Kia MVP Ladder: Even after 15 seasons, LeBron James maintains an MVP-type pace

Cavaliers' living legend puts together yet another hardware-worthy campaign

Brilliant people who could do much more noble things have spent countless hours crunching the numbers that come naturally to LeBron James and his self-proclaimed “beautiful mind.”

It’s one of the reasons that James, now 33 years old and 15 seasons into his legendary NBA career, remains at the top of his game this deep into his journey.

The man who says he’s aged like “fine wine” is putting the finishing touches on what is arguably his finest regular season to date, given all that the Cleveland Cavaliers have endured since Kyrie Irving asked out of town last summer.

And his continued defiance of Father Time has forced honesty out of the calculated superstar, one who always battled the urge to say what we all know to be true (as opposed to what is politically correct).

So maybe we shouldn’t raise an eyebrow when he declares that if he had a vote for Kia MVP this season, he’d vote for himself. If you had done what he has this season, who would you vote for?

“He refuses to be stopped mentally. In a way, maybe Kobe [Bryant] was the only guy like this, and I think [Michael] Jordan had some of that ability as well.”

Former NBA executive, on LeBron James

Even when someone points out that the Houston Rockets’ James Harden is the no-brainer pick for Kia MVP this season, they can’t finish the sentence without acknowledging the fact that LeBron is every bit as deserving — just as he is basically every year.

Washington Wizards coach Scott Brooks was in the unique position of having to try and stop them both this week. First, his team faced Harden — a player Brooks coached from 2009-12 in Oklahoma City — on Tuesday night. Then came a Thursday night matchup with James and Co. on TNT.

And he answered questions from reporters by endorsing Harden and then tipping his cap to LeBron in the same breath.

“He’s definitely an MVP this year,” Brooks said of Harden. “He’s played well on the team that’s playing the best in basketball, but you can always argue LeBron [James] can get it every year. Like Michael Jordan should have had 12 of them. LeBron’s the same type of player. He’s having probably a better year than he had before, however many years he had.”

The longevity and consistency of the years LeBron has had is what makes his MVP case this year, and basically every year. He’s played at an elite level for so long, it’s hard for anyone to remember a time when he wasn’t the first name that came to mind in a MVP dialogue.

“I think the thing for me, that defines him more than anything else is the mental toughness that it takes to do the things he does,” said a former Eastern Conference general manager who worked in the Western Conference during LeBron’s first stint in Cleveland. “By way of example, it’s not impressive to me that a guy who’s that talented and that ball-dominant would score 10 or more points 867 times in a row.

“And then you think about it and you say, ‘hold on a second. That means 867 consecutive times he did not have some fluke thing happen in a game that took him off the court and took him away from his teammates.’ He refuses to be stopped mentally. In a way, maybe Kobe [Bryant] was the only guy like this, and I think [Michael] Jordan had some of that ability as well.”

“But he goes to The Finals seven straight years. So that means seven straight years he has a shorter turnaround time than everybody else in the league and he’s still in the gym working his [expletives] off in the offseason. So that part of him, that complete obsession he has with greatness and with being better all the time, that’s the thing to me that’s amazing to me.”

LeBron’s ability to play through injuries and anything else that could have slowed him down is what resonates after all of these years.

Even for a prospect as heralded as LeBron was as a high school phenom in Akron — all in the days before social media existed — it was hard to envision a career this long and accomplished back then.

Sure, he had a chance to be great. Special even. But to spend this phase of his career smashing the competition, on the court and in the record books in every facet, is perhaps more than even the most optimistic of observers could have dreamed up.

He’s an elite player, competitor and human being who has impacted the game and the NBA culture in countless ways. And yet, the backbone of it all remains his quest for greatness that has never waned — not even for a moment — some 15 seasons later.

The mountain of career milestones he’s piled up this season, including his attempt to play all 82 regular season games for the first time, one sticks out more than any other for James.

LeBron’s 2,171 points (and counting) this season gives him the most for a player in NBA history in his 15th season or later, passing Bryant (2,133 in 2012-13).

“We thought of him as like, a Magic Johnson with rockets in his [expletive] type than a guy who was going to carry the load scoring all the time,” the former executive said, acknowledging that there were mixed opinions and plenty of skeptics who feared that any player in LeBron’s position might struggle to live up to the hype.

“The fact that he’s that kind of prolific as a scorer, when he wasn’t natively that kind of shooter and it wasn’t the easiest part of his game for him, that’s one of the things that’s shocking to me,” the former executive continued. “The scoring element that LeBron has, to be able to get triple-doubles when everyone is slanting their defense to stop you for the better part of the past 15 years, and you still find a way to do things like score 38 points and still dish out 17 or 18 assists in a meaningful game at 33 … it’s otherworldly.

“I don’t think anybody would have thought he’d be Michael plus Magic.”

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The top five in the Week 25 edition of the 2017-18 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:

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1. James Harden, Houston Rockets

Last week: No. 1

Season stats: 30.7 points, 8.8 assists, 5.4 rebounds

Harden needed Chris Paul to rescue him in the final seconds Thursday night as the Rockets prevailed over a Portland team playing without Damian Lillard to win their second straight game. Harden missed two free throws with 13.3 seconds to play as the Rockets held on after blowing a 24-point lead. For all that Harden has done this season to lift these Rockets to the best regular season in franchise history, even he is not above needing a helping hand sometimes. And that one-two point-guard punch is what will have to power this team heading into a postseason where they’ll be the favorite every step of the way. Harden and Paul have already made the most significant adjustment — sharing the leadership load without sacrificing their games. But the pressure changes in the postseason, a space where they both have demons to exorcise. It helps, of course, to go into that part of the season an an absolute roll.

2. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

Last week: No. 2

Season stats: 27.4 points, 9.1 assists, 8.7 rebounds

Once again, LeBron is making the rest of the competition in the Eastern Conference stress about what lies ahead in the playoffs. Thursday night’s comeback win over Washington only confirms what foes know about whatever team LeBron is leading: they are never out of it with him around and enough time. He scored 13 of his 33 points in the fourth quarter, when the Cavaliers completed their comeback from a 17-point deficit to shock the Wizards. He missed key free throws late, yet still found a way to make all the right plays — especially on defense — to seal the win. It was just more of the sort of late-season work (he also had 14 assists and nine rebounds) that he’s done against everyone, but particularly East contenders (Toronto twice in the past two weeks). Consider it a reminder to everyone that the road to The Finals still runs through wherever James calls home.

3. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans

Last week: No. 3

Season stats: 28.1 points, 11.1 rebounds, 2.5 blocks

Wednesday night’s blowout win against the Memphis Grizzlies couldn’t have come at a better time for Davis and the Pelicans, who halted a season-worst four-game losing streak. The magic number for the Pelicans to clinch just the second playoff berth of the Davis era is three, with four games remaining. Davis has to stay healthy and locked in to the finish to make sure the Pelicans get the job done. There is no other way it happens, not with road games remaining against Phoenix (Friday), Golden State (Saturday) and the LA Clippers (Monday) before wrapping up the regular season at home against the Spurs (April 11). The last time Davis and the Pelicans saw the postseason, they needed a win over the Spurs (and a monstrous game from Davis) on the final night of the regular season to punch their ticket. It could come down to the exact same scenario this time around. No one knows that better than Davis, who is the only Pelicans starter leftover from that game that ended the 2014-15 season.

4. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

Last week: No. 5

Season stats: 27.6 points, 6.6 assists, 4.5 rebounds

The Trail Blazers are “being smart” about the sprained left ankle Lillard suffered in Tuesday night’s loss to the Dallas Mavericks. He was held out of Thursday night’s game against Houston, with the Trail Blazers wisely not taking any chances with their superstar’s health with their playoff position nearly locked in. The third seed is a much better position than anyone envisioned for this team before the season. Jeopardizing their opportunity to continue their shock-and-awe campaign in the playoffs makes no sense. They are three games ahead of the San Antonio Spurs and Utah Jazz with four games to play. That said, these Trail Blazers are not the same team without Lillard at the controls. But it’s much more important to have him healthy and ready to go for the postseason than it is to have him risk doing any further damage to his ankle in one of their remaining games.

5. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors

Last week: No. 6

Season stats: 26.5 points, 6.9 rebounds, 5.4 assists

Durant did what he could to try to extend the Warriors’ win streak to four games, but it wasn’t enough Thursday night against an inspired Indiana Pacers team. The Pacers won in a rout and in spite of Durant’s 27 points, seven assists and five rebounds. Klay Thompson added 16 first-half points, but was shut out in the second half. It was proof of how difficult the first round of the playoffs could be for the reigning champs as they work to get all of their All-Stars and regular rotation players into a postseason groove. Durant is going to see defensive schemes focused on shutting him down until Stephen Curry (knee) can find his way back to the court, which isn’t likely to come before the end of the first round. So there will be no easing into the action for Durant. The Warriors will need him strapped in from the start, in Finals MVP mode, to avoid any unnecessary drama against whoever they face in their first series.

The next five

6. DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors

7. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

8. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

9. LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio Spurs

10. Victor Oladipo, Indiana Pacers

And five more: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks; Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers; Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics; Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets; Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves

Next up?

An inside look at Jamal Murray from an Eastern Conference advance scout:

“He’s such a salesman, so you always have to be careful how much you read into what [Kentucky coach John] Cal[ipari] says about his players. He’ll have you believing his seventh and eighth man are going to be Rookie of the Year candidates in the league. But I have to give him credit, he warned us all about Jamal Murray. In the lead up to the 2016 Draft, he pounded the table hard for Murray and for Tyler Ulis, much the same way he did for Devin Booker before them. And he was right about all three of those guys. He nailed it. He said Murray was going to be a high-level scorer in our league, that he was the most dynamic offensive player in that Draft, and so far, he’s lived up to that. Remember now, the debate was really between [Sacramento Kings guard] Buddy Hield and Murray, as to which one of them would be better. Hield went one spot ahead of Murray in that Draft but I think Murray’s the better player right now and the better prospect moving forward.

“He’s able to play bigger than his listed size because of his length and he’s more athletic than you realized. He’s got a real knack for finding his sweet spots in that Denver offense, whether he’s playing on or off the ball, and getting the shots he wants. That’s a skill that takes years for some guys to master. Some guys never really get it and it keeps them from becoming the types of scorers and really players that their talent suggests they could be. Murray doesn’t have that problem. He’s got such a great feel for the game and how to get where he wants to get on the floor that it makes him a more effective player than you see at first blush. The more you see him and how he operates within that system, the more impressive he is. And we’re talking about a guy that shoots it better than 38 percent from the 3-point line and bette than 91 percent from the free throw line. So he’s a dangerous guy scoring the ball even when he’s not shooting it at an extremely high level from the floor. He’s got a natural feel for the game that will allow him to be special player in our league some day. I really believe that. He’s a future star. ”

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Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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