James is having an unprecedented campaign, one that is impossible to sum up in anything less than a tightly packed epic.
He's poised to become just the fifth player in league history to tally 20 or more win shares in multiple seasons and is on pace to become the only player to ever average at least 25 points, eight rebounds and seven assists per game on 55 percent shooting. And that just scratches the surface of what he's been able to do.
At what point does his dominance become more a reflection of his individual worth than his value to the Miami Heat? At what point does his season extend beyond the bounds of the MVP award? When does it essentially become overkill?
Not to say that James isn't among the most indispensable of players in the league, because he is. A strong (stronger than strong) case can be made that he is the most irreplaceable of athletes there is.
LeBron's skill set is a newfangled display of greatness. Try as we might to compare him to Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and even Oscar Robertson, he's in a class all his own. Never before have we born witness to his combination of athleticism, savvy, explosiveness, grace and versatility. That's not an airtight justification behind his case as the greatest of all time, it's just a fact.
But that doesn't make him the most valuable player in the NBA. It doesn't mean that he's of any more importance to the Miami Heat than Durant is to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Too often the chase for MVP becomes a query of "Who's the best player in the league?" Usually because the "best" players are the most valuable, but mostly because we don't have any other way to recognize who the best in the league actually is.
There's no "Best Player of the Year" award; we have no opportunity to differentiate between "best" and "valuable." That has left the premise of the MVP award basically unknown.
No concrete blueprint has been laid out or established for the recipient of the Maurice Podoloff Trophy, and rightfully so. Without the option of separating the most "valuable" and "best," we can't. Doing so would often penalize the league's best player for being, well, the best.
Never before (in recent memory) has this been such a quandary, though. Since the days of Jordan, we really haven't been subject to an MVP race that will inevitably shaft one player in such a way that it borders on tragic.
I myself won't shed a tear if (when?) LeBron finishes the season out by claiming his fourth MVP award. A part of me—and I'd hazard a part of many—will be grief-stricken by the failure to distinguish Durant for what he's done, for what he continues to do.
The Durantula himself is having a career year. He's averaging career highs in assists (4.7), steals (1.5), field-goal percentage (50.6), three-point percentage (41.8) and free-throw percentage (90.6). He's second in win shares (14.9) behind only James (15.1), and his 28.5 points per game lead the league.
A "career year" turns historical knowing that he's on track to become just the eighth player to join the 50/40/90 club (minimum 40 games). Should he finish the season with a scoring title, he'll be the first to lead the league in scoring while joining said club.
Unknown to some, Durant also has the opportunity to become to just the seventh player in league history to snag more than 20 win shares in a single season.
All this is dwarfed by the season James is having. His feats don't hold up next to LeBron's. In more ways than one, they pale in comparison to what The Chosen One has done, effectively hindering (killing?) Durant's MVP chances.
Even when we attempt to remove history from the equation, Durant's case is marred by the accolades of LeBron.
The Thunder are allowing fewer points per 100 possessions with Durant on the floor than the Heat are with LeBron, but Miami is also scoring more with James on the floor than Oklahoma City is with the lanky forward. That LeBron is once again outpacing Durant in win shares only perpetuates the presumed definitiveness behind his MVP campaign.
But should it?
There are so many conflicting points of view on who deserves the award. Some believe the best player deserves it while others assert the "best" and "most valuable" are sometimes mutually exclusive. Then there are those who are convinced there is no parallel to be drawn between the "best" and "most valuable"—the "best" is the "most valuable."
The problem is that isn't always true. It can be, but there can also be a difference.
I liken this debate (in some ways) to currency. You have, in one hand, a newly minted, crisp five-dollar bill. In the other, you have another five-dollar bill. This one, though, is wrinkled, begrimed and slovenly looking thanks to years of wear and tear.
Hypothetically speaking, if you walk into a store, is one more valuable than other?
Save for being in the presence of a collector and/or germaphobe, no. They are both worth the same. They can both be changed out for five singles. Depending on where you live, they can both buy you one (*sigh* one) gallon of gas.
Aside from appearances, they're the same. Where they begin to differ is in their situations.
Take the gallon of gas I mentioned. Once again, depending on where you live, that five dollars will get you more gas.
Think of LeBron and Durant much like these two Lincolns. In no way am I saying Durant or James is the equivalent of a defiled piece of paper. What I am saying is that while one may be flashier, while one may be making individual history, that can't change the way we perceive the other. Not in the scheme of the MVP race.
LeBron isn't of any more value because he's making history. That has to come down to his environment.
We shouldn't be asking ourselves who's better, but rather, who's more valuable to their team?
Remove either one from their incumbent's equation and both factions are bound to struggle. Both Durant and James account for nearly a third of their team's wins. Both are the only players on their squads shooting 50 percent or better from the field and at least 40 percent from deep. Both are the only players in the league averaging at least 25 points and seven rebounds per game while hitting those marks.
They're both the only ones doing so many different things for their respective cities.
And while it's not a shame that we're pitting one against the other (I'd argue just the opposite), the manner in which we're doing so is. We shouldn't be comparing James' historic run to Durant's season, because there is no comparison. LeBron is the best player in the league, and Durant isn't going to change that. No one will; no one can.
When determining who the MVP of today's NBA is, though, the emphasis must be on "valuable." Not best, but valuable. Presently, it isn't. Not entirely.
On so many levels, LeBron's an MVP lock because there's no one (not even Durant) who can oust him as the league's best. But that's exactly why the Association needs that separate award we alluded to earlier.
Let us recognize James for what he is—the best. Let us also have the opportunity to distinguish the difference between that and "most valuable," though. Being heralded the best wouldn't disqualify him from being the MVP, but it wouldn't guarantee him anything either.
Instead, the conversation wouldn't be such a dead end—Durant would have a legitimate case not for just being mentioned, but actually winning.
Right now, he doesn't, and mincing words is useless.
Failure to recognize James for his accomplishments is inconceivable, yet much of the same can (and should) be said for Durant. And the MVP ladder shouldn't be a moral dilemma. Again, it should be about choosing the most valuable player league.
More so than ever, this particular race is a proverbial plea for detachment. Implement an award that pays homage to the league's best. And allow LeBron to run away with it. Call it the LeBron James Award, even. Its only purpose is to salvage the sanctity of the MVP award—to give others a genuine chance at being properly recognized for their contributions to their team.
To ensure that we're befittingly evaluating and subsequently decorating the player who deserves it most—who embodies the true definition of the NBA's most valuable player.
Whether that "player" is LeBron James or not.
*All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports and 82games.com unless otherwise noted.