Race to the MVP Ladder
The Race to the MVP Ladder is a weekly look at our favorite to walk away with the Maurice Podoloff Trophy (aka the NBA MVP award). The rankings are written by Sekou Smith of NBA.com's HangTime blog, Hang Time podcast and The Beat fame. If you have an issue with the Ladder, or have a question or comment for Sekou, send him an e-mail. You can also follow him on Twitter.
Unique Company Looms For LeBron
April 19 -- During a lengthy conversation about all things basketball, the NBA's greatest winner paid the league's current ultimate warrior the highest of compliments.
Boston Celtics Hall of Famer and living legend Bill Russell named LeBron James first when asked who he watches most today. Russell said he admires the way James plays the game -- team first, win at all costs and unafraid to walk his own path -- and how he thinks through the intricacies of each game.
It's fitting that Russell recognizes James as the league's torch bearer, because James is poised to join Russell on an extremely short list of players who have captured the NBA's greatest individual honor four times in five seasons. James is the runaway favorite to win his fourth MVP trophy, his second straight as a member of the Miami Heat, after leading his team to a 66-win season and the No. 1 overall seed in the playoffs.
James sits atop the final Kia Race to the MVP Ladder for the 2012-13 season, having distinguished himself from the crowded field of candidates from the start of this season but especially during the Heat's franchise-record 27-game win streak, the second-best mark in NBA history. James could very well become the first unanimous winner of the Maurice Podoloff trophy, which would also be a first in the 58-year-old award's history.
"Don't take it for granted," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra raved earlier this season about the reigning league and Finals MVP. "He makes greatness look easy."
A quick scan of his mind-boggling numbers makes that clear. James is the league's fourth leading scorer (26.8 ppg), finishing behind Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant. But he scored more efficiently than any of the other guys at the top of the list, connecting on a staggering 56.5 percent of his shots, including 40.6 percent of his 3-pointers. Those are staggering numbers for a player whose glaring weakness early in his career was his shooting stroke.
James also averaged 8.0 rebounds, 7.3 assists and 1.7 steals per game. He impacts games in so many ways, making him not only the league's most valuable player, but also its most versatile and dynamic.
"I've never seen anything like him and we might not ever see anything like him in the future," Los Angeles Clippers guard Jamal Crawford said. "When you think of all of the great players that have come through this league, there are only a handful of them you can say that about. He's in a league of his own right now."
While James is adamant about never playing the game for number's sake, there is no denying his brilliance a decade into his career. In fact, were it not for lingering resentment after his departure from Cleveland three years ago in free agency (the public relations debacle better known as "The Decision"), James might actually stand alone in MVP lore with five straight trophies.
Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose won the award after the 2010-11 season. Russell's four-in-five stretch came from 1960-65, with Oscar Robertson (Cincinnati Royals) interrupting his flow in 1964.
James still has a chance to join Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Larry Bird as the only players to win three straight MVP awards, an honor that eluded Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the league's career scoring leader who sits atop the all-time standings with six MVP trophies.
Spoelstra is convinced that an intense desire to be the best to ever player in the game, and the work ethic that has to come along with that, is what has fueled his star's rise to the top.
"He came off one of the more historic MVP seasons with a championship. Most people, the human condition would have been to relax and say, 'OK, that's the pinnacle,"' Spoelstra said. "But instead, he wanted to push and find another barrier. And that's why we don't want to, he doesn't want to, put a ceiling on how far he can go. ... He's a player that could conceivably continue to get better."
What else is left for a player who could conceivably lead any statistical category of his choosing? James already has accomplished what was essentially the perfect year -- that first title, two MVP trophies and that shiny Olympic gold medal.
If we're lucky, we'll find out in the coming years as James, 28, continues to fine tune his already otherworldly game.
And like Russell, the rest of the basketball world will be watching.
-- Sekou Smith, NBA.com
The Next Five: Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs; Ty Lawson, Denver Nuggets; Deron Williams, Brooklyn Nets; Paul George, Indiana Pacers; Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Falling out: Duncan
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