The NBA MVP discussion centers around James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. The discussion about LeBron James centers around whether or not he’s coming unglued after he unleashed on his “top-heavy” roster earlier this week. I think both discussions are missing the point and need to be merged—when I look at LeBron’s year, I wonder why he’s not at the top of the MVP discussion.
The good folks at Basketball Reference have put together a voting model that uses past MVP voting as a guide to predicting this year’s results. Right now, LeBron ranks fifth with a 5.8% chance to win the award. Harden and Durant are the overwhelming co-favorites according to this model, though I have to suspect Westbrook—who’s merely averaging a triple-double for Oklahoma City—is also fairly close to the top. Even Kawhi Leonard in San Antonio ranks ahead of LeBron.
Do you think we might be taking King James’ greatness for granted? Let’s review what he’s done this year—he’s averaging 26 points/8 rebounds/8 assists per game. He continues to shoot over 50 percent from the floor and his three-point shooting percentage (36.3%) is at least enough to keep the trey a viable part of his game.
His team is in command of the Eastern Conference race, with a 30-14 record, three games up on Toronto. It’s easy to dismiss the East and in the recent past I’d have done the same thing. But this conference is now deeper among playoff teams than the West. Glance at the standings as of this morning and you see the Denver Nuggets at 20-25 on the 8-line in the West. There are two non-playoff teams out of the East with better records than that.
The West is still much better at the top, but the conferences are starting to even out again and that means the best player on the Eastern Conference’s best team needs to reap some of the credit.
Particularly when that team really is top-heavy. We can debate about whether it was a good idea for LeBron to essentially call out the front office and everyone on the roster besides himself, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Maybe it was motivation or maybe it was classless, all depending on your view of LeBron. But from a purely analytical standpoint, it’s irrelevant—the comments themselves are dead-on.
James is still averaging nearly 38 minutes per game, an average well in line with what he’s done for at least seven years. That’s in spite of this being his fourteenth year in the league and in spite of the long playoff runs that have marked his career, thereby putting more wear and tear on the body. I don’t know if it’s realistic for the front office to just go and get more help—especially when they’ve already added Kyle Korver—but for the sake of the MVP discussion, we need to give LeBron the bulk of the credit for pushing a team lacking in depth to the top of the East.
It’s easy to take greatness for granted. The MVP race is still unfolding and I’m open to other alternatives. But if I had a ballot and had to vote today, LeBron James would be in the #1 spot.