LeBron James Clearly Facing Minefield on Route to MVP Three-Peat

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LeBron James Clearly Facing Minefield on Route to MVP Three-Peat
USA Today

MIAMI — The news hit inboxes just as LeBron James finished his brief pregame availability Tuesday, with those messages not opened until after the Miami Heat locker room had closed.

James had lost something he usually wins, something he won five of six times last season.

And while Eastern Conference Player of the Month isn't awarded in the most transparent manner (by some sort of league panel) and is hardly considered the definitive word on superiority over a particular period, this outcome did speak to the challenges that James faces as he chases an individual three-peat to go along with a collective one.

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
He needs to overcome boredom.

Not his own, per sethough the Heat as a team certainly looked lethargic in the first quarter of what would become a 107-97 loss to the Detroit Pistons Tuesday nightbut that of the NBA public. When excellence is expected from a certain team or player, fans, media and maybe even league officials start searching for something fresh.

Paul George, for one, is as fresh as it gets.

And so, the Indiana Pacers forward was named the East's best of October and November, though James, well, outpaced him in most categories. Each played 16 games. James, in one fewer minute per contest, averaged more points and assists and shot 59.8 percent compared to 47.3 percent. George was ahead in rebounds (6.1 to 5.9) and steals (2.1 to 1.1) and, maybe most significantly, wins (15 to 13).

It's that last category that might cause the MVP race between them—plus Kevin Durant or Chris Paul or Kevin Love or Tony Parker from the West—to be closer than the statistics suggest it should be, or perhaps even deny James the honor altogether. Voters don't need many excuses to vary the recipients, as was evident when Michael Jordan lost four awards in his prime (to Magic Johnson in 1989 and '90, Charles Barkley in 1993 and Karl Malone in 1997).

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For many, seeding certainly suffices.

In 2005, Steve Nash's Suns were a No. 1 seed in the West, with three more wins than Shaquille O'Neal's Heat, which grabbed the No. 2 seed in the East. Nash won by a slim margin, a result that many have questioned since. 

Seeding likely cost James in 2011, when he was going for this third straight MVP but finished a distant third (garnering just three of 121 first-place votes), though winner Derrick Rose didn't approach his efficiency. Rose's Bulls won four more games, and he was fresh, in just his third season.

The Heat were a No. 2 seed to the Bulls in the 2012 playoffs, but James had elevated his play to a level it couldn't be overlooked, no matter what Rose produced. And, last season, the Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder were No. 1 seeds in their respective conferences, but Miami won six more games and James beat Durant in their two meetings, pulling away just prior to the All-Star break.

But, after two straight MVPsand four in five seasonsit is natural for some fatigue to fester. That's why games like Tuesday's, when squandered, are significant for reasons other than the possible long-term implications on the Heat earning home court in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Statistically, James didn't do much to damage his standing, scoring 23 points with five rebounds and six assists, though he couldn't connect on a three-pointer after subs Norris Cole, Michael Beasley and Chris Andersen led a surge that cut a 17-point fourth quarter deficit to three. And he did commit six turnovers, including one that essentially sealed the defeat—his steal of Greg Monroe followed by Brandon Jennings' steal from him, setting up a Monroe layup.

"We had seven turnovers in the first quarter and we had 19 for the game," James said. "They came at crucial points in time."

Those mistakes allowed Detroit to overcome Josh Smith's customary long-range clanking (7-of-21 overall), while the rest of the Pistons shot 57.6 percent against a disjointed Heat defense. The defeat dropped the Heat to 14-4 as they head out on a difficult, frosty four-game trip in Chicago, Minnesota, Detroit and, finally, Indiana.

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Such trips have typically brought the Heat closer together.

"We're definitely gonna pull together now, since we're going to four cold cities," James said. "We need to keep each other warm."

He smiled. This was one of his few smiles on what was otherwise an exasperating, exhausting evening.

"It will be a good trip for us," James said. "It's going to be a great test. We start in a rival (Chicago), obviously, they don't like us, we don't like them. We go to a really good Western Conference team in Minnesota, and then we see these guys again on a back-to-back. And then we finish up in Indiana."

What happens there, next Tuesday in Bankers Life Fieldhouse, certainly won't finish the race between James, George and any other emerging rivals the public is anxious to anoint.

It just might get James a little space.

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