The question that will dominate the speculation around LeBron James this regular season—aside from the 2014 free-agency possibilities—will be whether he can win a third consecutive Most Valuable Player Award.
Not even Michael Jordan has accomplished such a feat, and the last player to do it was Larry Bird, from 1984-86. How can James avoid “voter fatigue”—some point to Steve Nash's win over Shaquille O'Neal in 2004-05 as an example—and win the ultimate prize for individual achievement for a fifth time overall?
In short, James (and the Miami Heat) will have to perform so superbly that voting for anyone else would be deemed heresy. That doesn’t necessarily mean winning in all the advanced statistical categories. In fact, the voters gave the 2010-11 MVP to Derrick Rose although James led the NBA in every objective statistical measure. The Bulls finished the season with a surprisingly better record than the Heat, so Rose won the award.
James will have to repeat and perhaps even exceed his magnificent campaign during the 2012-13 season. Before Miami’s 27-game winning streak reached double digits, the media endlessly discussed James’ standout games. He shot above 60 percent from the field for the first six games of that historic streak, including nights with 13-of-14, 9-of-11 and 11-of-15 shooting.
After James’ shooting percentages dipped (a bit), the streak became a story in and of itself. But both events—James’ otherworldly shooting and Miami's continuing wins—propelled his MVP chances because it increasingly seemed unfathomable to give anyone else the award. The Heat finished the regular season with six more wins than the Thunder, who had the second-best record in the NBA.
Now, playing far better than any other team may prove more difficult than last year. Rose will return for Chicago, and Tom Thibodeau stands as the best defensive coach in the NBA. The Indiana Pacers added Luis Scola to buttress their bench and the Brooklyn Nets have added star power and role players in an effort to avoid the disastrous 2012-13 Lakers season.
But it’s worth noting that although the Pacers took the Heat to seven games in the conference finals last year, Indiana only won 49 games. No one argued that Paul George should have won MVP. Moreover, Kevin Garnett won’t be able to play more than 25 minutes a night for the Nets. The Heat should still go into the season as the favorites to secure the top seed in the East.
James’ biggest challenge attaining a third consecutive MVP is actually an old friend of his, Kevin Durant.
Durant is clearly the second-best player in the NBA. His team’s trade of James Harden looks especially lamentable now—not only have the Rockets emerged as a contender in the West, but Oklahoma City failed to replace Kevin Martin. But all of that may actually work in Durant’s favor as an MVP candidate.
First of all, Russell Westbrook is expected to return for the Thunder’s training camp. The triumvirate of Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka will keep Oklahoma City towards the top of the West standings. Keep in mind that the Thunder finished the 2012-13 season as the best team in points scored per 100 possessions and fourth-best team in points allowed per 100 possessions. Some very smart people were extolling the play of the Thunder after the Harden trade—and with good reason.
Empirical evidence should decide the MVP, but it’s frequently the narrative that provides the framework in the end. It seems completely plausible for the Thunder to have a great season—perhaps even approach the win total of the Heat in a much tougher Western Conference—and people to credit Durant for that. Even anti-Westbrook rage could improve the All-NBA First Team player's chances of winning the MVP this year.
Admittedly, the Thunder will need to have a good shooter emerge to strengthen the offense. Martin did average 14 points per game off the bench for Oklahoma City last year and filled a needed role. Thabo Sefolosha is limited offensively, and the Thunder missed out on signing a good 2-guard in free agency. But if Jeremy Lamb plays admirably as a sixth man and the Thunder surpass expectations, James would find the MVP trophy in jeopardy.
Winning the MVP award will have to take more than another great season from James. He and his team have to perform much, much better than anyone else. James won the first-place vote of all NBA writers with only one exception. The three-time NBA champion dominated the NBA with countless mind-boggling performances, and his team won 27 straight games and finished with a record far better than any other team.
Nothing less than a comparable confluence of events will enable James to win a third straight MVP.