LeBron James Owes 2013 AP Male Athlete of the Year Award to His Teammates

Josh Cohen@@arealjoshcohenCorrespondent IIDecember 27, 2013

LeBron James would have significantly less hardware without his teammates.
LeBron James would have significantly less hardware without his teammates.Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

LeBron James is the best basketball player on the planet and had his best year ever in 2013, but he wouldn't be the AP Male Athlete of the Year without the rest of the Miami Heat.

As Tim Reynolds of the Associated Press reported, James earned 31 votes out of 96 total from a panel of news organizations. He beat out Peyton Manning (20) and Jimmie Johnson (7), as well as every other male athlete in the world, for the award.

That makes King James just the third NBA player given this distinction. Larry Bird won it first in 1986, and Michael Jordan was Male Athlete of the Year three times from 1991 to 1993.

Jordan and Bird were both all-time greats coming off iconic NBA championship wins when they received this honor.

Bird led the 1985-86 Boston Celtics, one of the NBA's top-10 teams of all time, beating the Houston Rockets in six games as Bird took home both the regular season and Finals MVP honors. Jordan also won both MVPs in 1991 and 1992, only getting the Finals MVP nod in 1993 while leading the Chicago Bulls to their third straight title.

In 2013, James won his fourth MVP award and his second Finals MVP as the Heat beat the San Antonio Spurs in an instant classic of a seven-game series. He had no equal in terms of talent or skill in any game he played, and for that he deserves the AP's praise.

Yet his individual award wouldn't be possible without the contributions of his teammates, something abundantly clear in just one sequence.

Facing elimination in Game 6 of the Finals, the Spurs were up 95-92 with 19.4 seconds left. Mario Chalmers brought the ball up the left sideline; on the right, Dwyane Wade sets a high screen to try to spring Ray Allen for a corner three, but the Spurs switch and cover it. So Chris Bosh picks both James' man and his own to allow James to get open for a wing three.

Chalmers finds him, LeBron rises and fires and misses. You know what comes next.

Bosh, who disappointed with 12.1 points per game in the playoffs, rolls to the rim and grabs the offensive board. He immediately kicked it back to Allen, who stepped back behind the three-point line and, with 5.2 seconds left, nailed the corner three, which was actually the shot Miami tried to create off its first action on the play.

That astonishing game-tying shot required Chalmers' facilitation, Wade and Bosh's thankless dirty work and, of course, Allen's deadeye accuracy. Without any of those pieces, Allen couldn't get into that position on the court or get the ball in his hands with space to hit the shot.

MIAMI, FL - JUNE 18: Ray Allen #34 of the Miami Heat makes a game-tying three-pointer in the fourth quarter to force overtime against the San Antonio Spurs during Game Six of the 2013 NBA Finals on June 18, 2013 at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florid
Noah Graham/Getty Images

And without that three, the San Antonio Spurs would be your 2013 NBA champions. In that alternate universe, there's no way James wins AP Male Athlete of the Year after losing in the Finals.

Just as Jordan had Scottie Pippen; just as Bird had Kevin McHale, Robert Parrish and Dennis Johnson; LeBron had Wade's 19.6 points per game in the Finals and clutch contributions from Bosh, Allen and the rest. The NBA is a star-driven league, but as LeBron learned with the Cleveland Cavaliers, the greatest talents cannot succeed alone.

There are multiple reasons why basketball has gotten such little representation with this award, none of them related to the caliber of the athletes themselves.

Popularity is part of it. Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain never won this award, but a baseball player won eight of nine times between 1961 and 1969. But the NBA's global appeal is skyrocketing, so that's not a relevant deterrent anymore.

Teamwork is the big thing. Basketball is such a team-oriented game that it can be difficult for any individual to stand above everyone else as the best athlete in all sports.

That's an idealized request; no player can ever win a championship in basketball while transcending team play. Bird, Jordan and James came as close as anyone ever has, but even they had to lean on their teammates, too.

There's certainly no shame in that. James couldn't have won the championship or Athlete of the Year without them, but that puts him in some pretty good company.