LeBron James rightfully questions who the 'most valuable player' is

Ball Don't Lie
LeBron James knows. (Getty Images)
LeBron James knows. (Getty Images)

Sports leagues really did themselves a disservice when they happened upon the phrase “most valuable player.” Or, considering the attention they’re all getting, perhaps it was a canny move. Either way, the designation still leaves some room for debate, and people that like to talk about sports in the middle of a weekday tend to embrace debate.

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Stephen Curry won the NBA’s MVP award on Tuesday in what turned out to be the league’s first unanimous vote. Curry, who also won the trophy in 2015, led the NBA in scoring, steals, three-pointers made and free throw percentage while contributing a league-high Player Efficiency Rating as he led his Golden State Warriors to an NBA record 73 regular season wins. MVP candidacies don’t come much more obvious than this case.

LeBron James, a four-time (and probably shoulda been more) winner of the award, still has a different way to frame things. Via Tom Withers of the Associated Press, from Wednesday:

''I think sometimes the word 'valuable' or best player of the year, you can have different results,'' said James, a four-time MVP. ''You know, that's not taking anything from anyone that's ever won the award.'''

[…]

''Look at Steph's numbers,'' he said. ''He averaged 30, he led the league in steals, he was 90-50-40 (shooting percentages from the free-throw line, field and 3-pointers), and they won 73 (games). So, I don't, do you have any debate over that, really, when it comes to that award? But when you talk about most 'valuable' then you can have a different conversation, so, take nothing away from him, he's definitely deserving of that award, for sure.''

LeBron ain’t wrong. On all fronts.

Stephen Curry was just a few hours removed from hoisting the award at a press conference when NBA TV’s ‘The Starters’ put together a segment asking if he was even the NBA’s best player. This isn’t disrespectful, and nobody here is throwing shade, but in a team game that can be elevated by individual play (as we saw in spades on Monday night), declaring someone the “most valuable player” tends to be rather loaded.

There’s the one-on-one argument, to start. LeBron James would probably destroy Stephen Curry in a game to 11, win by two. Carmelo Anthony might even do the same, provided he stick to his low post strengths. It’s true that a three-point shot counts more than a two-point lay in, but even given the NBA’s five second rule for backing defenders down, bigger players with handle are always going to rule the roost.

Then there are the various derivations of the word “valuable.”

Media members love to vote for a player working it all alone. It’s why Fred Hickman and Gary Washburn denied Shaquille O’Neal and James unanimous votes in 2000 and 2013 in favor of lending a lone vote to Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony, respectively. Yes, Stephen Curry had a fabulous year, but so did teammates Draymond Green (who finished sixth in MVP voting) and Klay Thompson. Meanwhile, Paul George and Damian Lillard had to drag unheralded rosters into the postseason on their wearied backs – wouldn’t they, then, be the most “valuable” player?

Or, you could take the word literally.

Stephen Curry’s contract, at $11.3 million this season, is an absolute bargain. He’s the fourth-highest player on his team, working on a deal that he agreed to in the wake of his injury-plagued first few seasons in the NBA.

Is he the NBA’s best bargain, though? The most valuable?

Lillard is still on his rookie deal. He made $4.2 million this season and pushed his team to play until the second week of May. Andre Drummond led the NBA in rebounds per game while taking his Pistons to the playoffs at $3.2 million. Anthony Davis may have missed the playoffs this year, but even with a respectable No. 1 overall pick contract he was likely the NBA’s most productive-per-pay player in 2014-15 while taking the Pelicans to the postseason alongside making $5.6 million. LeBron himself had quite the argument while working on his own rookie deal in 2006, even with Kobe Bryant scoring 35 a game and Steve Nash pulling his injured Suns back into championship contention.

These are valuable players. There might be better players. It’s all a big mess, even when unani-mess.

Then there’s the “who would you rather?”-aspect.

You’ve just been handed the reins of the Albuquerque Charlatans, the NBA’s 31st team, and you get your choice of any player in the league to start with. LeBron James, midway through his 31st year on the planet, might be off your list in spite of what you’ve seen him do to this league for the last 12 1/2 years. Stephen Curry, at age 28, might be at his peak. Anthony Davis could be too brittle, Chris Paul too worn out, and Draymond Green might a little hard to sell as a franchise player. Kawhi Leonard’s next quotable quip will be his first.

Karl Anthony-Towns would probably be your guy, even with Curry dropping 30 a night. He won’t hit his prime until 2024, he’s tall and versatile and does well with the cameras in his face. He’s the perfect young man to sell basketball to the fine folks in Albuquerque and an exceptional young player to build a team around. Yes, Stephen could drop 55 on your opening night, but how much of that is going to matter in three years when he’s on the wrong side of 30?

This is what the NBA creates when it calls a recipient the “most valuable player.” The sport isn’t based around a series of one-on-one confrontations as baseball is, and it isn’t dominated by a single position as football is. It’s a glorious confluence of both team and individual prowess.

By the NBA’s standards, LeBron James was not the MVP this year, and James himself acknowledged that by just about any metric Stephen Curry should have run away with the award. Cleveland Cavalier fans, though, should be more than happy that James isn’t about to step aside while considering himself the best player in the league. And LeBron is quite correct in pointing out that, even in such a landslide scenario, that these things are never simple to suss out.

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Kelly Dwyer is an editor for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at KDonhoops@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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