CLEVELAND — Some would consider the 2016-17 NBA MVP race a two-candidate competition between Houston Rockets guard James Harden and Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook, but the familiar force of LeBron James has slowly risen above both.
Westbrook and Harden have been fantastic, but only James deserves the title of the league’s most valuable player right now.
We’ve never seen anything like this No. 23 before. Now in Year No. 14, the three-time NBA champion may be putting together his best overall season.
James is averaging 25.6 points, 7.9 rebounds, 8.7 assists and 1.4 steals per game while shooting 50.8 percent from the field and 37.3 percent from three. He’s putting up career-best assist numbers while sporting his second-highest rebounding and three-point shooting marks.
Only Oscar Robertson has averaged at least 25.0 points, 7.5 rebounds and 8.5 assists over the course of a season in league history. While Westbrook and Harden are also checking all three boxes, James and Robertson would be the only two to do so while shooting better than 50 percent, per B/R Insights.
No player, not even Robertson, has achieved these kinds of numbers over the age of 30; James would become the first.
“And as far as a comparison between him and Jordan, the comparison I have is when you’re on top, the best player in the league for so long and having to carry that each and every year and never get knocked down off that pedestal, that’s a big accomplishment, because guys are coming for you and you’re a target,” head coach Tyronn Lue said.
“And to always stay on top no matter what, always being the best player in the league, that’s how I compare him and Jordan.”
James’ potentially historic numbers put him in the MVP conversation, but it’s his value to the team and the Cavaliers’ success that makes him the front-runner for the award.
Measuring James’ Value
The true test of a player’s value to a team in any sport is how that squad performs with and without said player. The Cavs couldn’t look any more different with and without James.
Cleveland has been a powerhouse since James returned in 2014, reaching the NBA Finals in 2015 before winning it all in 2016. Their 26-7 record leads the Eastern Conference once again, trailing the Golden State Warriors by three games for the best overall mark.
When James doesn’t play, however, the Cavs have fallen apart.
Cleveland is 0-3 this season and 4-18 overall when James doesn’t play since he returned to the franchise. That winning percentage of .182 would be worse (by far) than any NBA team this season. In games this year where Kevin Love or Kyrie Irving sits and James plays, the Cavs are 5-0. Even on a team with Irving and Love, everything runs through James.
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“We still have enough talent to win—that goes without saying,” Love said, per Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com. “But take the best player in the world off your team, he just means so much to us. His usage is so high in what we do with both units that whether it’s the starting unit or the second unit, you take him away from our team and we lose a lot, naturally.”
The Cavs are 26-4 with James in their lineup, good for a winning percentage of .866. That not only tops the Warriors’ NBA-best .857 mark but would put the Cavaliers at a projected record of 71 wins over a full season.
“As the leader of this team, we command a lot from him,” Irving said. “He understands that, he wants it and he thrives on it. I think it’s good. That’s what makes the greats great. Taking accountability and moving forward.”
When he does suit up, James has proved that he and the Cavs can take down the NBA’s best.
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Cleveland is a combined 10-0 against the top four seeds in each conference. Against these same teams, Harden’s Rockets are just 4-5, while Westbrook’s Thunder are 3-4. Cleveland has played the sixth-toughest schedule in the NBA thus far, while Houston (21st) and Oklahoma City (25th) have had it far easier.
In the only head-to-head matchup between James and the other leading candidates, the Cavaliers defeated the Rockets, 128-120, on Nov. 1.
No player has been more crucial to his team’s success than James, and no team has a better record when the Akron native suits up for the Cavs.
Why James over Harden and Westbrook?
Besides the huge gap in respective team success, especially against top competition, James deserves another piece of hardware for various other reasons.
Harden and Westbrook are both terrific guards, but neither brings the versatility James contributes to the Cavs. The 6’8″ forward has logged minutes at four different positions this season, from shooting guard to center. While not official, James has spent plenty of time running point, with no clear-cut backup behind Irving.
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“LeBron with the ball is as good of a driver and playmaker as there is the league,” Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “LeBron rolling to the rim is as good as most bigs in the league. He can pretty much do whatever he wants at any of the five positions.”
While both Harden and Westbrook are scoring more than James, their points aren’t coming nearly as efficiently. James leads the Cavs in scoring while shooting 50.8 percent from the field and 37.3 percent from three-point range. Both Harden (44.5/35.6) and Westbrook (42.8/32.5) come in much lower. James also commits 3.8 turnovers per game, compared to Harden’s league-leading 5.7 and Westbrook’s second-place 5.3.
Some of the more crucial “value” stats point to James, as well.
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He more than leads the pack in On/Off rating, total Plus/Minus, per B/R Insights, and Real Plus-Minus, per ESPN.
Of course, we have to talk defense, too.
James is by far the best defender of the three, with his ability to guard multiple positions effectively. Of the three, James has been the only one to hold opponents below their regular shooting percentages this season.
Harden’s play at point guard has been electrifying to watch, but he’s relied heavily on his backcourt mate. The Rockets started the season just 6-5 with Harden active and Patrick Beverley injured. Since Beverley returned, Houston has gone 20-4.
Westbrook is a triple-double machine, but he’s led the Thunder to just six wins against opponents with winning records all season.
Don’t let the flashy stats fool you. When talking value, versatility, defense and efficiency, James deserves to be this season’s MVP.
Cavaliers’ Insider Notebook
He Might be O-Kay After All
Cavaliers rookie point guard Kay Felder hasn’t received much playing time this season, but he’s made the most of recent opportunities.
Sometimes teased by veteran teammates for his soft-spoken nature, Felder made some big noise in his first trip to the D-League’s Canton Charge. Felder scored 33 points, grabbed seven rebounds and dished out seven assists. In his last four NBA games, he’s averaged 11.8 points, 2.3 assists and 1.0 steals in just 19.3 minutes per contest.
Following Felder‘s big game with the Charge, James congratulated him in the Cavs locker room before veteran Channing Frye stepped in.
“Big deal,” said Frye on Felder‘s game-high 33 points. “You know he wasn’t passing that ball.”
Kevin Love Channeling Inner J.R. Smith
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As J.R. Smith nurses a broken thumb for the next several months, the Cavs need someone to chuck an unnecessarily high number of three-pointers.
Against the Boston Celtics on Dec. 29, Love attempted a career-high 16 three-pointers, just six away from Smith’s NBA record set back on April 6, 2014.
“I told Ty I was going to shoot 20, so I was a little pissed I didn’t get there,” Love joked.
Cleveland boasts an NBA-best 18-2 home record this season, putting up 115.0 points per game in the process.
Since March 25, 2014, the Cavs are a sparkling 71-5 at home when scoring 100 points or more (17-1 this year, per team notes). When shooting 50 percent or better, they’ve won 39 straight home games, including a 8-0 mark in 2016-17.
Greg Swartz is the Cleveland Cavaliers Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @CavsGregBR.
Stats via Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com and are accurate through Jan. 2. B/R Insights accurate through Dec. 30. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.