LeBron James deserved a year-end NBA award, just not the MVP

May 10, 2016

For the first time since 2007, LeBron James did not receive a single first-place vote for MVP.

Instead, Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry became the NBA's first ever unanimous MVP on Tuesday. And in any other season, the lack of first-place votes would be a slap to the face of the King.

In 2015-16, though, LeBron probably couldn't care less about his lack of recognition. Paying attention to awards is for suckers; James had a team to lead.

In fact, if we're going to consider LeBron for any hardware this year, it should probably be the Coach of the Year award. Sorry, Tyronn Lue. You did a fine job this season, particularly in picking up the pieces for a team that fired coach David Blatt halfway through the year. Seriously, let that sink in -- despite such a massive change, the Cavs are undefeated so far in the playoffs.


Part of that is thanks to Lue, of course. Bringing accountability to the Cavs was an absolutely necessary addition. But in reality, the Cavaliers were accountable to LeBron, not Lue. And James' goal this season was simple: Get the Cavaliers through the regular season and to the playoffs with everyone on the same page.

LeBron wasn't concerned with demonstrating his individual prowess in his second season back with the Cavaliers. Through the All-Star break, in fact, James mostly stayed under the radar, letting Curry take over as the face of the league and shower the Warriors point guard with praise along the way.

The Cavs superstar was in information-gathering mode. He needed to know just how effective his teammates could be, and in what situations he could most trust them. So he allowed Kyrie Irving to control the offense, working through his tendency to over-dribble and inability at times to make the most of Cleveland's pick-and-roll attack.

When Irving continued to pound the ball into the floor, LeBron adapted. He got his teammate involved in more situations that involved just the two of them, building up the young point guard rather than taking the ball completely out of his hands. A mid-January game against the Dallas Mavericks provided a glimpse into the maturing relationship between the two ball-dominant stars. In the final minutes of overtime, with the Cavs clinging to a one-point lead, LeBron initiated the offense. When faced with the option of taking a midrange two-pointer himself to seal the game or kicking it out to Irving, James chose the latter. 

That feeling-out wasn't always smooth sailing, and there were certainly moments of discord along the way. But once Irving was in the fold, LeBron turned his attention to the 3-point line and his power forward. He personally struggled with his outside shot this season, which made maximizing Kevin Love's output essential to the Cavs' title hopes. As Cleveland became more comfortable in its offense and commited to playing its best players together, positions be damned, Love blossomed as a sniper from deep who also helped facilitate the offense with his overlooked passing skill.

By March, Love and LeBron had developed the kind of chemistry they were so desperately missing through most of the regular season -- even if it came against the New York Knicks. Love scored 28 points against New York and pulled down 12 rebounds; more importantly, he had the confidence to attempt a pump-fake, side-step 3-pointer.

Sure, it was the Knicks. Playing a Kurt Rambis-coached team will turn everyone into J.R. Smith. Still, you don't take that kind of shot unless you're downright arrogant about your game -- an arrogance that was lacking in Love's play up to that point.

From there, the pieces fell into place. The NBA is a superstar-driven league, after all; when your Big Three is in sync, the rest of the squad will generally follow. J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, Matthew Dellavedova, Tristan Thompson -- all of the Cavs role players wered freed up to do what they do best, without being asked to overextend into areas where they'll come up short. The Cavaliers might not have the versatility of the Warriors, but they have a deep roster featuring all the various skill sets a team needs to compete for a title. It was simply a matter of making it all work.

It was by no means an easy task. LeBron absolutely made things more difficult for himself with occassional petulant bouts of drama. Who can forget that week where the King absconded to Miami to hang out with Dwyane Wade, after all?

Like his teammates, LeBron was learning on the job, balancing his new role with what he's always done in the NBA. That was the purpose of the regular season this year, not winning an MVP or proving he's still the best.

In the playoffs, however LeBron has slipped back into his ultimate form. He's no longer concerned with helping his teammates become whole; they've reached that point, with a lot of help from the King. Now, there's a championship to win. 

"Good job, coach." "You too, coach."