Buying or Selling LeBron James' Future Competition for MVP
At some point in Thursday's second quarter, one of Oklahoma City's courtside fans decided to do something that, these days, is incredibly ill-advised.
He dared LeBron James to do something.
Not to cook, knit, juggle or sing the South Korean national anthem. No, something that comes easy for him of late.
“He told me to shoot it,” James said. “He said, ‘Shoot it, you can’t shoot.’ So I said OK. So I shot it. And I made it. And I made another one. And I made another one. And he stopped talking to me.”
We can stop talking about the 2012-13 MVP race. That's just about over. You can start the engraving of his fourth trophy.
James' recent ridiculously efficient stretch has made much of the conversation moot. He is better in just about every offensive respect than he was last season, when he left Kevin Durant in his MVP dust.
Thursday marked the first time in seven games that he failed to connect on 60 percent of his attempts while recording 30 or more points. He got the last part right, scoring a season-high 39. He fell short of 60 percent only because he heaved a late 25-footer; even so, he finished 14-of-24.
Barring injury or catastrophe, he will finish first in the MVP race—with Durant likely second.
So who, in future seasons, will pose the greatest threats to his dominance?
(All quotes for this piece were collected through the course of the author's coverage of the Miami Heat. All statistics were accurate as of Thursday evening.)
Buy: Kevin Durant (Oklahoma City)
You could hear the thud from across the court, and through the television.
Kevin Durant fell hard in the first half of the final Thunder game prior to the All-Star break.
And yet, he got back up. Did he ever.
After that spill on his shoulder, and after missing his first seven shots, he still managed to score 40 points, 22 of them in the second half. It was another reminder that, while he now hold a 2-9 record against LeBron James over the course of his career, he will not stop pushing until he gets everything that James has already earned.
"Every time I've thought we did a decent job defending him, he's gone for big numbers against us," Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
Yes, even with James handling much of that defense.
"The thing about me is I keep coming at it, keep going back, believing in myself, trusting in my work," Durant said.
Trust in this: For the next several seasons, Durant will be the man most on James's mind.
And eventually, if he continues to progress in every significant area the way he has this season, he will be the man at the top of many ballots.
It might even happen in a season where he and James are equally valuable to their respective teams, simply because voters desire someone different.
It just won't be this spring.
Sell: Kobe Bryant (Los Angeles Lakers)
This won't make much sense to future generations.
Well, for starters, he played for eight seasons with someone who shared the national shine.
Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal split MVP votes for some of those seasons, as singular stars (Allen Iverson in 2001, Kevin Garnett in 2004) took the award. That left O'Neal as the only man of the era as aggrieved as Bryant in this area, his dominance of his position hardly reflected by his individual hardware.
O'Neal, like Bryant, only won once—in 2000, when they were playing together.
Bryant won in 2008, after they had broken up and O'Neal had moved on to the Miami Heat and Phoenix Suns.
It appeared that Bryant had a shot at a second this season, as the leader of his most ballyhooed Los Angeles Lakers team in years, one that included two-time MVP Steve Nash, perennial MVP candidate Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol.
Yet, even with Bryant producing typically strong numbers—including his best shooting percentage (.463) in four seasons—the Lakers have been a stumbling, bickering mess. You can't be taken seriously as an MVP candidate when your team is struggling to grab an eighth seed.
And, with his franchise in flux and his 35th birthday approaching, it's hard to see him as a central candidate in the future.
In fact, Bryant's recent comments, after a loss to the Heat in Miami, seemed like a passing of the torch.
“He’s just playing exceptional basketball,” Bryant said. “I think he’s figured out his game, in terms of what he wants it to be.”
It will left to future fans to figure out how Kobe Bryant won just that single MVP.
Buy: James Harden (Houston Rockets)
LeBron James warned everyone.
When the Oklahoma City Thunder traded James Harden to the Houston Rockets prior to the season, James didn't want to hear that Harden, who had struggled against James' Miami Heat in the NBA Finals, was not worthy of Houston's immense investment.
James felt Harden could be a franchise centerpiece.
"He's a complete player," James said. "He can handle the ball, he can shoot the ball, he's strong, he gets to the basket, he makes his free throws. And he loves to play the game."
Harden proved all of that early in the season, as he soared into the NBA's top five in scoring. But what really got everyone's attention—including that of the reigning MVP—was when Harden battled back and forth, possession after possession, with James in Miami in early February.
You could argue that Harden—who scored 36 points with 12 rebounds and seven assists—actually outplayed James down the stretch.
“He has made superstar status,” James said. “He is worthy of the max contract he received. He can do a little bit of everything.”
Can he someday push James for an MVP award?
Quite possibly—and more than any current two-guard, as Kobe Bryant ages and as Dwyane Wade slips into the shadows a bit on James's own team.
Houston has cap space, with an intent to spend it on players who complement Harden's skill set. Anyone who averages 10 free-throw attempts per game is capable of winning a scoring title—and anyone who wins a scoring title puts himself in the MVP conversation.
Sell: Carmelo Anthony (New York Knicks)
No New York Knick has won the NBA MVP award since 1969-70.
That was Willis Reed.
That hasn't stopped the Madison Square Garden fans from chanting those three letters. They chanted those letters for Amare Stoudemire early in the 2010-11 season, before he faded down the stretch and Derrick Rose, LeBron James and Dwight Howard flew by him.
They chant those letters now, at times, for Carmelo Anthony.
But while Anthony holds a 10-6 regular season edge over James—including 2-0 this season—and while he has been the key driver of the Knicks' somewhat surprising success, their statistics show how far Anthony must go, just to be considered in James's MVP class.
Anthony leads in scoring average and free-throw percentage. James leads in everything else, whether rebounds or assists or steals or blocks, and not by small margins.
Anthony has improved his three-point shooting. James has improved his even more.
Anthony is four years older than Durant, and the same age as James—they competed in a memorable high school clash more than a decade ago.
Will Anthony be an All-Star for several more seasons?
Has he suggested there's enough upside to his game that he can challenge James for MVP?
Only in the hearts, minds and chants of New Yorkers.
Buy: Kyrie Irving (Cleveland Cavaliers)
No one really saw Derrick Rose coming—at least not that strong, that soon.
Sure, he was the No. 1 overall pick. And sure, the Chicago Bulls prodigy had demonstrated NBA superstar potential, averaging 16.3 and 20.3 points in his first two seasons.
Still, he wasn't expected to be LeBron James' primary competition for the MVP award in 2010-11, especially after James had just won two straight and had joined a loaded squad in Miami.
Rose didn't just compete. He conquered.
So who is the next Rose, the next budding talent who becomes a full-fledged force?
And is it possible that such a player plays point guard?
All signs point to Kyrie Irving.
Irving doesn't have the right tools around him yet, and he has shown some fragility, which has been the primary impediment to Chris Paul's contention for the top individual trophy.
But already, he's shown growth (18.5 to 23.5 points per game) similar to the rise of Rose from the first to second season. What might he have in store for his third, fourth and fifth, considering the poise with which he plays the game, and his penchant for game-winners?
It will be interesting to watch.
Of course, the one thing that could keep Irving out of contention would be the presence of another MVP candidate on the Cleveland roster.
Say, a guy named James.
Which is another slideshow all together.
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