Even if Cleveland falters in Game 6 and loses its championship bid, LeBron James has proven to be the best player in these Finals
POSTED: Jun 16, 2015 11:38 AM ET
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CLEVELAND — It happened once. Time for it to happen again.
Once before in NBA history, the award presented to the Most Valuable Player in the championship round went to someone from the losing team. Not just any someone, either: Jerry West, the Los Angeles Lakers' Hall of Fame guard (a.k.a., "The Logo" of this entire league), was named Finals MVP in 1969, the first year the award was given.
Since then, it's been all winners, all the time, most recently San Antonio's Kawhi Leonard after the Spurs' five-game mastery over LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the rest of the Miami Heat.
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Generally that makes sense. A standout performer emerges on the squad that claims the Larry O'Brien Trophy, while no one on the losing side plays so well that his performance alone threatens to swing things. These are professionals, remember, not millennials, so they're used to and happiest when getting rewarded for winning, not merely showing up.
But what James is doing in the 2015 NBA Finals -- frankly, what he already has done, with Game 6 looming Tuesday night -- has been exceptional enough to go back to The Finals MVP award's inaugural exception. James ought to join West for his valiant, remarkable effort even if his Cleveland Cavaliers lose.
That's not a given, obviously. Three outcomes still are possible in this series, with implications on the MVP, known these days as the Bill Russell Award:
• Cleveland could win both Game 6 and Game 7. That would make James and his bloated stats line a no-brainer as MVP.
• Cleveland could win Game 6 but lose Game 7 Friday in Oakland. Odds are, that would only strengthen the Cavaliers star's case for MVP, because something significant likely would have happened -- with him in the center of things as usual -- just to push The Finals to the max.
• Golden State wins Game 6 and the championship at Quicken Loans Arena. That's the scenario that might challenge assertions such as this one, that James still deserves the honor over Golden State's Stephen Curry or Andre Iguodala.
1969 Finals Remembered
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That previous sentence, though, makes a little bit of the argument for James as MVP. Both Curry, the NBA's regular-season Most Valuable performer, and Iguodala have made serious contributions in helping the Warriors to their 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series. One without the other? Or, for that matter, without several teammates beyond those two from the deep Golden State ensemble? That 3-2 lead might be flipped. Or worse.
James, meanwhile, has been chasing his third NBA ring and Cleveland's first with Tristan Thompson, Matthew Dellavedova, Timofey Mozgov, Iman Shumpert and the unreliable J.R. Smith. And that pretty much is it. The Cavaliers' rotation, minus a couple of creaky veterans (James Jones, Mike Miller) making spotty contributions, if any at all.
It's almost laughable, if it weren't so unfortunate, that the Cavaliers are playing in June with that group, having lost both Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving to serious injuries along the postseason road. And yet, here they are, one game from The Finals max, thanks head-and-shoulder to James.
Let's look at it this way: If we drafted our Finals teams playground-style, James would be the first pick, right? And then the next two, three, maybe four picks would be Golden State guys: Curry, Iguodala, Draymond Green, perhaps Klay Thompson, depending on your taste for the other Thompson. That right there makes a heavy case for James.
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Then there's the historic nature of his numbers, relative to the precedent set by West. The Lakers' star overwhelmed the whole winning/losing thing in 1969 after seven games against Boston because he averaged 37.9 points, 4.7 rebounds, 7.4 assists and 43.9 minutes. James, through five games, is at 36.6, 12.4, 8.8 and 45.6, with three 40-point games in the first five and two triple-doubles.
Curry has played well enough to win The Finals MVP, some argue. That's true: 26.2 points, 5.0 rebounds, 5.8 assists and 42.4 minutes. But consider the Celtics' best player opposite West in 1969: John Havlicek averaged 28.3, 11.0, 4.4 and 48.0 minutes. Havlicek also had fellow Hall of Famers as teammates, with Bill Russell hauling down 21.1 rebounds and Sam Jones scoring 18.7 points through the series.
Oh, we almost forgot: West won the Finals MVP playing alongside fellow legends Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain.
James has Thompson and Dellavedova.
The whole "best player on the best team" narrative was fine for the 2014-15 MVP, because across 82 games, Curry's season truly was special -- and James had lots of help from Love and Irving in Cleveland's mid-season turnaround from disappointment to contender.
But James' work over the past two weeks -- on the floor, sure, but also in his leadership, somehow convincing the Cavs' cast members they're better than their resumes would suggest -- has been extraordinary. Some might suggest -- as this Finals MVP voter does -- that James has won over new fans thanks to all this, truly working as an underdog for the first time (the 2007 Finals was just a chance to dip a toe in). Bestowing the Russell Award on him -- one he probably doesn't much want, if it comes in defeat -- would be a way to validate the achievement.
Otherwise, just change the definition of the award to require that it comes from the winning team. Assuming, of course, that doesn't wind up being James' team this week.
Here's one more way of looking at it: swap James and Curry before Game 1 of these Finals, have them perform at peak levels, then imagine how differently the past five games would have played out.
If there even were five.
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