Is LeBron the MVP?

LeBron James is still, and has been for quite some time, the best basketball player on the planet. Even as the king has entered his 30s and has begun to exit his athletic prime, the widespread opinion amongst fans, basketball experts and players alike is that LBJ remains at a level that no other player in the game today has achieved.

What he has maybe began to lose in explosiveness, he has made up for cerebrally. His mental understanding of the game has evolved to a point where he sees plays unfold before many (if any) other players do. He also still possesses elite size and speed, and his shot selection has vastly improved over the years, as his game has continuously developed since he first entered the league as an 18-year-old kid with seemingly unlimited potential. Also on any given night he is a triple-double threat, as his passing skills and rebounding prowess allow him to possess basketballs greatest all-around game.

However James is not the leading choice for this season’s Most Valuable Player award.

At this point, the NBA MVP award has boiled down to a two-man race between James Harden of the Houston Rockets and Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors. While both players have significant cases for why they deserve the award, James’ season probably deserves more recognition than it has been receiving. There’s also Russell Westbrook, who has almost single-handedly been clawing and scraping a path towards the NBA playoffs for his Oklahoma City squad for most of the season.

Harden currently has his team in second place in the Western Conference standings, and he has a narrow lead over second-place Westbrook for the NBA scoring title. He has played in nearly all of the Rockets’ games this season, and he has been the focal point of a team that has battled through a slew of injury problems affecting key players. Love him or hate him, there’s no denying his ethereal talent on the basketball court.

Meanwhile Curry’s Warriors are in first place in the West and look very much like the team to beat if you want to win an NBA championship. Curry is an offensive magician, who has evolved from a fantastic shooter with good handles to a dangerously potent floor general with a much more complete game than he’s ever had before. While Head Coach Steve Kerr receives much of the praise for the Warriors’ dominance this season (deservedly so), Curry’s emergence as the leader of a very talented team and go-to scorer for them has placed him firmly in the thicket of the MVP conversation.

However you can’t ignore what Westbrook has done this season, either. Although his team is currently on the outside of the playoffs looking in, Westbrook has fought tooth and nail every single game to keep his team in the hunt all year long. Oklahoma City has gone the vast majority of this season without superstar (and last year’s MVP) Kevin Durant because of nagging foot problems and also had to endure a four-week period at the beginning of the season without Westbrook due to injuries of his own.

They also somewhat recently lost Serge Ibaka to knee injury, the team’s defensive stallworth and third best player overall. As such Westbrook has been forced to almost literally put the team on his back, and he has put up numbers no one has matched since Michael Jordan. In the months of February and March, Westbrook essentially averaged a triple-double, and his 11 on the year are far and away the best in the league. The biggest knock on him is his poor shooting percentage and knack to turn the ball over. Nonetheless he has a case for the MVP himself.

Then there’s LeBron, who has admittedly had a somewhat pedestrian season statistically (but only by his lofty standards), yet has compiled perhaps the most valuable season to any organization. The Cavs have made a huge turnaround from last season, and while they’re undoubtedly a more talented team than in years past, James is indisputably the largest reason why they’ve turned it around. When he doesn’t play, the team is well below .500 (2-9, I believe), a far cry from their overall record of 50-27. Furthermore since he returned from a two-week period of rest back on Jan. 15, the Cavs are a scintillating 23-5.

They’re also riding an 18-game home winning streak, and the last time they did lose at home (not coincidentally) was when James was on that two-week leave of absence. Perhaps the biggest reason he isn’t further up in the MVP conversation is that he has already won the award four times, and people tend to enjoy variation.

With each of these players having strong cases for the award, the question becomes: What does the MVP award really mean?

It stands for the most valuable player, but how do you define that? Every year the award is typically given to the best player on the team that owns the NBA’s best record. While that isn’t terribly poor logic, it isn’t always the best way to measure value.

For example if Curry were to sit a few games, the Warriors would still be an elite team. Their talent combined with excellent coaching and execution is more than enough to remain a playoff contender even in his absence. While he is the best player for the Warriors, is he necessarily the most valuable player in the entire league?

In terms of strictly value, Westbrook might have the strongest argument. Without him, Oklahoma City wouldn’t even be sniffing playoff contention. Not even close. Just think of last year’s winner, Kevin Durant. With both Westbrook and Durant generally healthy last season, the Thunder finished second in the Western Conference with a record of 59-23. This year without Durant and Westbrook, they’ve lost nearly all of their games. When Westbrook returned, they suddenly morphed into a team that was capable of winning again. However because they still haven’t had Durant, they are currently the ninth seed in the West and are fighting for the eighth and final playoff spot. Westbrook alone has had a tremendous impact and has elevated his team.

With him they are surviving in the west. Without Durant though, they are not the same dominating team as last year. It just goes to show how valuable Westbrook has been, putting on a string of dazzling performances to take the team to the fringe-playoff contenders. In terms of value, his has been enormous.

LeBron has a similar case to Westbrook, as his presence on the court for the Cavaliers has directly translated to wins. Last year the Cavs were borderline awful. This year? They’ve all but locked up the number-two spot in the Eastern Conference and are among the title favorites. As stated earlier, he is also widely regarded as still being the best overall player in basketball. Anywhere. For those who point to the fact the Cavs also have had an influx of talent compared to last year’s team, however a lot of the guys currently on the roster would not have came to Cleveland if LeBron hadn’t joined the team. With that in mind, does LeBron gain a boost in value as a sort of pseudo-general manager?

The MVP award should maybe be changed to the MOP (Most Outstanding Player) award. Measuring a player’s value in the NBA is always skewed and extremely hard to determine, but basing the award strictly on a player’s performance throughout the regular season could be easier.

Is it fair to Westbrook that he has been carrying his team all year, while putting up Michael Jordan-like numbers, to not win the award? Is it fair for James not to win it simply because he has already won it four-times, even though most everyone considers him the game’s greatest player and his team plays on a much higher level with him on the court? Is it fair that Curry or Harden are the odds-on favorites, based solely on their season-long performances?

Who knows if there’s any clear answer to such questions. Really it all comes down to how you define what the MVP award means.

With that in mind, is the MVP truly always the league’s most valuable player?