LeBron's MVP for the Ages

by Couper Moorhead
HEAT.com

This is one of the easiest MVP picks we’ve had in years.

We had a player join the vaunted 50-40-90 shooting club – from the field, from three and from the free-throw line – while using nearly a third of his team’s possessions and scoring 28 points a night. He improved across the board, notably in his defense and playmaking. He was unstoppable, putting up an MVP performance in any other season, but Kevin Durant was decidedly the second-best player in basketball this year because of LeBron James.

In large part because James might also be the most improved player in the league.

All the reasons behind James winning his third MVP trophy last year apply to this one, his fourth. He was a worst-case scenario for opponents on both ends of the floor, a fever-dream terror capable of defending your best player regardless of shape or size while controlling one of the most versatile and deadly offenses in the league. James was an overwhelming force, the leading cause in opposing-coach shoulder shrugs in a league full of sideline pride.

But what he did last year wasn’t good enough. Erik Spoelstra stressed the growth mindset to the defending champions throughout the offseason, but James never needed to be told. A year after (getting credit for) his evolution on the low blocks, James topped the 40 percent threshold from three-point range for the first time in his career. And with defenders forced to close out hard on the perimeter, James displayed some of the most disciplined, patient shot selection in the league. Earn a switch in the pick-and-roll? James was taking the big man off the dribble. If he didn’t get the best position on an initial post-up, James kicked out and trusted his teammates to get him the ball in a better spot.

James’ teammates, in turn, had complete faith in him. All year long Shane Battier and Ray Allen espoused the potency of James’ combination of size and vision. They didn’t even have to watch the ball on offense. They could watch their defenders, and the second that man drifted a couple of steps in the wrong direction, Battier and Allen knew the ball was coming their way. Just get to your spots, they said, and James would get them open, find them open, and send them an eminently shootable pass.

The result was not only the best offense of the year, but one of the most efficient offenses in the history of the sport as the HEAT had an NBA record .552 effective field-goal percentage – accounting for the value of a three-pointer – topping even the best of the Showtime Lakers squads from the 1980’s. On an individual level, James was the second player ever and first since Chris Mullin to shoot 55 percent from the floor and 40 percent from three, and when Mullin did it he didn’t even take 1,000 shots. As far as shot-taking goes, Larry Bird previously held the best season even as he shot 52.7 and 41.4 percent in 1987-88. James made 56.5 percent of his shots.

In other words, James simultaneously turned himself into a deadly three-point shooter and the best finisher the league has seen since the heyday of Shaquille O’Neal. All while his team won the most games of any team and an incredible 27 in a row.

The question, then, isn’t whether or not James was the most valuable or impressive player of this season, but whether he was the most valuable and impressive player of any season.

It’s incredibly easy to become a prisoner of the moment with such things, but this isn’t as ridiculous as it sounds. Nobody is ever going to put up 50 points and 25 rebounds per game as Wilt Chamberlain once did, but it is impossible to compare modern players to those in the 1960’s. What we can do is take a closer look at those from the advent of the three-point line on, and once you narrow things down to anything post 1980, it becomes increasingly clear how few seasons there to the one James just had.

In trying to find the season that James wouldn’t have won the MVP for his performance this year, the most common answer among HEAT players and coaches was something along the lines of: ‘Well, maybe one of those Jordan years’. Tim Duncan in 2002 and Shaq in 2000 were tossed out, but it’s almost unfair to compare position-confined big men to a player than can now both score and create out of the post while defending every position on the floor and being an incredible help defender. We can’t write off either player, but the numbers – advanced or not – point to Michael Jordan in 87-88 (35 points per game on 53.5 percent shooting) or 90-91 (similar numbers with anecdotally improved defense) being the best comparison for what James has accomplished.

You run into the rules issue here. In Jordan’s era, you could handcheck players on the perimeter but teams were restricted from playing zone defense. In James’ era, there’s no handchecking but just about every team packs the paint in quasi, hybrid zones. When you get down to this comparison you’ll often hear people say, ‘Yeah, but let’s see how LeBron would do with handchecking’ but few point out, as Ray Allen did, that zones are just as much of a pain for perimeter scorers.

“Back then, when there was handchecking, there wasn’t great significance on team defense,” Allen said. “It was, ‘You got to guard your man’. You were playing one-on-one and there was no help coming. You had to keep [your man] from getting wherever he wants to go.

“The floor seemed like it was even more spaced. The guy could get to the rim before you could even help.”

We’re not going to go too deep into this part of the conversation. The point is simply that James’ year belongs among the best seasons from the league’s best-ever player.

“Outside of MJ I don’t see anyone else,” said James Jones, about as close to an NBA Historian as you can get among active players. “That’s what [James’] greatness is about. Every conversation like that, it’s going to be tough to go against him. That’s the mark of a truly historic player, when you talk about him at the top of every conversation.”

That’s where James has put himself. He still has titles to win and trophies to add to his cabinet, but at 28 years old James is already being discussed as one of the best of all time. He’s redefining dominance in the NBA – you don’t have to take a lot of shots to control every aspect of the game – and by association he’s forcing us to reconfigure our expectations for how the game should be played. He says he wants to become an 80 percent free-throw shooter, but who is to say he couldn’t shoot 60 percent from the floor next year? When is the league going to stop playing catch up?

Let’s make a promise not to get complacent with this man. Don’t stop paying attention, because you’re going to want as many details as possible when you tell stories of LeBron James in 10, 20 or 30 years. Don’t take the way James plays the game for granted. And above all, let’s not get bored. Because James sure hasn't.

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