NBA GMs expect LeBron James to win his fifth MVP this season, and that should come as a surprise to no one.
In their annual survey, 50 percent of the NBA’s general managers picked LeBron James to bring home the 2017-18 MVP. That’s a three percent increase from last year. He’s ahead of Kevin Durant (29 percent), Kawhi Leonard (11 percent), James Harden (seven percent) and Stephen Curry (four percent). I don’t think anyone who follows the NBA is surprised at this ruling.
LeBron is in the Most Valuable Player conversation each year, and he’s more than deserving of it. Being the league’s best player is, by itself, enough to catapult him into the talks. We can then add in the numbers, which have only gotten better the more time James has spent in the league. The final two variables are his team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, and how they play. Without him, they’ve been a dumpster fire and will continue to be a dumpster fire. This year is no different.
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Cleveland’s 2017 ended in June at the hands of the Golden State Warriors. The new-look Dubs sent the Cavaliers packing in five games. During the regular season, Cleveland was subpar. They finished just 51-31, good for second overall in the conference. Once the playoffs rolled around, the Cavs kicked it into sixth gear and showed the East that they were, in fact, the best team. They lost just one game during the first three rounds. James was the catalyst.
In 74 games, the 32-year-old had arguably the best season of his career. He averaged 26.4 points on 54.8 percent shooting from the field and set career-highs with 8.7 assists and 8.6 rebounds. When it came time to announce the MVP, James didn’t win. That wasn’t too ridiculous given Russell Westbrook’s historic season. It got weird when the voting released and showed that LeBron wasn’t even one of the finalists. He finished fourth overall. It was the first time James wasn’t top-three since 2008.
When picking the NBA’s MVP, voters have to balance individual numbers and team success carefully. I wish it were that easy. There was a legitimate case to make for James just like there was for Russell Westbrook and James Harden. I believe that Westbrook’s numbers last year got weighted more heavily than the success of his team and, more importantly, how he made (or didn’t make) his teammates better. I picked Harden for those exact reasons. The Houston Rockets shattered all expectations and his numbers were just as historic as Russ’. That doesn’t mean he’s not deserving of the award — I have no problems with Westbrook winning the MVP even though I picked Harden.
If we redirect the conversation to LeBron, he should’ve been among the finalists. He had the numbers and made everyone around him better, but James’ perpetual greatness makes his case interesting. Because he’s already a four-time winner who could realistically win the award every year, we get voter’s fatigue and award someone new who’s equally deserving. James’ remarkable play has become so consistent that we’re numb to it.
I wouldn’t shock me if GMs voted for LeBron in this poll just because of who he is. James is the kind of player that you look foolish betting against, and this may be the first year in quite awhile where he goes out and tries to win an MVP. As the seasons have gone on, LeBron’s concerned himself with winning championships, and a part of that master plan means coasting during the regular season, so his body doesn’t break down. He doesn’t breeze through the entire season but picks his spots. Over the last couple of years, it’s been easier to do that thanks to Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, but moreso the latter. While Cleveland wasn’t good enough to win when it was Irving by himself, pairing the two meant Kyrie could go to work and shoulder the offense while James got the same attention he always has.
LeBron has deferred to Irving on various occasions and, statistically, made him look like Cleveland’s first-option. James’ willingness to take a backseat at times combined with his “coasting” limited his MVP chances. And I don’t think he cares.
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The only evidence we have to say that James turns it all the way up during the postseason is his numbers. His 2017 playoff stats are as follows: 32.8 points, 9.1 rebounds, 7.8 assists with a true shooting clip of 64.9 percent. If he did that during the regular season, he’s unanimously winning the MVP. And we all know the Cavs are going home in the first round if LeBron wasn’t playing. That spike in playoff production isn’t a trend — throughout his career, the numbers have consistently been better in the postseason, and various factors contribute to that. The biggest is his supporting cast.
During his first stint with the Cavaliers, James couldn’t take a day off because he was busy carrying the likes of Eric Snow and Sasha Pavlovic. LeBron was dominant as an individual, but the team struggled to win 50 games until the later parts of the decade. Since then, James has had the All-Star-caliber cohorts that make his job during the regular season easier. Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Irving and Love make any coasting possible. Now, Cleveland is in a predicament.
They may not be the best team in the East, but they’re a lock to make the Finals until proven otherwise. I have no doubts they’ll get there on the shoulders of LeBron James. However, this regular season is going to be a fascinating one. Irving is no longer in the picture. Instead, they have Isaiah Thomas, who’s an incredible player and will fill Irving’s shoes nicely. The unfortunate part is that Thomas is dealing with a nagging hip injury and we don’t know how much of the season he’s going to miss. Will he come back by December? Maybe. Will he be sidelined until after the All-Star Game? Maybe. Will he miss the entire regular season? Unlikely, but who knows. That reduces the Big Three to a dynamic duo that is Love and James.
The severity of Thomas’ injury directly impacts James’ “coasting.” Without him, LeBron would have to average something like 29-8-7 to keep Cleveland from suffering more than usual, especially against top-tier talent. I have no worries about him maintaining that. Tyronn Lue would need to keep James’ minutes close to what they were last year because, outside of Love and Jae Crowder, the Cavaliers don’t have many weapons. They instead have a whole bunch of big names — Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade and Jeff Green are the most notable.
Those guys will help James but not to the extent they would have in their primes. If we turned back the clock, a team led by LeBron with a MVP-caliber Derrick Rose and a pre-injury Dwyane Wade is going down as one of the greatest teams ever assembled. It’s 2017. That’s not the case. James would have an added workload of trying to work them into the offense because they’re not the ideal complements.
When you’re building a team around a superstar, talent is essential. What’s just as important are your role players. In the modern NBA, three-and-D guys are the ideal occupants for any supporting role. Neither Green nor Rose nor Wade can shoot the three or play defense. The discouraging part is that I don’t see them improving. Wade shot just 28.9 percent from three as a teammate of LeBron from 2011-2014. And that was before he became a shell of himself; Rose, a career 29.8 percent shooter, has just never developed a jumper. Jeff Green has a chance, but the only thing I’d bet on it is a Snickers bar.
Once the postseason rolls around, Cleveland will (hopefully) have Isaiah Thomas back and be 100 percent so they could blast through the East before meeting Golden State for the championship. By then, the MVP voting would be over and James’ remarkable regular season would net him his fifth award, joining Bill Russell, Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the only guys with at least that many. Additionally, at 33, he’d be tied with Karl Malone as the third-oldest MVP in league history. That would be James’ ideal situation — a perfect storm of misfortune would award him the league’s highest individual honor.
If I had to guess, GMs are betting on LeBron James this year because of the uncertainty surrounding the team. He’s a position where he might need to dominate every facet of every regular season game so that Cleveland can finish among the East’s best teams. It’s compelling logic, but it makes sense.
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