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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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Featured Article

Ride The Wave

Back in October the sky was the limit. LeBron had decided to move to LA and join the Lakers. Things were good then.

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Back in October the sky was the limit. LeBron had decided to move to LA and join the Lakers, drawing in a decent support team and a lot of talk that the West was looking incredibly dominant next to a “weaker” East. Things were good then.

Five months later and things couldn’t be farther from that idylistic picture. The East thrived without the King and GMs put together some of the most noteworthy teams in a while. And the Lakers? The Lakers currently sit in the 11th spot of the Western Conference with very little hope of making it to the playoffs. They’re a team that is constantly attacked for their lack of chemistry, skill, and effort. For the first time in a long time, LA became synonymous with “hopeless”.

This wasn’t the future we saw for the King.

On the heels of a night filled with one of his greatest achievements ever, the Lakers as a team walked away with a loss to the Denver Nuggets. A night that began on a high note went out on one that was equivalent to sour candy. Furthermore, a frustrated team left an arena, hopped on social media, and found a bevy of congrats for their star player, while enduring the storm that came with another Lakers loss.

It seems that James’ stardom has reached a tipping point, one that makes him a GM one moment, the King of the league the next, and finally the biggest point of contention within the locker room. The most notable thing is that it is clearly wearing him down. Chris Martin let us know that “nobody one said it was easy”, but you’ve got to ask yourself, does it have to be so hard?

The answer is unfortunately, yes. It’s always going to be this way, and there is no fighting the current, but there is beauty in riding the wave. Embracing that moment when the wave comes crashing down on you is important, because it’s always going to happen, but your attitude will always be remembered. LeBron rides high, and keeps things in the positive light for the media, but he’s got to realize that they are writing his story, and he doesn’t have to play into their’s. Ride the wave, and take the loss in stride with all the great that has come with it, but take the loss because your part of a team that is.

The wave has crashed down, but the current will bring another.

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Year 15 | A Mini Documentary

Year 15 of a legacy…

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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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