In leading the Cavaliers to the NBA’s best record in each of the past two seasons, LeBron James left little doubt in the minds of observers that he was the league’s Most Valuable Player. The voters agreed, making James the youngest player to win back-to-back MVPs.
This season, however, James has not received the same love from the fans or the media, despite the fact that James continues to play at an MVP-level. Just because he’s not averaging a triple-double and the Heat are now out of the running for 73 wins doesn’t mean that LeBron can’t still be the MVP. Bleacherreport.com ranked LeBron 10th in the MVP race at the end of last month, behind players such as Steve Nash and Rajon Rondo, while James wasn’t listed in Hoopsworld.com’s top 5 less than two weeks ago. Even James himself admitted that his chances to win the award “kind of went out the window” when he joined the Heat.
But it’s laughable to think that James isn’t one of the league’s five most valuable players, no matter how you define the word valuable. The Heat’s recent three-game losing streak is a testament to James’ value—after their nine-game win streak was snapped by the Clippers, James missed his first game of the season the next night in Denver. With Carmelo Anthony trade rumors swirling, an uninspired Nuggets team proceeded to hand the Heat their biggest loss of the season, a 130-102 blowout which saw seven Nuggets score in double figures, led by J.R. Smith’s 28 off the bench. Two days later, with LeBron still out with an ankle injury, the Heat fell again, this time to the Joakim Noah-less Bulls. It’s been a far cry from the dominant 20-2 run Miami put together before LeBron went down.
To understand James’ value to the Heat, return to Miami’s rocky 9-8 start. During that stretch, it became clear that any debate over who was the Heat’s top player was no longer valid. Dwyane Wade looked out-of-sorts, unsure of his new role and unable to create effectively for himself. LeBron, meanwhile, looked like the same old LeBron; he was able to get to the rim and didn’t seem as tentative as Wade. While the alpha-dog questions remained unresolved, James provided an emphatic answer as to who the Heat’s best player was. Now the Heat seem content to rely on Wade in the fourth quarter, but it will be interesting to see what happens come playoff time. If the Heat fall behind in a series and with possessions at a premium, will either LeBron or Wade be content to put the ball in the other guy’s hands at the end of the game? How Miami deals with that question will determine their title chances.
Heading into the season, it was clear that James was going to have to accept a reduced role in the offense, and, as a result, he would likely see his counting stats tumble. This hasn’t really been the case. While James’ scoring numbers are down (as is to be expected when you join a team with two other career 20-point scorers), most of his other numbers have been consistent with his averages from the past few seasons. Here’s a look at James’ stat line from his past two MVP seasons as well as this year’s numbers:
- 2008-09: 28 PPG, 8 RPG, 7 APG, 49% FG%, 34% 3FG, 78% FT, 1.7 SPG
- 2009-10: 30 PPG, 7 RPG, 9 APG, 50% FG %, 33% 3FG, 77% FT, 1.6 SPG
- 2010-11: 25 PPG, 7 RPG, 7 APG, 48% FG %, 37% 3FG, 77% FT, 1.5 SPG (through 42 games)
But you also have to consider how the presence of Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh has impacted these numbers. LeBron’s averaging just under 38 minutes per game, second-lowest in his career, and is attempting just 18 shots per game, a career-low (and two shots fewer than in his two MVP years). His usage percentage has been 34% in each of the last three seasons; this year, it’s down to 32%. Despite this, he still leads the league with a 25.8 Player Efficiency Rating [Editor’s note: I’m not a big fan of PER, but it is a basic way of looking at a player’s statistical contribution, the simple likes of which are used for awards like the MVP.]. Taking all this into account, while James’ production may be slightly below his last two season in Cleveland, where he WAS the Cavs’ offense, his numbers indicate that his on-court performance is the same.
Oh, Cleveland. Sadly for the denizens of the snake-bitten city, the Cavaliers’ atrocious 8-32 record is due entirely to the fact that Mr. James decided to take his talents to South Beach. If nothing else I’ve said has convinced you that LeBron should be the MVP again, then perhaps you should review the disparity in Cleveland’s record the past two seasons versus their record this year. Through 40 games in 2008-09, the Cavs were 32-8 and finished a league-best 66-16. Through 40 games in 2009-10, the Cavs were 30-10 and finished a league-best 61-21. Through 40 games this year, the Cavs are 8-32 and on pace to finish a league-worst 16-66. For those keeping score, that’s a 41 game drop-off. Not to mention that the Heat are on pace for 60 wins this season as compared to 47 in 2009-10.
Full disclosure: James was not the only player to leave the Cavs last summer. Shaquille O’Neal, Delonte West, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas all left after 2009-10, but it would be foolish to argue that any of those players would make the Cavs much better right now. Throw James on the 2010-11 Cavs, and they’re right back at 60 wins. Everyone has a flexible definition of what makes an MVP, and that’s half the fun of arguing about the candidates each season. But most voters would have to agree that one of the most important attributes of any Most VALUABLE Player is the ability to add value to his team in terms of wins. If that’s the case, then there’s only one choice for NBA MVP in 2010-11. LeBron James.