Greatness is often easier to recognize when it looks like nothing we’ve seen before.
To a large degree, this is the MVP case for Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Kawhi Leonard: The first shoulders offensive responsibility to a previously unimagined degree, piling up counting stats at a historic pace. The second leans into the hyper-efficient idiosyncrasies of his game and leads one of the most extreme and extremely efficient offenses we’ve ever seen. The third has blossomed from a defensive stopper into a two-way superstar, one of the most efficient volume scorers in the league. Each is an MVP candidate not only because he played phenomenal basketball this season but also because he is so unlike recent MVP winners.
And then there is LeBron James.
Statistically speaking, LeBron has been at least as productive as the rest of that group, among the other elites in any metric chosen. But he’s been so good for so long that an incredible season doesn’t stand out. For LeBron, the incredible has become mundane.
This is the third entry in our series making the case for five NBA MVP candidates. We’ve also made the case for James Harden and the case for Kawhi Leonard. Still to come: Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook. Also, check out our NBA predictions.
Much of the MVP conversation, for better or worse, is likely to center on volume. That’s what happens when one candidate is averaging a triple-double and another threatened to lead the league in both scoring and assists. James’s averages — 26.4 points, 8.7 assists and 8.6 rebounds per game1 — are not as flashy as Westbrook’s or Harden’s, but he’ll join them, Oscar Robertson and Michael Jordan as the only players to average 26, 8 and 8 across a full season. So James isn’t that far behind Westbrook and Harden in how much offense he creates — and he has a sizable advantage on Curry and Leonard. We can see this by adding up the points each player scored and those he created for teammates with assists2:
|PLAYER||POINTS SCORED||POINTS CREATED BY ASSIST||TOTAL POINTS CREATED|
But volume isn’t everything. Westbrook and Harden are having historic offensive seasons, but James has them beat on efficiency (while being only a hair behind in volume). James’s true shooting percentage is higher than both Harden’s and Westbrook’s, and LeBron generates more points per potential assist than the two.3
|PLAYER||POINTS PER POTENTIAL ASSIST||TRUE SHOOTING PERCENTAGE|
And then there’s the other side of the ball, where only Leonard rivals James. Harden’s defense generally falls on the wrong side of average, often to a comical degree. Westbrook racks up his share of rebounds and steals, but the consensus is that he’s nowhere near elite. And Curry is the soft spot in the Warriors’ defense despite having made great strides. That leaves LeBron and Leonard — and while Kawhi has won the last two defensive player of the year awards, ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus estimates that LeBron’s defensive impact has been nearly twice as great this season.4
So there’s a statistical case for LeBron as MVP — both offensively and defensively. But the MVP award isn’t an objective one — there’s no agreed-upon definition of value. And that means voters’ decisions often come down to the narratives that wrap around the numbers. The 1961-62 MVP award, for example, didn’t go to Oscar Robertson and his season-long triple-double, nor did it go to Wilt Chamberlain and his 50.4 points and 25.7 rebounds per game. The winner was Bill Russell — who had lesser, albeit still eye-popping, numbers — because leading the Boston Celtics to the league’s best record and top defense proved more compelling.
And it’s in this category of narrative that LeBron suffers the most by comparison. His Cavaliers have slid in the second half of the season, dragged down by atrocious defensive performances. He isn’t breaking any records. At 32 years old and with 14 seasons and an absurd numbers of minutes behind him, LeBron is “only” as good as he’s ever been. But that might make him the best two-way player in the NBA this season. His story just happens to be a rerun in syndication, an episode we’ve seen a half-dozen times before.
So, forget the numbers.
The MVP argument for LeBron goes something like this: Measure the man against himself. If you watched LeBron carry the Cavaliers back from the brink in last year’s NBA Finals, you know he’s the best player in the NBA, full stop. Nothing he’s done, or not done, this season has changed that basic fact. Look past the glitter of round numbers and records broken. LeBron James is your MVP.