Why LeBron James is the NBA’s MVP again this season

This is the first of four posts this week on "Why Player X is the NBA’s MVP." The other three featured players are Russell Westbrook (his post is going up on Tuesday), James Harden (Wednesday) and Stephen Curry (Thursday).

For the sixth or seventh year in a row, LeBron James is the best basketball player on Earth. No superstar demands more attention, no player lifts his teammates higher and no singular force makes toying with the best of the best on a nightly basis look as effortless and simple and totally brilliant, like LeBron.

He’s a mind-bending multiple choice quiz in the post; unstoppable on drives to the basket, or facing single coverage at the elbow, or after he rips a defensive rebound off the glass and feels like zooming at five retreating defenders to manufacture something out of nothing.

All this is wonderful, and none of it’s had much of an impact on this season’s MVP race. Between Russell Westbrook single-handedly redefining what constitutes an impressive box score, James Harden’s refusal to let his Houston Rockets drop in the standings and Stephen Curry being the alpha dog on one of the most impressive regular-season teams in NBA history, King James is on the outside looking in; the fourth horse on a three-lane track. (Anthony Davis and Chris Paul won’t win it, but they deserve to have their names mentioned; they ensure this race is as hair-splittingly close as possible.)

Based on several totally subjective blog posts, my Twitter mentions, Las Vegas odds, the opinions of a former teammate and someone he currently shares a locker room with, it’s widely felt that LeBron won’t lift a fifth Maurice Podoloff trophy over his head once this season ends. (Doing so would forge a three-way tie with Michael Jordan and Bill Russell for the second-most MVP’s in NBA history, behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.)

Here’s why all that noise is wrong, why the league’s best player should also be recognized as its most valuable.

Let’s work our way backwards by pointing out a few cracks in James’ case. The loudest alarm sounds for the two weeks he took off earlier this season. At the time, the Cleveland Cavaliers were an average, borderline-dysfunctional squad that couldn’t get stops. James’ numbers up until that point were virtuous, but he didn’t look like the dominant juggernaut basketball observers have come to know. 

He stepped away Dec. 28 after a 23-point home loss to the Detroit Pistons and returned Jan. 13. The Cavs played eight games during that stretch and lost seven of them. 

Since then, Cleveland has the league’s second-highest winning percentage. But the stink of that two-week "vacation" hovers over any argument in favor of James being named MVP, even though his team nearly capsized in his absence and ripped off a 12-game win streak soon after he came back. James was hurt, so doctors told him not to play. He sat out, came back and is now emptying vaults every time he steps in the bank. 

Plays like this weren’t happening before Christmas.

(Side bar: This play is amazing! After he’s pressured toward the sideline by Giannis Antetokounmpo, one of the most discomposing on-ball defenders in the league, James goes middle, crosses up poor Ersan Ilyasova, then rides a zip line down the lane. The Bucks were either too slow or too scared to slide in James’ way — both are understandable excuses.)

Minutes matter, and an MVP should log as many as possible to make their team the best it can be. Despite that two-week layoff, James has played about 10 fewer minutes than Curry overall, and seen more action than all but roughly 20 guys in a league that employs approximately 450. Only three players average more minutes every game. 

James is the catalyst for Cleveland (a team that was 97-215 over the past four seasons) becoming an undeniable title contender. The prolonged mid-season absence is a headline-clogging body blow to his MVP campaign, but it shouldn’t be the knockout punch.

If the season ended today, Cleveland would be a second seed in the playoffs, a 48-win steamroller that’s arguably the favorite to represent the Eastern Conference in this year’s Finals. Team success is obviously a major factor when discussing who should be the MVP, and despite major personnel changes, a rookie head coach and more outside pressure to win it all than any group in the league (by a wide margin), LeBron’s team is as good as any.

The Cavs have the league’s third-best offense, and since the All-Star break rank first in offensive rating (both overall and in clutch situations) and True Shooting percentage, and second in net rating. This is LeBron’s doing. He leads them in points, steals, assists, free-throws, PER, usage percentage and Win Shares per 48 minutes, all by a healthy margin.

James owns a higher assist percentage than any non-point guard in the NBA, and steadies himself in or around the top-five, league wide, in several other usage-based categories, including the percentage of his team’s points, free-throw attempts, drawn fouls and shots he’s directly responsible for when in the game.

Cleveland outscores opponents by 9.6 points per 100 possessions when LeBron plays. When he sits, opponents outscore them by 6.2 points per 100 possessions. This means they drop from the 2nd-best team in the NBA to the 27th.

As with any true superstar, whenever the ball is in LeBron’s hands, every other player becomes hypersensitive to what he’s about to do. Nine brains pulse. His teammates must react to his awesomeness, and the opposition must be ready to stop it. Here’s an example.

Timofey Mozgov jogs toward the ball as if he’s about to set a screen, then abruptly darts back toward an open paint. The Bucks react by sucking their defense inward, thinking this play is designed to drop the ball over the top to Mozgov. Instead, LeBron delivers a bullet to Kevin Love in the corner. This pass can’t be effective unless it’s fast and perfectly on target, which, of course, it is. Another reminder that James is a genius.

Not to take anything away from Cleveland’s two co-stars, but neither Kyrie Irving nor Love can make that team anything more than average (at best) without LeBron’s assistance. He exists to draw double teams. Irving is talented scorer, but the Cavaliers post a net rating of -0.8 points per 100 possessions when he plays without LeBron. When both share the floor, Cleveland turns into an unstoppable monster, outscoring opponents by 10.0 points per 100 possessions.

It’s the same deal with Love. When the Cavaliers play him without James they get outscored by 3.0 points per 100 possessions. Then LeBron steps in, like a big burly brother, and Cleveland trucks its opposition by 10.8 points per 100 possessions. Important: the Cavaliers are generally dominant with LeBron on the court, regardless of who’s by his side.

As an outside threat, James is "only" knocking down 35.3 percent of his threes, yet he’s one of the game’s elite floor-spacers, ranking in the 90th percentile in spot-up (catch-and-shoot/drive) situations, per Synergy

Ignoring him can be a fatal mistake; it turns a transcendent athlete into a lethal off-ball cutter. He’s a perpetual problem whether the ball is in his hands or not. When he shares the floor with Irving, Cleveland’s All-Star point guard shoots 62.3 percent in the restricted area. That number "plummets" to 52.3 percent when Kyrie’s out there fending for himself. It’s understandably more difficult to finish at the basket when an entire defense is able to focus on stopping you. It’s just another example of how James indirectly makes life easier for his teammates. 

The man is petrifying, and despite the fact that he’s 30, chose the long view and understands the big picture (it’s all about the playoffs), so are his numbers. League wide, James ranks second in made baskets, fourth in free-throws and free-throw attempts, third in points per game, seventh in assists per game, fifth in PER and fourth in usage percentage (third in clutch situations). He’s one of four players in the entire league to average more than 20 points while making at least 49 percent of his shots. 

It’s all pretty impressive, and we’ve yet to cover defense. James’ combination of intelligence, agility and strength on that end is unprecedented. Operating at a peak defensive level every night is impossible thanks to the load James carries when the Cavs are trying to score, but he’s still a temperature-changing presence when necessary, reading plays like a literature professor reads Dr. Seuss. It sometimes feels like he purposefully falls out of position to see if he can physically recover in time. It’s a game within a game for him, like he’s bored. Look at this block on poor Ilyasova.

When James isn’t freelancing, he makes seamless rotations and singlehandedly snuffs out offensive possession just as they’re about to succeed. Here he is against the Memphis Grizzlies, hedging a pick-and-roll, scampering to the baseline, then flying across the lane to contest Nick Calathes’ layup. 

Since opening night, Cleveland allows 102.2 points per 100 possessions when James is on the floor. That equates to being the 13th-ranked defense in basketball. When he doesn’t play, that number jumps to 107.3 points per 100 possessions — only the New York Knicks and Minnesota Timberwolves are worse.

Defense isn’t Cleveland’s calling card, and to this day they’re prone to discouraging lulls against teams they should smother. But they’re elite in the 700-plus minutes James has shared with Mozgov, surrendering only 97.7 points per 100 possessions — €”second-best in the league. 

LeBron doesn’t cover the opposing team’s top scorer on every play, but according to Synergy he’s in the 74th percentile as a defender in isolation situations, holding opponents to 0.73 points per possession. He’s in the 79th percentile defending spot-up shots. Harden, Curry and Westbrook don’t share James’ ability to impact games on both ends. They aren’t nearly as imposing or versatile. This can’t be overlooked.

Another quality that shouldn’t be overlooked: James played in a different city last season, with a different coach and different teammates. If we’ve learned anything from the San Antonio Spurs and Atlanta Hawks of the world, it’s that familiarity/continuity are integral to success. It takes time for NBA players to learn what their teammates are thinking, what their preferences are on the floor.

Curry has a new coach but is surrounded by virtually the same roster as the last couple seasons. The Thunder made a few trades this season, but the core, system and coaching staff never changed. James Harden rolls on regardless of who Daryl Morey puts on his team (*clears throat* Houston has one of the deepest benches in the league). 

James is operating with a higher degree of difficulty, doing surgery in the dark while the other guys have light.

The Cavaliers began the season 19-20. Their defense was abominable and their offense wasn’t the unstoppable wrecking ball many expected it to be and something about LeBron was off. He didn’t look like the best player in the world. That matters, and it’s more than fair to say it’s exactly why James doesn’t deserve his fifth MVP.

MICHAEL JORDAN THROUGH THE YEARS

But look at all the good he’s done since: Extracting all J.R. Smith’s talent and erasing all the bad habits as if they never existed, getting Iman Shumpert to buy in during a contract year, dealing with Kevin Love’s unhappiness, integrating Mozgov and making sure Irving endured as a razor blade while the outside world prematurely mocked his selfishness. James kept it all from falling apart. It’s unquantifiable, but beyond significant.

(There was a lengthy stretch of this season when Shawn Marion was Cleveland’s starting shooting guard, and somehow its season didn’t self-combust.)

The expectations that weigh on LeBron’s shoulders remain, after four straight Finals appearances and two rings, impossibly high. But stop and look at the smoldering wreckage he leaves in his wake on a nightly basis, and the overwhelmingly positive effect its had on his team’s bottom line.

Even though the Cavaliers have one of the league’s most dynamic point guards, another (currently underachieving) max contract at power forward and a supporting cast full of veterans who compliment the star power and understand their role, this organization would be dangerously close to their fifth-straight losing season if LeBron James never decided to go home. 

That’s value.

Stats used in this post are from NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com.