By Rob Peterson, NBA.com
Posted May 5 2009 5:52AM
Almost from the start, LeBron James seemed destined for success. He appeared on his first Sports Illustrated cover at 17, the words "The Chosen One" blaring from the headline below. On Monday, a little more than seven years later, James has been chosen as the 2008-09 NBA Most Valuable Player presented by Kia Motors.
Because of his early high profile -- the magazine cover, a Rookie of the Year award in 2004, a Finals appearance in 2007 and six full seasons of increasing dominance in the league -- it feels as if James has been around for quite some time. Yet as he wraps his hands around the Maurice Podoloff trophy on Monday, James becomes, at 24 years and 125 days old, the youngest MVP ever voted the award by sportswriters and broadcasters (who have been at it since the 1980-81 season). Only five-time MVP Michael Jordan was nearly as precocious, winning his first at the age of 25 in 1988.
And while there may be those who see his progression as a predestined coronation for "The King," James has earned this award not through destiny or regal nickname, but because of his regal game. When he entered the league in 2003, James was all raw, youthful power. This year, more than any other, he found balance between that power and the power to make those around him better. He has become a leader.
How good were the Cavaliers this season when LeBron was at his best? They were brutally, ruthlessly efficient. In the 81 games he played, he sat out 14 fourth quarters because the leads he helped build through the first three quarters were big enough that James -- and a few of the other starters -- could take the final 12 minutes off.
When he was on the court, James produced staggering numbers: 28.4 points, 7.6 rebounds and 7.2 assists a game. A league-high seven triple-doubles. A league-leading plus/minus of 871. And a nearly historic Player Efficiency Rating of 31.76, just shy of Jordan's record of 31.89 in 1988.
As staggering as those numbers are, James has had better seasons, statistically. He averaged 31.4 points per game in 2005-06. He averaged more rebounds (7.9) last season and more steals in 2004-05 (2.2, compared to 1.7 this season).
Yet for the first time in his career, his numbers translated to overwhelming team success.
Throughout his career, James has brought light and heat to a franchise prone to long bouts of dark, dank seasons. This season, James and the Cavs rolled to a 66-16 record, best in the league, including an incredible 39-2 at home, also best.
Ironically, one of the reasons James has raised his game to an MVP level is his improvement on defense, which can be attributed to spending all summer on the U.S. Olympic team with Kobe Bryant, one of the NBA's premier on-the-ball defenders and last year's MVP. Who knew the student would pass the teacher?
"He's become a stud defender," Nets coach Lawrence Frank said. "Speaking as an outsider, that Olympic experience benefitted these guys. The defensive plays he makes are unbelievable.
"[He's] another guy who can win games for you defensively, not only on the ball but off the ball."
That's a testament to James' high hoops IQ. He takes risks defensively, but they're calculated risks complemented by a ridiculous athletic ability that allows him to make plays most other players can't. As such, he finished second to Orlando's Dwight Howard in the Kia Defensive Player of the Year voting.
Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni, who was an assistant on Team USA, saw LeBron's drive and focus first-hand.
"He's 6-foot-9, 260 pounds and probably the fastest guy on the floor," D'Antoni said. "It's not only a tough combo for us, but it makes him one of the best in the league.
"I think it's in his mind to be the best player. He wants to win a title and that's about it."
You can often judge how good a season an MVP has had by the competition. Dwyane Wade led the league in scoring with 30.2 points per game and was the first player under 6-foot-4 to record 100 steals and 100 blocks in a season. Bryant led the Lakers to 65-17 record. Howard topped the league in rebounding and blocks. New Orleans' Chris Paul, who finished second in the MVP voting last season, had more assists and steals than anyone.
James, though, passed them all. Barely 24, he has now truly earned his regal nickname.
"He's a special talent," Cavs coach Mike Brown said. "There are All-Stars and elite players. And then there are players who are a step above that. Kobe and Tim [Duncan] and Michael and Magic and 'Bron obviously fit in that category."
Now, James joins them all in another: NBA MVP.
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