Like Cavs, LeBron’s case for MVP ascending

LeBron James may not be the favorite for NBA MVP, but at least now he’s in the running.

That’s not something a lot of people would’ve said about James earlier this season.

James stunned the basketball world in July, when he announced he was returning to the Cavaliers in free agency. This came four years after he left the Cavs for the Miami Heat, also in free agency.

The NBA community wasn’t sure what to make of all this. Why would James leave a team that had reached the Finals four straight years and won two titles — for one that hadn’t been in the playoffs (or very competitive at all) since he left?

And didn’t James bolt the Cavs in the first place?

Then came the season and LeBron looked, well, human. Fans and plenty of media members claimed that he had "lost a step." They cited things such as the simple eye test as evidence — with James struggling to drive past his man or finish at the rim. At least, he wasn’t finishing at the rim like LeBron. It was more like an everyday, run-of-the-mill All-Star.

Turns out, James was suffering from a knee and back strain. Just one of those things is enough to keep a good man down. LeBron had both.

The Cavs struggled because of it, sort of stumbling and bumbling through the first 39 games. Kyrie Irving looked like he was still figuring out how to win. Dion Waiters (remember him?) didn’t fit. Nobody in town could protect the basket. And that was even before starting center Anderson Varejao went down with a torn Achilles.

James’ return to Cleveland was looking more and more like a failed experiment. Kevin Love sometimes seemed miserable, coach David Blatt sometimes looked lost, and the roster sometimes appeared to be a little old, maybe a little over-the-hill.

The result? A 19-20 record for the Cavs, while younger hotshots like the Golden State Warriors and Atlanta Hawks tore it up and grabbed all of the feel-good headlines.

We all know the story since then.

Since then, James has returned healthy, looking like the James who came to Cleveland the first time around. The Cavs added key pieces in J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and the rim-protecting Timofey Mozgov. And suddenly, no one is demanding Blatt get canned.

Through it all, the Cavs have won 20 of 24 heading into Friday’s key matchup in Atlanta (7:30 p.m., FOX Sports Ohio).

And LeBron has emerged as a guy who suddenly could snag his fifth MVP. That’s especially the case when you factor in February.

At the very least, James was the best player on the best team, averaging 24.4 points and 7.3 assists. Perhaps more than that, he is the best player on a team that everyone is suddenly calling a legitimate championship contender.

Now, LeBron certainly has competition. Warriors guard Stephen Curry is putting together a banner year for a team that’s been getting it done all season. Houston Rockets guard James Harden leads the league in scoring. Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook has compiled four triple-doubles in his past five games.

Those are all impressive players and they deserve consideration.

But LeBron is making magic. The Cavs were plain bad the previous four seasons and weren’t all that great at the beginning of this one.

Now, they are winners.

While there are many reasons for the upswing, none are bigger than James, and you can be sure those who vote know that.

Just like the playoff race, the MVP chase is likely to go down to the season’s final month, perhaps game.

And just like the Cavs, LeBron James has risen from some early struggles to give people no choice but to take his contention seriously.