LeBron James is experiencing a popularity spike, and some would like to hand him the 2013 MVP trophy already. When a player is hot, we feel like it will last forever. Nevertheless, the 2013 MVP trophy will not be going to LeBron.
I cannot say who it will go to, but there are seven reasons I feel confident it will be going to someone not named LeBron.
The NBA MVP award is a vote. Popularity and narrative drive the vote, and voters are reluctant to vote for LeBron. For a variety of reasons, many of the voters simply do not want him to win.
After his dominant 2012 regular season, LeBron only garnered 85 first-place votes out of a possible 121. Everything went his way this past year. Durant and the Thunder went into a tailspin at the end of the regular season. LeBron soundly outplayed Durant in their last head-to-head matchup.
This was supposed to be the year LeBron would get make-up votes after losing in 2011. Yet 36 voters still could not bear to vote for him. One of them went so far as to give him a fifth-place vote.
Whether or not we accept it, MVP awards are not given in a vacuum. Voters keep in mind recent years, players' legacies and the history of the game. Consider Kobe Bryant. In 2008—a year that was not the greatest of his career—Kobe finally got his MVP award. We as a nation suddenly realized with embarrassment that he had not yet received one, and the voters were swayed to vote for him.
Chris Paul—then in only his third year—did not need the award yet. He was new to the spotlight and had his whole career ahead of him. As a result, voters shied away from him. They may feel embarrassed in hindsight if Chris Paul never gets one.
And voters know this.
When they consider LeBron next year for the MVP, they won't be comparing him to his peers. They'll be comparing him to Bird and Magic.
The MVP award is notoriously associated with being on the best team in the regular season. Having the best record provides a huge edge to any candidate.
Rose's award was largely given to him for the tremendous turnaround the Bulls had to claim the league's best record. Nowitzki's award came to him as a result of two driving narratives. First, he had led the Mavericks to their first ever NBA Finals the prior year.
Second, Steve Nash—who had the best season of his career in 2006-2007—did not seem historically worthy of receiving a third consecutive MVP award.
Last year, LeBron evaded the best-record problem because the Thunder fell to the No. 2 seed in the West at the end of the year. At the same time, the Bulls and Spurs played team ball and didn't have huge (healthy) stars. Without a doubt, if the Thunder had kept the league's best record, Durant would have won the award.
Like the last two years and many others before, the Heat will most likely not have the league's overall best record. They might have the best record in the East, though even that is far from guaranteed. Teams like the Nets, 76ers" target="_blank">76ers and Pacers will play whole-heartedly in the regular season in a way that top title contenders often do not.
Whoever is the star player for the league's top regular-season team—whether that is Durant, Howard, Parker, Westbrook, Rondo, Paul or a miraculously healthy Rose—will be a stronger target for MVP votes than LeBron.
LeBron has always been a regular-season work horse, going back to his days in Cleveland. He plays productive minutes and an awful lot of them.
Over the past two seasons, LeBron has played too many minutes and has been consistently overworked more than any other star player. While he is in great physical shape, we saw many signs of his fatigue and exhaustion last year. Clearly that pace is not sustainable for him.
Now that LeBron has his ring, he will have a little more peace during the regular season. As a result, he will likely conserve energy and save focus for the playoffs, the way his teammate Dwyane Wade has done in recent years. Expect to see fewer minutes from LeBron in 2012-13 and slightly lower numbers.
While this change will not heavily impact the 2013 playoffs, drops in statistics are bad for garnering MVP votes.
LeBron already has a rivalry with Kevin Durant, and the talent keeps on stockpiling and developing in the Western Conference. Between Chris Paul, Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard and the other stars in the West, someone is going to have a special year.
Whoever it is will not need a higher PER than LeBron. It will be enough to have an exciting year and be part of a team on an upsurge.
Moreover, don't be too shocked if someone unexpected has a special season in 2012-2013. Second-tier candidates like Kevin Love, Rajon Rondo, Deron Williams and Russell Westbrook may be hovering on the verge of greatness like Derrick Rose was heading into 2011.
There's a very real possibility that the 2013 MVP award will go to someone not being considered by anyone. Nothing inspires an MVP award like a breakout season or a team suddenly breaking into contention. For precedent, think about Steve Nash in 2005, Allen Iverson in 2001 or Derrick Rose in 2011.
The fact of the matter is that the best player in the world doesn't usually win. Magic only got two in the '80s, Jordan only got four in the '90s and Shaq only got one in the 2000s.
Perhaps the most important reason of all is that it would be boring!
The defending MVP almost always feels like the favorite and yet almost never wins. No basketball star has ever been at a more dominant peak than Jordan was in 1992-1993, yet somehow the MVP trophy found its way into Charles Barkley's hands.
LeBron winning his fourth MVP in five years would be plain boring. In order to make voters face that level of boredom, he'll need to do something this coming year we have never seen before.