LeBron James Is Still a Legitimate MVP Candidate
LeBron James is a basketball anomaly with an insane basketball IQ.
We know this already, but for some reason, we take it for granted repeatedly. Isn't the idea to give people flowers while they can still smell them?
James has spoiled us with greatness, essentially since the day he laced up his Nike Zoom Generations for the very first time on the NBA hardwood back in 2003.
We like narratives, fresh faces, and new storylines. As for LeBron, well, his story is old, but his claim to the to the 2016-17 Most Valuable Player award is as fresh as ever.
James is 32 years old and is playing in his 14th NBA season but you would never know it.
He is second in the entire league at 38.0 minutes per game and is averaging 26.0 points per game (on 53.8% shooting). His 8.8 assists and 8.2 rebounds per game are both career-highs.
When James is on the court, Cleveland is outscoring opponents by 7.9 points per 100 possession, according to NBA.com/stats. When he's off, they have been outscored by 7.2 points per 100. That 15.1-point swing is higher than James Harden's (1.5-point swing), Russell Westbrook's (13.6-point swing), and Kawhi Leonard's (1.1-point swing).
But just looking at the season-long numbers does not justify James' impact on the the Cavaliers.
Two Starters Missing? No Biggie
Injuries often pile up for NBA teams during the long, strenuous season. Often, the healthiest team come May and June is the one to take home the hardware (ask the last two Finals losers how true that is).
MVPs are fluid, lucid beings who mold into whatever role needed to win games.
Back in James' time in Miami, he learned to play the post more to take the offense to the next level. During his first Finals trip after returning to Cleveland, he regressed back to isolation-heavy basketball to slow the game down and ugly it up.
This season is no different.
J.R. Smith was injured December 20th against the Milwaukee Bucks and has yet to see action since surgery to repair his injured thumb. Prior to injury, Smith -- despite just one 20-point showing in 21 games -- was shooting a passable 36.2% from three-point range on 6.6 attempts per game this season. Not only was Smith a reliable outside shooter, but he was also another athletic playmaker and perimeter defensive presence (he ranked 20th in defensive real plus/minus among shooting guards) to take some of the pressure off of James.
In the games since Smith has last played, James has made up for the loss of an outside threat. He's averaging 26.5 points per game on 42.1% on 4.4 attempts from three. Previously? 36.8% on 4.8 attempts.
Kevin Love, like Smith, has missed time due to injury. Prior to his February 11th injury, Love was averaging 20.0 points and 11.1 rebounds per game, while shooting 38.4% from three on 6.7 attempts per game. That type of production is nearly impossible to make up for, especially in the middle of the season.
In the seven games LeBron has played in since Love's injury, James has -- as MVPs do -- picked up some of the slack. He is averaging 27.7 points per game on 4.7 three-point attempts at an insane 54.5% clip.
If that is not enough, throw in the 9 assists per game. Oh, and he increased his rebounds per game to an impressive 11.3 mark. No biggie.
Elevating the Supporting Cast
I know this topic of James' game is oft-discussed, but it's for a valid reason. He continually gets the absolute most out of his surrounding pieces.
It is no coincidence that Derrick Williams, on his fifth team in only six seasons, found a home in Cleveland for the remainder of the season after being signed following two 10-day contracts. Williams is currently playing his best stretch of ball since joining the league, contributing 9.5 points and 3.8 rebounds per game since joining James in Cleveland.
Another guy enjoying a career resurgence after landing in Cleveland is Kyle Korver. While on the Atlanta Hawks, Korver was averaging 9.5 points per game and shooting 40.9% from three on 5.0 attempts per game. Korver was dealt to Cleveland back in January, seeing his first game action alongside LeBron James on January 10th.
Since then, Korver has (unsurprisingly) increased his scoring output to 11.1 points per game, knocking down 48.7% (5.8 attempts per game) of his threes. In Atlanta, he was asked to run baseline to baseline, off curls, around multiple screens just to get a look at the basket. James has assisted on 71.4% of Korver's three-point makes while on the floor together, per NBAWowy.com.
With James, he's getting easier looks than ever before, given LeBron's otherworldly ability to get shooters the ball in exact spots, through quirky angles and uncanny unselfishness.
In Atlanta, Korver averaged 1.5 wide-open three-point attempts per game (20.2% of his attempts). In Cleveland, Korver averages nearly 2.0 wide-open threes per game, 23.2% of his attempts. Further, 33.6% of his attempts are from the corner in Cleveland, compared to a career-low 17.0% in Atlanta this season.
Crown the King
We have been spoiled by LeBron's greatness for over a decade now. He's already a four-time MVP, and it's very possible to make the case he should have at least one more (looking at you, Derrick Rose). James has become a victim of his own longevity and talent.
Some believe being the Most Valuable Player is simply being the best player in the league. Others believe the three-letter acronym means having the largest impact on your team.
Well, when James has played this season, Cleveland is 42-15. When he has not, they are winless, going 0-5, and the 15.1-point gap in his on/off net rating is the highest among legitimate MVP candidates.
Whichever side you are on, there's no denying the King's climb to the MVP throne even a decade and a half into his NBA career. Win or lose, no player in today's game is more important or valuable to their respective team than James is.