MIAMI — It takes a lot to humble LeBron James. But on Saturday, he said, “Wow.’’
The Miami Heat star is a no-brainer this season to win his fourth NBA MVP. Following his team’s 106-87 win over the Philadephia 76ers, the names were reeled off as to who James could be joining.
Only four men have won four MVP awards, and some believe they are the four greatest players ever. They are Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (six), Michael Jordan (five), Bill Russell (five) and Wilt Chamberlain (four).
“Anytime I’m mentioned with the greatest players to play the game or people period, it is a wow factor because I grew up and studied those guys and watched those guys, and a few of those guys were my inspiration growing up,’’ James said.
James returned after missing three games due to a hamstring strain. He was just as good as before he left, if not better.
James scored 27 points, a shade above his season average of 26.9. But he did it in just 30 minutes, eight less than his average. He shot 12 of 17 for 70.6 percent, well above his seasonal mark of 56.2, which is in line to be his career best.
“I wasn’t limited at all,’’ said James, whose minutes were watched carefully by Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. “I wasn’t going to come back unless I knew I was ready, and my body felt good the last couple of days. So I gave it a go.’’
The Heat (60-16), who reached 60 wins in a season for just the second time in team history, are resting players down the stretch as they have the NBA’s top overall seed all but locked up. Sitting out Saturday were guard Dwyane Wade, who missed a fourth straight game due to a sore ankle and knee, and center Chris Bosh, who had a sore knee.
It remains to be seen what the final victory total will be by Miami, which is one shy of equaling the team record for wins set when the 1996-97 Heat went 61-21. But the MVP race is over.
Ballots are not due until April 18, the day after the end of the regular season. But it’s hard to find anybody who doesn’t realistically believe James won’t be joining those four NBA legends when the trophy is handed out in May.
“If I’m fortunate enough to do that, it would be an unbelievable feat,’’ James said. “I know where I’ve come from, a small city in Akron, Ohio, and what I’ve built over the years. And I would give a lot of credit like I always do to my teammates and coaches that I had before I got to the NBA and how that allows me to do things that I do on the floor. We got a long way to go before those votes are in, but if I am awarded that award then I’m excited about it again and very humbled and very blessed about it.’’
James, 28, was handed the trophy in 2009 and 2010 while with the Cleveland Cavaliers before getting it a third time last year in his second Miami season. Another James win and he would become just the second player to claim four in a five-season span. Russell won for the Boston Celtics in 1959, 1961, 1962 and 1963.
“That’s a very special group,’’ said 19-year veteran Juwan Howard, whose Heat locker is next to James’, referring to all the legends his teammate could join with a fourth MVP. “In my opinion, (James) deserves it. It would be awesome. The guy is an amazing player and an amazing teammate, and he works extremely hard.
“I’m proud of the fact that he’s getting better and better each year. Easily, he could sit back and be one of those guys that says, ‘OK, I’ve done it all,’ and accepts the benefits of what the game has brought him. But, no, he wants to be one of the best, if not the best to ever play the game.’’
After the star forward won his third MVP, Heat president Pat Riley said he’s young enough that he could break Abdul-Jabbar’s record of six. Riley coached Abdul-Jabbar with the Lakers from 1981-89, although the big fellow had won all his MVPs before Riley took over.
Even Abdul-Jabbar knows his record could be in jeopardy. Asked earlier this season if James could break it, he responded through his publicist, “He might.’’
“If he stays healthy (James could),’’ Heat forward Shane Battier said of James topping Abdul-Jabbar’s mark. “If he stays healthy, this won’t be his last one.’’
A James win this season would make him the youngest to be handed a fourth MVP, about seven months younger than Abdul-Jabbar, who claimed his two weeks shy of his 29th birthday. Russell won his fourth at 29 while Chamberlain was 31 and Jordan 33.
It’s dumbfounding to think what type of records that James, a 10-year man who scored his 21,000th career point Saturday, could put up if he plays at a very high level at least into his mid-30s. With his work ethic and indestructible nature, there’s no reason he can’t.
“He’s doing what people thought he would do at age 16,’’ Battier said of a time James was anointed “The Chosen One’’ and put on the cover of Sports Illustrated at 17. “He had been chosen as the next big thing and he lived up to it. That’s the biggest compliment that you can give a guy. He is the big thing.’’
As the years goes by, James continues to get even bigger.