Ranking LeBron James' MVP Season with Best Since 2000
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
This is becoming a regularly scheduled event.
For the second straight year, the Miami Heat are hosting a celebration the day prior to the start of their second-round series.
It is a celebration of the dominance of LeBron James.
The worst-kept secret got out a couple of days earlier (per Ira Winderman of the Sun-Sentinel): James is winning his fourth regular-season MVP trophy in five years. While the race between himself and Kevin Durant was relatively close early, James pulled away during the course of the Heat's 27-game winning streak, when he took his efficiency to even greater heights.
Now he's tied with Wilt Chamberlain and behind only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (six) and Michael Jordan and Bill Russell (four) in all-time MVPs.
And he's just 28.
“I don’t know my ceiling," James said. "I don’t stop trying to improve my game."
And so, even after he romped to the MVP in 2011-12, and after he won an NBA championship and the NBA Finals MVP, and after he won the Olympic gold medal, James turned in his strongest season, one that included his rather ridiculous 56.5 shooting from the field, a number he had never previously approached.
It was one of the greatest seasons in recent NBA history.
Where does it rank this century?
Well, for the purposes of this conversation, let's eliminate his MVP wins in 2008-09, 2009-10 and 2011-12 from consideration. And let's also reduce all the other stars to one "submission," which eliminates one of the Steve Nash and one of the Tim Duncan MVPs.
Which five seasons most stand out?
(All quotes for this piece were collected through the course of the author's coverage of the Miami Heat for the Palm Beach Post.)
5. Tim Duncan in 2001-02
It's hard to believe how long Tim Duncan has been near the top of the league.
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
You can make the argument that, since his drafting in 1997, Tim Duncan has been the most valuable franchise cornerstone in the NBA.
The next season, Duncan arrived, and several Spurs, um, miraculously recovered.
That was the start of one of sports' most remarkable runs, with San Antonio never posting a winning percentage under .610. Duncan won his first championship after his second MVP season.
Still, it took some time for Duncan to win his first MVP.
That came in his fifth season, 2001-02, when he took on his heaviest dosage of minutes (40.6), and raised his scoring (25.5) and rebounding (12.7) averages while playing all 82 games.
The Spurs won 58 of them.
He led the league in field goals made, free throws made, defensive rebounds and total rebounds.
The next season, he would win again, with nearly identical numbers, and in another tight vote, beating out Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Garnett. And, the season after that, he finished second to Garnett. For several other seasons, he was in the MVP conversation, even as some began to find his brilliance a bit boring.
In retrospect, basketball fans may have more appreciation for his consistent excellence over the long term; at the least, his breakthrough warrants a spot on this list.
4. Dirk Nowitzki in 2006-07
In the aftermath of an NBA Finals loss, Dirk Nowitzki was just about unguardable.
Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images
Dirk Nowitzki finished third, behind friend Steve Nash and phenom LeBron James, in the 2005-06 MVP voting.
Then Nowitzki and his team finished second in the 2006 NBA Finals.
The Mavericks had a 2-0 lead against the Miami Heat, but Nowitzki couldn't do quite enough to counter the spectacular work of Heat star Dwyane Wade. Miami won the next four games and the championship, as Wade won the Finals MVP trophy.
It has become common for teams to struggle after falling in the finals, but Nowitzki wouldn't allow that to occur. He improved his efficiency the next season, setting what were—at that point—career-highs in shooting from two-point range, three-point range and the free-throw line.
He finished with averages of 24.6 points and 8.9 rebounds, continuing to redefine the way that 7-footers play.
The Mavericks won 67 games and stormed into the top seed of the West while relying heavily upon him—they were 18-1 when he scored 30 or more points.
Things didn't go so well in the postseason. Nowitzki's coach, Avery Johnson, panicked prior to playing the eighth-seeded Golden State Warriors, altering his lineup. The Warriors eliminated the Mavericks in the first round.
That shouldn't eliminate the brilliance of Nowitzki's regular season.
3. Kevin Garnett in 2003-04
Before Boston, Kevin Garnett dominated for the Timberwolves.
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
When he retires, whether that occurs now or after some season in the near future, Kevin Garnett will largely be remembered as the heartbeat of a proud era of the Boston Celtics.
But his Celtics tenure (six seasons) has actually been only half as long as the time he played for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
While many of those seasons were exceptional, the 2003-04 season was the one in which Garnett most set himself apart.
Garnett averaged 13.9 rebounds, beginning his run of four straight seasons leading the league in that category. He averaged 24.2 points, the most of his career, to that point or since.
He was the first player in 29 years to lead the league in total points and rebounds in the same season.
The Timberwolves won a franchise-record 58 games and captured the top seed in the Western Conference, as Garnett set the tone for a team that included Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell, but not a whole lot in support.
Garnett romped in the voting, receiving 120 of a possible 123 first-place votes, with Jermaine O'Neal and Peja Stojakovic receiving the others.
It would be Garnett's only MVP, though he earned strong consideration in other seasons, including 2007-08, after his deal to Boston. That Celtics squad, with Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, won 66 games and then a championship.
To Minnesota fans, though, 2003-04 will always be considered his crowning moment.
2. LeBron James in 2012-13
LeBron James has the entire league at arm's length.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Since he was 17 years old and on the cover of Sports Illustrated, observers of LeBron James have always called for him to do more.
In James' 10th season, he demonstrated that he has mastered the art of more with less.
The Miami Heat forward averaged the fewest shots of his career, just 17.8, and yet scored at roughly the same rate. He set an NBA record of six straight games with at least 30 points on at least 60 percent shooting. He seemed to decide, from quarter to quarter and game to game, which advantage to exploit.
He dictated, rather than allowed defenders to dictate.
As Erik Spoelstra, his coach, put it:
Not letting teams off the hook. Absolutely taking shots that he knows he can make. Eliminating the throwaway shots. Because of his IQ and his dedication, he’s learning how to read games and read opponents better and better each game. He knows the game to the level of an assistant coach. That improvement from the shoulders up, his improvement can continue to be limitless.
He rebounded at a career-high rate, for a small team that needed every one.
He posted his second-best assist average of his career.
On the other end, he drifted at times but, due to his unmatched versatility, still finished second in the Defensive Player of the Year voting.
The season was so dominant that it left everybody wondering whether he can still improve.
He believes he can. He shot just 75.3 percent from the line.
"I need to, and want to shoot, in the 80s," James said.
Amazing he won his fourth MVP without that.
"I told him if he gets 11 more he can have one for all of us," teammate Udonis Haslem said.
He just might.
1. Shaquille O'Neal in 1999-00
During the 1999-00 season, Shaquille O'Neal was at the height of his power.
Tom Hauck/Getty Images
Fred Hickman would be unlikely to agree with this selection.
In retrospect, that seems even more silly.
Iverson was deserving of the award he received the next season, when he carried a soft 76ers squad to the top of the East.
Shaquille O'Neal was a monster among men in 1999-00, however.
O'Neal was uncharacteristically durable, playing 79 games and averaging a career-best 40.0 minutes.
He led the league in scoring, at 29.7 points per contest, the only time he did so in his 19 seasons (other than 1994-95).
He led the league in field-goal percentage, at 57.4.
He averaged 13.6 rebounds, the second-best of his career.
He averaged 3.0 blocks, the second-best of his career.
Oh, and sure, he shot just 52.4 percent from the line.
So at least there was something that Iverson did better.