Take last year, for example. Kobe registered a tremendous season as usual, but I don’t think it was his best individual effort. For me, his most impressive season to date was the 2005-2006 campaign, where he dragged an otherwise below average team to 45 wins. Was Kobe only now the most valuable player because he had a better supporting cast? The real difficulty is in measuring his season against, say, that of Kevin Garnett (responsible for reversing the fortunes of a historic franchise) or Chris Paul (producing one of the best statistical seasons for a point guard ever, also saving basketball in New Orleans). All these players are clearly very valuable, although in different ways. Kobe was a deserving winner, but comparing his season to Garnett’s or Paul’s has a very “apples and oranges” feel to it.
Which brings us to this year’s contest. Kobe is again logging a fantastic season on a team that looks better than last year’s incarnation. If he was deserving of the award last year, he should be this year as well. Dwayne Wade was left for dead after an injury-plagued season for the league’s worst team last year, but he has responded with a season reminiscent of Kobe’s 05-06 effort. Chris Paul continues to be the league’s premier point guard, leading the league in steals and assists, 7th in the league in points per game, all the while shooting above 50% from the floor. Dwight Howard is the anchor for the league’s most efficient defense (points allowed per possession) while becoming only the 5th player in history to lead the league in both rebounds and blocks. And that’s before you get into some of the fringe candidates, like Chauncey Billups (turning a dysfunctional offense into a well-oiled machine for the second best team in the West) or Tony Parker (keeping the Spurs afloat in spite of numerous injuries to Ginobili and Duncan). Unfortunately for all these deserving players, people who in normal years would be worthy of the award, the MVP this year is LeBron James. It isn’t even close.
By nearly any metric, LeBron James has been the best, the most valuable, the most memorable, the most whatever, player in the league this year. For starters, the Cavs have the best overall record in the league, and LeBron leads the team in every statistical category. That’s points, assists, rebounds, steals, and blocks. People want to shower all the credit on Wade for carrying an average team, and while credit is due, I think it’s far more impressive to carry the class of the league.
LeBron’s all around game is without peer, and that’s further confirmed by the stats. He’s second in the league in points per game at 28.3 points per, only trailing Wade and his 30 points a contest. But LeBron is doing it much more efficiently, with an adjusted field goal percentage (that is, taking into account his more efficient 3-point shooting) at .530 to Wade’s .516. He averages 1.43 points per shot, good for 11th in the league (compared to Wade’s 1.37). He’s 9th in the league in assists per game and first among non-guards; the only non-point guard with more assists per game is Wade, who has an inferior assist-to-turnover ratio.
His rebounding numbers are also awesome, at 7.6 per. That’s good for 27th in the league and second among small forwards; the only small forward ahead of him is Gerald Wallace, who plays for the 4th worst rebounding team in the league (which is to say, it’s easier to grab rebounds when Boris Diaw is your power forward instead of Ben Wallace and Anderson Varejao). He’s 8th in the league in steals and 23rd in blocks. Basically, the stats back up what has been obvious all year long—that he’s the league’s most complete player and has been doing everything in leading the league’s best team.
Some people want to give Dwayne Wade the MVP for the one-man show down in Miami, and granted it has been amazing to watch. However, the previous years show that LeBron could do this as well, if asked. He led the ’07 Cavs to the finals with a starting lineup that featured Sasha Pavlovic and Larry Hughes. Last year, LeBron gave the Celtics the toughest test they faced during their championship run, much more difficult than the resistance the Lakers offered. LeBron has already proven his ability to get it done as a near-solo act. Think about it this way—if you replaced Dwayne Wade with LeBron James on the Miami Heat, wouldn’t the Heat be a large favorite Round 1 against the Atlanta Hawks? Yet, the Heat are considered to be the underdog going into the playoffs. I think that is telling.
Comparisons to other players quickly fall apart. Looking strictly at wins and losses, LeBron has done more with less around him than Kobe. The Orlando Magic don’t even run their crunch-time offense through Dwight Howard, and his poor free-throw shooting remains the Magic’s most pronounced Achilles Heel. Chris Paul plays with a legit All-Star in David West, yet his team has regressed, and advancing past the first round of the playoffs would be considered a huge accomplishment. These are over-simplifications to some extent, but they do mean something. Every other candidate has some weakness, some shortcoming to point out. What in the world could you possibly say against LeBron? He’s been the most dominant player on the most dominant team. He impacts every facet of the game. The idea that he could leave the Cavs in two years is putting the whole city of Cleveland on suicide watch. What else does this guy have to do?
One final little side note. As awesome as LeBron and the Cavs have been, if anything, they will be even better come playoff time. That is because LeBron only plays 37.7 minutes a game, which may sound like a lot but is a serious reduction from last year. And since LeBron is an indestructible force of nature, it’s safe to assume that number could creep up to, say, 47.5 minutes a game. If anything, the Cavs have been holding LeBron back from what he could do statistically if they weren’t concerned about saving his energy for the playoffs.
I’m a huge basketball fan, but I’m not really a fan of any specific team. I’m more like a fan of the game, or a fan of the NBA. That said, I’m thrilled with the season the Cavs have had and what it portents for the future. LeBron James is simply too good not to appear at the top of the standings every year, too exciting to be making early exits in the playoffs. Sometimes it takes a long time for people to accept certain things that, in retrospect, seem pretty obvious. Like how someone who came into the league so hyped could actually exceed the hype. Or how someone so young could be so gifted. Or how someone already so transcendent could just be scratching the surface of his potential. This year, LeBron James should be the NBA’s MVP. Ten years from now, you’ll look back at this season and wonder how it was ever even a question.