LeBron James Should Have Been the 2014 NBA Finals MVP
The San Antonio Spurs are your 2013-14 NBA Champions, and no one should take that away from them just yet. This summer will quickly become about where a slew of free agents are going, who’s trading who where, and where everyone was picked in the NBA Draft. Our collective attention spans are unfortunately not built in a way that will allow us to sit and relish in the fact that we just watched one of the best teams in NBA history put a full-circle stamp on their amazing dynasty.
In fact, I’m willing to bet that we’ll hear more about the losing team - the Miami Heat – these next few weeks than we will about the Spurs. With the opt-out date of the Big Three looming large and the Spurs having just exposed all of Miami’s major weaknesses, how the Heat react, retool, and rebound (in both senses of the word) will be on a lot of people’s minds, lips, and fingertips.
That being said, I’ve got one final thing to say about these Finals before we move on. And sadly, it’s regarding the Miami Heat. I’m fully aware of how hypocritical this makes me look after all I just said, but there’s one thing I can’t shake. I know that it won’t be a popular opinion, so go ahead and bring on the hate mail.
LeBron James should have been this year’s NBA Finals MVP.
There are a lot of factors at play here in my reasoning, so let me set the record straight on a few things first. I don’t say this to belittle what Kawhi Leonard was able to accomplish in winning the NBA Finals MVP award at 22 years of age, becoming the third-youngest player ever to do so. I agree that he was the most deserving Spur, and I’m personally a big fan of his. Look no further than this piece I wrote a few days ago for proof.
Secondly, I’m not a “LeBron Lemming” or a Heat fan. For what it’s worth, I hated The Decision, and have rooted against the Heat vehemently for years. Professional decorum be damned, I wanted the Spurs to win this series. My heart was behind Duncan, Parker, Manu, Pop, and Kawhi. Their legacy was the most compelling story in all of this for me, and I was happy to see them hoist the Larry O’Brien on Sunday night.
Despite all of that, I’m a numbers man. We make assertions based on biases all the time, but why do we validate the biases created by emotional responses more than those created by hard numbers? When I see a player transcend the game on the floor and the stat line confirms what I’m seeing, I need to make note of it. A bit lost in all of the legacy talk on both sides, LeBron just had one of the best playoff performances of all time, and the general public is still stuck on cramps, 2 for 5 in Finals appearances, and all the ways that this man isn’t Michael Jordan. I’ve got a hard time believing Jordan could’ve dragged this shell of a Heat squad much farther than James did, but that’s a whole other digression that no one can prove, one way or another.
One idea that I feel like there is enough evidence to support? LeBron was the most valuable player in these playoffs and in the NBA Finals.
LeBron’s 2014 Playoffs
Although the Bill Russell NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award is and should clearly be about one’s performance in the Finals alone (that qualification is in the darn title, after all), it’s hard not to look at a player’s overall performance in the playoffs as a whole when debating it. Even if the previous three rounds don’t come even remotely into play, dismissing LeBron’s performance this year is doing it a gargantuan disservice, plain and simple.
|2014 NBA Playoffs||20||38.2||27.4||56.5%||40.7%||80.6%||7.1||4.8||1.9||0.6|
His 38.2 minutes per game were a career playoff low, while pretty much every counting stat (points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks) was in line with his career averages (you know, the ones that have earned him four MVP trophies and two Finals MVPs).
So, what’s so special about this playoff run in particular? His shooting averages from the field, from deep, and from the charity stripe were all new career highs. The resulting effective field goal percentage (weighted twos and threes) of 61.6% and true shooting percentage (weighted twos, threes, and freebies) of 66.8% both set new career bests for the King, and are both at least 5.0% better than his previous highs set in 2009.
His final player efficiency rating (PER) of 31.1 ranks among the best in the history of the NBA Playoffs. Any way you decide to play the arbitrary parameter game, LeBron’s 2014 playoffs are in the top 10. For players who played at least 100 minutes in the playoffs (which you can accomplish in just one round, mind you), he ranks 10th. Among players who played at least 10 games, he ranks seventh. Among those who made it all the way to the Finals? Fourth best all-time, behind George Mikan in 1954 (33.6), Michael Jordan in 1991 (32.0), and Wilt Chamberlain in 1964 (31.3). He also did it while playing in more games (20) than any of them, showing sustained excellence throughout.
Regardless of what you think about what LeBron managed to accomplish in these playoffs, that's some insane company. For the record, Jordan won the Finals MVP in his year, and the award didn’t even exist for the other two. Mikan would’ve won in a landslide though, and even though Chamberlain’s San Francisco Warriors lost the title to the Celtics in 1964, it would’ve been hard to deny him the hardware for his 29.2 points and 27.6 rebounds per game to go with 51.7% shooting from the field (even with the guy the trophy is named after playing on the other side of the floor).
Is anyone talking about this today? No, because people are too busy beating dead horses named Cramps, Choke, and Jordan. Poor horses.
Say what you want about the man, but don’t be silly enough to think that he was anything short of brilliant in this year’s playoffs.
LeBron’s 2014 Finals
Since we have to adhere to the word “Finals” in the name of the award, why not look at just what the word “valuable” means as well? There are many interpretations of the term, but for general sports purposes, our definition of valuable often comes down to either who was purely the best player on the floor or who would be the hardest for his team to replace.
In both cases, in the 2014 NBA Finals, the answer was LeBron James.
Factor in winning all you want, but it’s hard to argue that any one player was more valuable to the Spurs performance in the Finals than LeBron was for the Heat’s chances. Our own Brett Weisband looked at four possible Finals MVPs for the Spurs prior to Game 5, and I doubt any of us would have been upset if any of them had won. It seems paradoxical to me to name one of these guys more valuable than another.
When people wondered if Tony Parker might miss time going into the Finals because of an ankle injury, we at numberFire ran our algorithms to get the possible outcomes of the series both with and without him. The result was a mere 1.66% drop off for the Spurs' chances to win the series without Parker. That difference is practically negligible, and it's a true testament to the Spurs’ system and the masterful work of Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich. Parker is an All-NBA point guard that was in the running for Finals MVP. 1.66%, people.
When LeBron went out with cramps at the end of Game 1, we ran the same experiment with how things would look if LeBron were to miss the remainder of the series. The Heat’s chances would’ve taken a 19.93% hit if he hadn’t been able to take the court again over the remaining three to six games. That would have to be one heck of a leg cramp, but you get my point. LeBron is just that valuable to the Heat.
And it’s not like his historically good numbers from the playoffs as a whole dropped off in the Finals. They were just as good across the board, perhaps even better.
|2014 NBA Playoffs||20||38.2||27.4||56.5%||40.7%||80.6%||7.1||4.8||1.9||0.6|
|2014 NBA Finals||5||37.8||28.2||57.1%||51.9%||79.3%||7.8||4.0||2.0||0.4|
LeBron scored at least 22 points in all five games and shot equal to or greater than 50.0% from both the field and long range in all but the final game (in which he shot 47.6% and 33.3% respectively). He double-doubled with 10 rebounds twice, had three games with two or more steals (including one with five), and hit at least two three-pointers in each game.
He did all that while taking on the task of chasing around whoever the hottest Spur was every night on defense. His on-court defensive rating (points allowed by the Heat per 100 possessions while he was on the floor) of 115.2 was worse than his 103.5 mark from the regular season at first glance, but don't forget just how unstoppable this Spurs team was at times in this series. For better context, consider that his on-court defensive rating was the second best on his team and the 130.5 that the Heat allowed while he was off the court was by far the worst. He couldn't do it all by himself.
Otherwise, his turnovers were a bit of a problem and his assists were notably down from his regular season average (6.3), but even that can almost be attributed to his teammates inability to finish more than a decline in his ability to set them up. I really don't mean to pick on Kawhi (again, I love the guy), but he was great in three of the five games. LeBron was the best player for the Heat in all five contests and it wasn't even close (despite what you might think about cramp-gate - check the box score).
We might remember this series as a shellacking by the Spurs (and there’s no denying that it was the case in Games 3 through 5), but we might have been one malfunctioning air conditioner and a leg cramp away from the Heat taking Games 1 and 2 on the road. The “what if” game has a lot of variables, but the Heat could’ve very well won those first two contests, and we’d be having a completely different discussion today, even if Games 3 to 5 had still happened as they did.
If you want to take away from LeBron based on his cramps or his plus-minus (-47), go right ahead, but neither of those things were really his fault. His teammates, like Game 1’s air conditioning, all but vanished in this series. Chris Bosh shot efficiently, but disappeared frequently when the Heat needed a second weapon. Dwyane Wade went a combined 7 for 25 (28.0%) over the final two games and looked way older than he should have. Everyone else in a Heat uniform spent at least some time in Coach Erik Spoelstra’s doghouse, and nary a Finals boost was to be found anywhere on that bench.
Who Had More Help?
For the playoffs, LeBron led the league with 4.3 win shares. The next highest total of anyone else on his team belonged to Bosh, who had less than half that with 2.0. Those were the only two Heat players to accumulate more than 1.3 or more win shares in the playoffs. The Spurs had six such players, and Tony Parker wasn’t even one of them!
As for the Finals, to make that idea more pertinent, basketball-reference.com has a stat called “game score” (explained here) that should set the record straight. It essentially serves as a rough measure of a player’s productivity by weighting various stats like points, shot attempts, fouls, turnovers, and various other counting stats. Here’s the list of the top 10 average game scores over the five NBA Finals games.
Right away, you can see that LeBron led the way, and did so by a considerable margin. Kawhi Leonard had the second-highest game score, so it’s hard to deny him getting it as the best player on the winning team. The true question is, was he really more valuable than LeBron?
In that top 10, each of the Heat’s Big Three makes an appearance, but not where you would’ve expected when this trio was first constructed. LeBron is the only Heat player in the top five, and the top 10 is littered with seven Spurs (all much closer to their highest scorer, Kawhi, than anyone on the Heat is to LeBron). Without looking at the scores of any of the games, I would find it impossible to look at that table and conclude anyone other than LeBron James was the Finals MVP.
I Thought Winning Wasn’t Everything?
Which brings us to the most important question in this whole debate: Is winning the series the most important criterion for choosing the Finals MVP? The inaugural award went to Jerry West in 1969, despite the fact that his Lakers lost to Bill Russell’s Celtics (the man never did win the award that now bears his name, funny enough). The precedent was set for this distinction to go to a player on the losing team before it even ever went to its first champion. Why has that never been repeated?
Doesn’t naming an NBA Finals MVP on this Spurs team go against what made them so special? Just about every player on their roster had a positive contribution to this championship at some point along the way. Their ball movement, next-man-up mentality, and team cohesiveness are all among the best we’ve ever seen. Naming Kawhi the MVP, while a great way to pass the torch to a budding young superstar, is almost unfair to him. There might always be the following asterisks on this one:
*Was great for three games, not so great for the other two.
*Was on a team full of valuable people and viable candidates.
*Was not the best player in the series, at least not according to the numbers.
Kawhi has a bright future ahead of him, and we’re bound to see him be the most valuable and best player on the floor someday. For now, that title still belongs to LeBron James. If we continue to berate the man in the media, whether national or social, we’re going to miss out on some of the best parts of what has been a very impressive career by one of the best players of our generation, if not ever.
At the very least, for all the awards and accolades that the public has tried to take from him for creating the Big Three, doesn’t he deserve to be given this one despite them?