Of course LeBron James thinks he's the NBA's MVP

Yahoo Sports
<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/3704/" data-ylk="slk:LeBron James">LeBron James</a> stands alone. (Getty)
LeBron James stands alone. (Getty)

LeBron James is in the midst of one of the most impressive offensive stretches of his illustrious career. After averaging a triple-double for the month of February, a career first for the future Hall of Famer, the Cleveland Cavaliers superstar has arguably been even better in March, averaging 30.5 points, 9.6 rebounds and 9.5 assists in 37 minutes per game this month, shooting a sparkling 55.7 percent from the field while shouldering an even larger share of the Cavs’ creative load than usual.

Tuesday’s hiccup in South Beach aside, LeBron’s been an absolute steamroller of late. He’s turned in a slew of dominating performances that have helped the Cavs weather first the challenge of reorienting their roster after a trade-deadline demolition, and then a spate of injuries that left Cleveland missing a rotating cast of rotation pieces for the past few weeks.

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Through it all, the Cavs still sit third in the East, nearing the finish line on another division title and home-court advantage in Round 1, thanks largely — if not entirely — to the presence and power of LeBron, who believes he’s playing the best basketball of his career at age 33 … and who thinks, for what it’s worth, that such an accomplishment deserves the kind of recognition that can only come from a big ol’ trophy. Like, say, his fifth Maurice Podoloff Trophy.

From Tim Reynolds of the Associated Press:

This is a season where prohibitive MVP favorite James Harden has done phenomenal things with NBA-leading Houston, where reigning MVP Russell Westbrook has been fantastic again for Oklahoma City, and where Anthony Davis has found a new stratosphere to take his game, especially after New Orleans lost DeMarcus Cousins.

James raves about them all. But …

“I would vote for me,” James told The Associated Press. “The body of work, how I’m doing it, what’s been happening with our team all year long, how we’ve got so many injuries and things of that nature, guys in and out, to be able to still keep this thing afloat, I definitely would vote me.” […]

“I’ve said it,” James said. “Obviously, I’ve had some unbelievable seasons before, but I’ve said it: This is the best I can go, just from a complete basketball player standpoint.”

This is not how many voters see things shaking out. For virtually the entire season, Harden — the runner-up in MVP balloting after the 2014-15 and 2016-17 campaigns — has profiled as the front-runner in this year’s race. And, to be fair, dude’s got a pretty good case.

Harden has led the Rockets to the NBA’s best record despite running buddy Chris Paul missing 21 games. He leads the league in scoring and sits third in assists. He’s scoring more efficiently and effectively than he has since he was a sixth man in Oklahoma City, he’s the league’s most devastating isolation scorer, and he’s improved enough as an individual and team defender that, even with him having played nearly two-thirds of their total minutes, the Rockets have the NBA’s No. 7 defense (and have defended at a near-top-10 clip with him on the floor). Whether or not you share coach Mike D’Antoni’s assessment that the bearded playmaker is “the best offensive player I’ve ever seen,” there’s a time-honored logic behind considering Harden a lock at the top of the ballot: he’s been the clear best player on the clear best team in the league this season.

That said: you don’t exactly have to contort or torture statistics, logic and tape into unrecognizable forms to arrive at an argument for LeBron.

James is averaging a career highs in rebounding and assists. He’s scoring more per-minute than he has since the last year of his first stint in Northeast Ohio, and assisting on far and away the highest share of his teammates’ baskets in his 15-year career. He’s also on track to play all 82 games for the first time in his career, and leading the NBA in minutes. It’s been a chaotic whirlwind season for the Cavs, one that’s seen them bid farewell to Kyrie Irving, open the season without a point guard, struggle to integrate new pieces like Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose alongside underperforming holdovers like J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson, then totally crater after Isaiah Thomas entered the fold notably lessened by his hip injury, only for general manager Koby Altman to completely remake his flagging team at the February trade deadline and send Cleveland into a two-month sprint toward establishing an identity before the start of the playoffs.

It hasn’t been pretty. Through it all, though, there’s been LeBron.

When Jose Calderon was his team’s best option at the point — and, some nights, it still seems like he is — LeBron took the ball and led the team to an 18-1 stretch after a rocky start. With no Kyrie, a net-negative IT, Kevin Love limited to 53 games and scarcely anyone else capable of creating and making shots for the better part of the season, Cleveland still scores like the Warriors when LeBron’s on the floor, and like the Mavericks when he’s off it. The Cavs have still won 60 percent of their games with LeBron as their only true constant, and they’re still the team you’d have to think reeeeeally hard about betting against in a seven-game matchup with any other team in the East.

And, since we’re here: If “eye-popping statistical/historical achievement for a sub-50-win team” and “the acknowledgement that his team would be dead in the water without him” sounds like a familiar argument for an MVP winner, it should. The basketball-voting collective used it just last year. Plus, if you skew toward “who’s the best player” in your MVP calculus, well, you’re never going to feel dumb about casting your lot with LeBron. It’s far more likely that, come mid-May, you’d feel dumb for having chosen anyone else.

That likely won’t be the case this year, of course. Harden’s got a sneakily good claim to being the best player on the planet over the last few years, too, and his numbers are arguably just as impressive as LeBron’s. (Two dudes in Basketball-Reference.com’s database have ever averaged 30-8-5 with a True Shooting percentage north of .600; the other one is ’88-’89 Michael Jordan, so you know Harden’s living right.)

And, as others have noted, the “what’s been happening with our team all year long” point might not necessarily be a mark in James’ favor. If you consider stuff like the reasons why things might have gone south with Kyrie, the frequently effort-free work on the defensive end that’s played a key role in Cleveland continuing to rank near the bottom of the NBA in points allowed per possession all year, and the challenges of retooling a top-heavy roster on which Smith and Thompson made more than $30 million this year due in large part to LeBron putting his thumb on the scale, you could argue that — in this specific year — the value LeBron brings during his time on the court has been mitigated to at least some degree by the complications that have arisen due to his presence.

The defensive stuff matters: Cleveland’s only outscored opponents by nine points in James’ 2,743 minutes this season, and their point differential has been 2.1 points per 100 possessions better in 819 non-LeBron minutes; this marks the first time in his career that LeBron’s team has had a better net rating with him sitting than with him playing. Even accounting for the likelihood that this is LeBron coasting on that end because of the sheer enormity of what’s required of him on the other one, and that Engaged Alpha LeBron, the 1-through-5-switching, chasedown-blocking menace, will return when it matters most come the postseason … well, this isn’t a postseason award, right?

(That said: If you feel a little bit weird about the prospect of elevating Harden over LeBron on the basis of defense, fair enough.)

All things considered, it’s probably been true that everybody else has been playing for second ever since Harden put together the first 60-point triple-double in NBA history in the course of leading Houston to a comfortable cushion over the suddenly-perhaps-wobbly defending champion Golden State Warriors. But just because DeMar DeRozan and Alvin Gentry and a bunch of writers think the thing’s been sewn up for months, that doesn’t mean LeBron has to listen.

He’s never felt like he’s second-best or an underdog in his entire life, and the only thing he’s chasing at this point is a ghost. It’s not surprising that he believes he is, this year and every year, the NBA’s Most Valuable Player. It’d be surprising if he didn’t.

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Dan Devine is a writer and editor for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@oath.com or follow him on Twitter!

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