LeBron James should still be the top candidate for next year's MVP. I understand why everyone in Ohio will hate LeBron James forever. I also understand why the rest of the league's fans north of the 30th parallel hate him now. What is a little more perplexing is why he is apparently out of the MVP race that technically won't begin for another three months.
The reigning back-to-back MVP is without question the most skilled, most versatile player in the league, but if you look at what's happened so far this month, you'd think he was about to have knee surgery. The Bleacher Report has decided he's only the #3 candidate for the award, falling behind Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant. The betting site Bodog places the odds on James' MVP three-peat at 9-to-2, again third behind KD and KB and just ahead of Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony (?), and the field (any player not on their list of 14). Yahoo! has decided that James is only the fifth most deserving candidate, slipping behind Bryant, Durant, Dwight Howard, and Dirk Nowitzki.
Yes, he's joining a Miami team that already has a superstar, but we need to keep our heads about us because James is still the most valuable player in the NBA.
A player who is valuable is one who can improve the fortunes of their club. Glory stats like points and rebounds are great, but I think most fans are on board with linking a player's value to his ability to make a club better than it would be without him; that's why MVP's are usually selected from the top teams. Everyone outside of Boston's locker room is picking the Heat to win the East, and most are saying they'll lift the Larry O'Brien Trophy next June, two things no one was predicting for the Miami a year ago. Obviously James is a major reason for this rapid turnaround in opinion, but apparently a lot of people think he'll lose some of his value because he's teaming up with Wade and Chris Bosh. Upon examining the Heat a little closer, it becomes clear that James is still the most valuable player to a team that wants to win (at least during the regular season, which is what the MVP is for).
For starters, the Heat went 47-35 last year, good for fifth place in the East, barely ahead of Milwaukee (46-36) and Charlotte (44-38). Obviously they already had Dwyane Wade, and the rest of the squad was a below-average supporting cast. GM Pat Riley cleared almost all of the non-Wade players out before the free agency bonanza started on July 1, and six days later the Heat found out they would retain Wade and add Bosh. Pairing up a quality big man with Wade was something the club coveted, and news sources quickly took note.
ESPN said, “James or not, the Heat could emerge as one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference” [my emphasis in italics]. Yahoo! said, “Wade and Bosh decided they needed to make a commitment to give them the best possible chance of luring more talent.” CBS said, “They're going to need some help” and “Bosh and Wade would be a pretty good start” in reference to their goals of winning championships. In fact, almost every article about Wade and Bosh's co-decision to play for Miami was really about the possibility of James joining them. It didn't sound like anyone was expecting the Heat to beat back Boston, Orlando, and whoever landed James while taking over the East. What it did sound like was the Wade-Bosh pairing was most valuable as a recruiting chip, like when a college hires a star player's father or AAU coach.
What exactly did the Heat have before James' ridiculous TV special on July 9? Wade has a championship ring, but the Heat were never exactly contenders without Shaquille O'Neal's presence (42 wins the year before he showed up; 43, 47, and the majority of that 15-67 season after). Chris Bosh has been part of a single winning season during his seven years in Toronto (47-35 four years ago). That was also the only season in which Bosh was named one of the NBA's top-15 players, earning All-NBA 2nd Team honors. With those two guys (whose teams have been around or below .500 for most of their seven seasons when each was the unquestioned leader of a franchise), the Heat were given a chance to maybe be one of the top teams in the East. That's what they're saying about the Bulls, and no one is talking about Chicago in the same breath as Miami right now.
But James made his decision and we had a new champion to crown. There was no more “could emerge as one of the top teams” talk and no more recruiting talk. Each new player who signed was quickly determined to be one of the most quintessential role players in the league's history, from Mike Miller (has been vaguely relevant over the years) to Udonis Haslem (already on the Heat) to Zydrunas Ilgauskas (is 35, started 6 games last year). Watch out league, Eddie House, Juwan Howard, and Jamaal Magloire are taking their talents to South Beach. Let's be honest, looking at the entire Miami roster right now apart from James, you're probably thinking 50 wins, which is how many a decent Boston squad had last year.
Add LBJ into the mix, and Jeff Van Gundy (basketball analyst, 11-year NBA coach who won 58% of his games) is now predicting they'll top the Bulls' 72-10 record from 1995-96. As crazy as that sounds (most experts are expecting the Heat to win 60-65 contests), someone is willing to say it's possible. And it's only possible because of James. And lest we forget, the Cavs are being picked to win around 30 games this year, and that's with almost the exact same team—other than James of course—that won 61 and 66 games the past two years.
I know everyone wants to pile on James and point out he's trying to win championships the weak or easy way, but no one is even pretending that Miami would have a chance at a championship without him. Let alone a dynasty, let alone a single-loss season. The difference between a probable 50-win season and a possible 73-win season is humongous. And that's why we need to put aside what a self-centered narcissist James is and simply recognize that he is still the most valuable player to any team that wants to win games.