The NBA's Most Valuable Player award is a curious thing. The lack of criteria surrounding it leads to annual semantic debates over what value is truly referring to. There is never a consensus for why it is awarded, even when most voters agree on the who, and there never will be. Two of the few things that most can agree on is that it is a regular season award - that much is explicitly stated - and that it doesn't necessarily have to go to the best player in the league.
Best player on the best team, sure. Best player on the team that increased its win total the most from the previous year works, too, or best player on the team that exceeded expectations. For some it's the player that improved the most to join the elite of the league, for others it's whoever appeared to win the most games for their team in the last five minutes of close games, despite that being utter nonsense.
But being the best player in the league doesn't seem to be enough. Unless that player had a great season even by their standards.
Fortunately, LeBron James made it easy on all of us. Fortunately, because a heated MVP debate is usually an ugly, mud-slinging affair that encourages religious zealotry more than rational discussion. James spared us that, at least for one year, by aligning the trinity of award season paradigms.
He had the numbers. He passed the proverbial eye test. And he satisfied the narrative, even if it was never fully behind him.
We start with the numbers not out of an analytical bias, but because numbers can tell us the most about more. When judging an entire season's worth of work - whatever truth you place on each individual data point - this the natural place to begin.
At 30.80, James had the best Player Efficiency Rating in the league, by far, leading second-place, Chris Paul, by 3.71. He had the best +/- per game at +7.6. He had the third highest usage rate (percent of his teams possessions used) and the 11th best field-goal percentage (53.1), one of only three players in the Top 20 of the latter category to be regular ball handlers.
He was among the Top 10 in both true-shooting percentage and effective field-goal percentage, factoring in free-throws and three-point value. He scored the second-most points per possession, 1.052, while shooting a higher percentage, turning the ball over less, getting to the line more and assisting on more baskets than the leader, Kevin Durant (1.059).
With a hat tip to Dwyane Wade's passing, James led the league in fast-break points per game (5.9).
And he gave up less than six points per 10 possessions when defending in isolation situations, which takes us to defense, which takes us to the eye test.
There is no way for numbers to paint a comprehensive picture of what James does on defense, no way to account for players sharing the floor, coaching schemes and quality of players defended at all times. But as deserving as Tyson Chandler was for winning Defensive Player of the Year for being the New York Knicks' trusty anchor, James was a bonafide defensive weapon, capable of tracking any coordinates.
Need to shut down Derrick Rose on the ball? Give James a call. Have a small forward, say a Kevin Durant or Carmelo Anthony, that needs a dose of defensive horror? James is already there. Want to play small? James can defend Pau Gasol and the other power forwards. Need to manufacture a little chaos off the ball? Confirmed.
James does it without fouling, too. By deftly managing when to gamble on the ball and when to play straight up. By helping when help is needed, by closing out and stopping on a dime when the ball finds a shooter. He was versatile not just in the players he could defend, but in the defensive roles he could fill at the same time.
Because the defense was a strength, Erik Spoelstra could use James to dictate matchups, playing him at power forward to force an opponent to either adjust or watch their big men try to keep up. By simply standing on the court, James could make an opponent use a less effective lineup.
Our eyes saw the James continue to evolve in the post, where he is still hardly perfect and yet deadly efficient, too. They saw James become more selective with his shots and appear to improve as a shooter. They saw him work on his game off the ball. They saw him find open teammates that didn't even know they were open.
The incredible was always there, of course. The full-court passes, catches and finishes. The dunks, the speed and the strength. The body control and the composure. Everything that told you the human being you were watching was special. That he was someone you will tell stories about, even while his story is hardly finished.
We like to think we know how the story should end. We like to think it's fair to judge James on expectations, on whether he's living up to a prescribed myth from moment to moment. That's where that story, the oft-referred to narrative, gets in the way of judging performance. For some, being a +24 in "clutch" situations is good enough. For some, making the right basketball plays, finding Udonis Haslem for an open last-second jumper, is good enough. For others, neither is.
But good enough is entirely subjective. It's our emotional messiness getting in the way of probabilities. Our way of ignoring that a person can make every correct decision and still have every result go against them.
The narrative supported James this season because there was no other compelling candidate, but that shouldnt matter. It shouldn't matter that Derrick Rose endured a number of injuries, or that James' Miami HEAT prevailed over Kevin Durant's Oklahoma City Thunder in a regular season game that meant very little in the grand scheme of things.
It shouldn't matter how we feel, but it does. And James gave us all the evidence we needed, by the numbers, by our reactions and by the things we choose to remember, to make us feel that he had the best season of any player in the league, on both ends of the court, doing most everything you could want a basketball to do.