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Beyond the Narrative: LeBron’s Case for MVP

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It’s almighty in the world of the NBA, and narrative undoubtedly shapes how we enjoy the game.

It’s why we drool over matchups between the feuding Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. It’s why we crave another Cavaliers-Warriors Finals; desiring a new chapter for the story arc of the last two summers.

Narrative drives the basketball idiom of barber shop talk, and in the world of NBA awards, no piece of hardware is discussed more than Most Valuable Player. In a season like this, where four players have a real shot at winning, it’s talked about ad nauseam. (Literally, are you nauseated yet?)

When we talk about who the winner will be, though — Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, or LeBron James — we talk in terms of narrative.

Think of the league’s MVP winners of the last 20 years, and how context has shaped the decision, sometimes in the face of statistical evidence.

The glowing example of this is Steve Nash. In 2005, Nash won the award averaging just 15.5 points and 11.5 assists per game, in a 62-win season for the Suns. That team was the early peak of pace-and-space, with Nash as the maestro of this new brand of basketball. It was immensely satisfying during a dearth of talent in the NBA, and that narrative overcame the deserving Shaquille O’Neal. In 2005, O’Neal improved Miami’s record by 16 games in his first year with the team, putting in 23 points and ten rebounds per game.

Shaq was dominant, but Nash’s narrative was stronger. He would win the award in the face of stats again in 2006, when his trophy came during Kobe Bryant’s best statistical season, albeit for a middling Lakers team.

We see this a lot. Karl Malone over a fighting Alonzo Mourning in 1999. Derrick Rose over “The Decision” LeBron in 2011. The context of the era and what a player is born into have just as much power as stats when deciding the MVP.

Part of this is because there’s no set rules over what “MVP” means. Most fans start by theoretically removing the candidate from their team, but that reasoning belittles the role of coaching and roster building. Houston wouldn’t be as good without James Harden, but that’s because the team is built for James Harden. Some judge candidates by their team’s record, but that eliminates those who might not have the right teammates around them.

Ultimately, the criteria for MVP is up to the individual. When you get a great narrative around a certain player, though, it’s hard to use logic and look the other way. This is especially true now that media votes are published for the public to see.

So each candidate has their own story to tell, and the one we hear the most is Russell Westbrook’s. And I mean, of course it is: averaging a triple-double with 31.4 points is simply too awe-inspiring to overlook. Sure, he’s taking more shots per game, doing it with less efficiency, and plays for the worst team of the four. But, man… just the phrase “averaging a triple-double” is a seemingly insurmountable narrative.

Harden is right there too. After a season of lackluster effort, Harden’s numbers are only a shade below Westbrook’s — and his team has improved more notably. Harden and Mike D’Antoni are a match made in heaven, and this narrative is that perfect middle ground between individual and team accomplishment.

Kawhi has a great case too. He’s the best two-way player of the bunch, and will be the best guy on the best team, even if the Spurs finish second in the Western Conference.

The most dubious of the four, from a narrative perspective at least, is LeBron James. The usual case for LeBron as MVP is that he’s the best basketball player — you can say this every season and it’s true.

This year, though, I implore you to throw the resume out the window. That shouldn’t be your argument for him winning the MVP. No, LeBron should be MVP because in this single season, he’s the most complete statistical candidate, and has guided his team’s success through more injuries than the others.

Here are LeBron’s numbers against the other candidates.

On the front of his MVP calling card is the stunning 54% field goal and 38.5% three-point percentages. (Seriously, who had LeBron leading in the distance shooting category?) The 8.4 rebounds and 8.8 assists are positively Westbrook-ish, though — or LeBron-ish, if you want. Except that… he hasn’t averaged 26/8/8 ever. As in, not in the four times he’s already won MVP ever.

Advanced stats bear out LeBron’s candidacy even more. He has the best offensive rating of the four at 114.7, and net rating at +8.5. His defense may not be as freakish as Kawhi’s, but his reputation overwhelms his engagement level. When the chips are down, LeBron can guard.

Looking at the team, the Cavaliers are a solid 46-23, as LeBron’s led them to the best record in the East despite long-term injuries to important rotation pieces in Kevin Love and J.R. Smith. Without Love, LeBron has to score more. Without Smith, he has to shoot more. No other candidate has gone through lineup changes that impactful.

LeBron’s been coming on strong of late, too, showing a shot chart that would get D’Antoni on speed dial.

His narrative, though, is yet to be polished. Every other player has written their story and had a defining moment. Kawhi has the shot-and-block combination that launched a thousand MVP think pieces.

Harden has those downhill drives that power everything Houston does.

Westbrook has… well, let’s just say he kept Vine alive a few months past its due date.

LeBron, though, is just doing what he does. He’s 32 and in his 14th season now, and there’s little doubt the NBA community takes for granted what he can do on a basketball court. We pay attention in the Finals — in the middle of March, though, he’s a silent assassin. He just shows up in your home gym, makes a few 30-foot skip passes, and all of a sudden he’s got 26 points, eight rebounds, and eight assists.

I caught myself in one of these moments watching the Cavs and Lakers last week. An incredible point guard duel had broken out between Kyrie Irving and D’Angelo Russell, as they both ended up passing 40 points on the night. Then, with the Cavs up five late in the game, it showed up in the lower third: LeBron James — 34 points, six rebounds, and seven assists.

You barely notice it, but there he is. The best basketball player in the world — quietly, somehow — putting together his best season since leaving Miami. Though his narrative isn’t as attractive as Westbrook, Harden, or Kawhi, we can’t ignore LeBron anymore. He’s always there, and once again he’s as deserving an MVP as we have in the league.

John is a sports writer hailing from the flat part of Canada. He's an editor and podcast host at SB Nation's Raptors HQ, with other sports work published in The Classical. As a freelance reporter, he's covered sports at every level in Winnipeg: from the NHL's Jets and CFL's Blue Bombers, to CIS basketball and hockey at both major universities. In his spare time, John writes too seriously about music and posts good-to-okay photography on Instagram.

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Year 15 | A Mini Documentary

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What’s to come for the man on top, and what got him here?

It’s Year 15 of a man’s career, but it’s also Year 15 of a legacy…

Created by Tristan Laughton | Twitter: @Ctrice

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Editorial

Something Out of Nothing

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It’s March 2016, and I’m driving with Alan Shane Lewis to Montreal to meet with Marc Griffin and Phil Boileau. We’re meeting to speak about this exciting new idea I pitched to them. We were tired of spinning the wheels on our own individual internet shows, and I told them that it was time we stopped waiting for a network and became the network.

We spoke that weekend about creating a community of content creators that all loved ball and came together to make unique content with unique voices – voices we felt were never heard in the mainstream. This community was the base of Press and we’d continue to push forward from that spot. We spoke about some amazing show ideas, article ideas, social media plan. It was truly an exciting time, and still one of the best weekends of my life.

Two years later and that group is a lot smaller, and that idea is Press Basketball.

It caught fire at the beginning and we had people joining our bright shiny new plaything left, right, and center. It was exciting, but now I kind of realize that a lot of it was just that we were that “bright shiny new thing”.

We ended up with a lot of Press Basketball “members” but when I stepped back and looked at what was happening… it wasn’t what I’d imagined. The fire burned out. The idea was gone. We had just become another thing trying to stay alive, waiting for some deus ex machina to show up with money and make everything okay.

I’ve gone through most of my life making something out of nothing. It’s never easy, but when it happens it’s always worth it… ALWAYS. Press made me feel alive at a point. It was literally all I could think about, and while it still is on my mind, it doesn’t make me feel alive. This hurts more than I can ever explain.

Changes are coming my friends. We’re not laying down and dying, and if we do it’s not going to be like this.

The core of Press will be setting fire to a lot over the next few weeks and I personally can’t wait for this to start. From the ashes something new will rise (I watched a lot of XMEN growing up).

Stay tuned, because it’s not over.

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Lonzo Ball: The New Face of the Lakers

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Lonzo Ball is the new face of the Los Angeles Lakers franchise. The new savior. The Big Baller Brand is now here to stay and LaVar Ball’s family’s future is set. But is that enough?

Lonzo Ball is a great kid and athlete who knows his talent will take him to another level. The major question mark that remains is whether or not he will take the Lakers there as well. He has the platform and skillset to do so, but with that comes the added pressure from the city and league to basically become part of the next version of Kobe and Shaq. It’s too strainful for a young kid—a rookie—to achieve.  

Magic Johnson, the recently named President of Basketball of Operations for the Lakers, is taking an aggressive approach to get this team back into playoff contention his first year in. One of his first moves was sending D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov to the Brooklyn Nets for Brook Lopez and the 27th overall pick. Brook Lopez is definitely an upgrade at center, but has a couple of years already under his belt.   

Lopez will provide a much needed veteran presence with a great IQ for the game at his position. The only downfall is that a couple of years under his belt doesn’t really transfer to great experience, but simply wasted miles on his body. He isn’t as quick as he used to be and doesn’t even rank in the top 10 centers in the league. In fact, Bleacher Report had him last season at exactly 15 out of the top 30 centers in the NBA. While he is has improved by adding the three-point range to his arsenal, there is no doubt that he is nearly past his prime, and although he can still contribute on a nightly basis, who knows how much and what effect it will have with Lonzo Ball running the point.  

Ball has great court vision that has been often compared to that of LeBron James. Combined with his passing skills, he is a true PG with tremendous upside in the backcourt. With that being said, he will only reach a certain extent. His full potential is years from being maximized and people are buying into it early on. In fact, the pressure for him to lift a sub .500 team to the playoffs for the first time in five years is daunting. 

These are Lonzo Ball’s stats during his rookie—and only—year at UCLA: 

  • 14.6 Points
  • 7.6 Assists
  • 6.0  Rebounds
  • 1.8 Steals
  • 0.8 Blocks
  • 55.1 FG%
  • 41.2 3P%

He did a tremendous job maintaining that statline and even added a triple-double in the NBA Summer League, earning him the Summer League MVP.  

Don’t get me wrong, Ball seems ready for the challenge and is definitely a one-of-a-kind talent mirroring that of Steve Nash and Jason Kidd, but he is not an All-Star or MVP—at least, not yet. These way-too-early predictions that he is the Lakers’ new savior are farfetched. He has yet to face the elite NBA offensive threats and superstars that have been at it for 10-plus years. Defensively speaking he will not be able to keep up. Not in his first year. He still needs NBA experience and a more rounded roster to be able to reach the playoffs.  

He is off to a good start, but being named NBA Summer League MVP doesn’t necessarily mean a spectacular season is coming as some think it does. Especially if you consider the previous Summer League MVP winners.

Year Nat. Player Pos. Team
2012 Damian Lillard (co-MVPs) PG Portland Trail Blazers
Josh Selby (co-MVPs) PG Memphis Grizzlies
2013 Jonas Valančiūnas C Toronto Raptors
2014 Glen Rice Jr. SG Washington Wizards
2015 Kyle Anderson SF San Antonio Spurs
2016 Tyus Jones PG Minnesota Timberwolves
2017 Lonzo Ball PG Los Angeles Lakers

With the exceptions of Damian Lillard in 2012 and Jonas Valanciunas in 2013, the past five Summer League MVP winners have gone on to produce very mediocre NBA careers. All I’m saying is, don’t read too much into NBA Summer League. It’s the pre-preseason that no one really watches or cares about.  

The NBA season is nearing—exactly a month away—and my somewhat harsh criticism of Lonzo Ball isn’t too cruel. I am just not ready to jump on the Ball bandwagon following LaVar’s prophecies of his son being the Lakers prodigal son. He won’t be. Again, at least not yet. He needs to earn his spot and the transition will surprise him his first year in. It will hit him hard, but, despite my concerns, eventually Lonzo Ball will become a future NBA All-Star and a daring NBA point guard.  

Not yet though, and until then all we can do is prepare for his official NBA debut. Until then, we can enjoy and bask in his newly released rap single paying tribute to his little brother LaMelo Ball.  

If the NBA doesn’t end up being his calling in life, at least he has a back up career in mind.

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