Wetzel on LeBron: King James' next conquest
CLEVELAND – If anyone disputes the idea that LeBron James is worthy of winning this season's Most Valuable Player award, all they had to do was watch the Cleveland Cavaliers play without him on Thursday night. James watched a game in street clothes for the first time in his three-year career after spraining an ankle against Detroit on Wednesday night, and his Cavs eked out an ugly 91-87 win over the struggling Knicks.
With as many as eight players in the NBA this season making strong cases for MVP, it is difficult to separate the candidates. I believe the winner should be absolutely indispensable to his team, and under that criterion, James stands out. He has carried the Cavaliers to the verge of a 50-win season and he has done so with a team of role players around him.
Larry Hughes missed 45 games with a finger injury. Zydrunas Ilgauskas has played well but not to the All-Star level of 2003 or 2005. Eric Snow? Drew Gooden? Damon Jones? All are solid players, but let's be honest – without LeBron, Cleveland would be a lottery team.
Compare James' supporting cast with those of the other candidates, and I believe he stands alone. Steve Nash? He has Shawn Marion, and vice versa. Elton Brand? The Clippers weren't very good until Sam Cassell arrived. Chauncey Billups? He's part of the best starting five in the NBA. Dwyane Wade has Shaquille O'Neal next to him. Dirk Nowitzki and Kobe Bryant can make strong cases, but they have more talent around them than LeBron does. And in the end, James does more for his teammates than any of the above names, although Nash would have an argument there.
Not enough for you? Check the numbers.
James is averaging 31.6 points despite the fact that he looks to pass first – hence the six assists he dishes per game. He also pounds the boards, grabbing seven per night. There are only three other players in NBA history who have averaged 30 points, seven rebounds and six assists per game for a season: Oscar Robertson, Jerry West and Michael Jordan. Not a bad list of names.
A popular argument against LeBron earlier this season was that he didn't hit clutch shots. In fact, James had a stretch of games in January where he did look nervous in the clutch and failed to make big shots with the game on the line. Since then, he's hit a couple of buzzer beaters and made a series of huge passes to set up teammates for game winners.
A close look at the numbers shows that, in the final two minutes of one-possession games, James is shooting 18-for-28 this season. No other NBA player, including Kobe Bryant, is even shooting 50 percent. The truth is that LeBron has come up big in the clutch, and perhaps more importantly, he's trusted his teammates to make big shots as well.
LeBron's coach, Mike Brown, says that James' best quality is his character. "He allows me to coach the team," Brown said. "I single him out for mistakes in film sessions and he accepts the criticism, which means that everyone else falls right in line. He's like Tim Duncan in San Antonio – he sets the tone."
It's no wonder why James is so popular with his teammates. He passes them the ball when they're open, he brings the best out of them and he manages to score 31 points per game in the meantime.
Will he actually win the MVP award? Probably not. Voters will say that he's too young and that he'll have many more chances in the future. (If that's not the stupidest argument ever, I don't know what is.) All I know is that James is the most athletic player in the game, he's amazingly unselfish, he makes every one of his teammates better and he has led his team to a great season.
A couple of months ago, I would have picked Kobe, but I just don't think he makes his teammates better. A few weeks ago, Nash would have been my choice, but I realize that without Marion the Suns wouldn't be anywhere as good as they are. But the more I've seen of LeBron, the more I realize that he is the most special player in the NBA. He is the rare superstar that carries his teammates on his shoulders while at the same time empowering them to make plays. And the scary thing is, he's going to be doing this for the next 12 years or so.
That's why in the most wide-open MVP race the NBA has seen in a long time, LeBron James should be the winner.