Columns, Sports

Klein ’20: Lebron James, MVP

By
Sports Columnist
Thursday, February 23, 2017

Terrific individual performances have been a staple of the current NBA season, as Russell Westbrook and James Harden have compiled monster numbers thus far. Westbrook is on a path to averaging a triple-double for the season and would be the first player to do so since Oscar Robertson in the 1961-1962 season. Meanwhile, Harden could lead the league in points and assists per game — he currently sits at third in points and first in assists in the NBA — a feat not accomplished since Nate Archibald’s 1972-1973 season. The pair has totaled 40 triple-doubles, 26 of those by Westbrook, while Harden enjoyed the finest statistical performance of the season with 53 points, 16 rebounds and 17 assists.

Accordingly, this year’s MVP discussion has centered on Westbrook and Harden. It makes sense. There has even been some mention of the Warriors’ Kevin Durant, who is among the NBA’s best in points per game and shooting percentage and also plays for the league’s best team.

But the game’s greatest player, Lebron James, has been forgotten in all the MVP talk. James’ basic statistical averages, while unbelievable, simply don’t jump off the page like Westbrook’s or Harden’s, and his MVP candidacy has suffered in turn.

It is important to acknowledge that even in the context of the Harden and Westbrook’s historic seasons, James is putting forth his own entry into the record books. His 8.8 assists per game are the most ever by a non-guard. But there is more to basketball than just the basic statistics, and when one examines James’ case more closely, the choice for MVP becomes far more clear.

James has a storied NBA career, and last year he led the Cavaliers to the NBA Championship, upsetting the Warriors after trailing three games to one, the greatest comeback in NBA history. This year, the Cavaliers are again one of the NBA’s few contenders. That is, when James is on the floor.

Over the past two and a half seasons, the Cavaliers have gone 4-18 when James has not played. Not only are they not contenders — as one would expect with the loss of James — but they are simply dreadful.

For those who find advanced statistics more convincing, as is common in the current analytics-driven NBA, the numbers bear this phenomenon out as well. With James on the court, the Cavaliers have a 7.8 point advantage over their opponents per 100 possessions. With Lebron on the bench, Cleveland is outscored by 4.4 points per 100 possessions. That is a 12.2 point difference.

It is a different story with Kyrie Irving, the star of last year’s Cavalier playoff run. Even those who criticize James’ MVP campaign because of his star teammate should note only a 4.9 point difference per 100 possessions for Irving. It just goes to show how dominant James truly is, even when compared to one of the NBA’s stars.

As impressive as Harden’s season has been, the difference between the Rockets with Harden on and off the court — 3.5 points per 100 possessions — does not come close to James’ numbers.

Westbrook is the one man who has Lebron beat in this statistic, with a 13.6 point difference per 100 possessions. Much of that is due to how terrible the Thunder bench has been, as opponents outscore Oklahoma City by an astonishing 10.9 points per 100 possessions with Westbrook off the court.

Much has been made of Westbrook’s efforts to carry the Thunder into the playoffs, and he has done incredibly well, dragging a lackluster team into the seventh place in the Western Conference. But for all Westbrook has accomplished, the Thunder are still expected to be quickly dispatched in its first round series.

Harden has taken a Rockets team, albeit one far more talented than Oklahoma City, all the way to the third seed. But the Rockets are far from a guarantee to make the Finals, still behind the timeless Spurs and the Warriors in the Western Conference standings.

Only James has the talent to take a bad team to the Finals, as he did in 2007. The Cavaliers are in control of the Eastern Conference, sitting pretty in first place and remaining the prohibitive favorites to reach the NBA’s championship yet again. This year’s trip would be Lebron’s seventh consecutive appearance.

Before we get too caught up in Westbrook and Harden’s successes, let’s keep in mind who the real MVP is: Lebron James.

George Klein ’20 can be reached at george_klein@brown.edu.