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What Else Does LeBron James Have to Do to Be 2014 MVP Favorite?

MIAMI, FL - MARCH 12:  LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat reacts to a play during a game against the Brooklyn Nets at American Airlines Arena on March 12, 2014 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory copyright notice:  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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Dan FavaleFeatured ColumnistMarch 19, 2014

Your move, LeBron.

With under 20 games remaining in the 2013-14 campaign, the NBA's MVP race has become blazingly indeterminable. 

LeBron James. Kevin Durant. That's it. No one else is chasing the highly coveted Maurice Podoloff Trophy. Not really, anyway. Yet, somehow, the race still feels crowded.

Both superstars have played spectacular basketball all year, in what has been a season-long battle for unparalleled recognition.

Once considered the nearly unchallenged MVP, Durant now has company threatening to oust him entirely in the form of a 6'8", bullishly built Miami Heat superstar.

Although James has spent much of this season chasing Durant, USA Today's Sean Highkin reminded us earlier this month the honor remains the King's to lose:

This is around the time of year that James separated himself from the pack last season, too. Durant appeared to be the MVP favorite carrying the Thunder while Russell Westbrook was injured, but James is reminding everyone who the best player in the world really is.

[...]

The best thing for the NBA is for its two biggest stars to play tug-of-war with the MVP award down the stretch. It was LeBron’s early in the season, and then it was Durant’s for the last two months. Now it’s LeBron’s again. Whoever wins it, we’re watching one of the all-time great individual player rivalries.

Now is indeed the time when James gets hot. And he is hot. He's averaging a mind-bending 28.8 points, 6.4 rebounds, 5.8 assists and 2.2 steals per game on 57.1 percent shooting since the All-Star break.

Translation: He's on fire. 

Obvious-MVP-favorite fire? 

Not quite. But he can get there.

 

A Little More Extravagant

Asking James to play a more ornate style of basketball is like asking Pharrell to sing in a squeakier octave: You don't do it, because it's not possible. 

For James, it's possible. Barely, but it's possible.

Scoring 43 points on 19 shots against the Cleveland Cavaliers Tuesday night was yet another reminder of how efficient he can be. It was also the first time he dropped 40 or more on fewer than 20 shots since 2010, which is more indicative of his aversion to 40-point games than it is anything else.

But James isn't going to become MVP favorite by going toe-to-toe with Durant's volume scoring. Durant scores—better and more frequently than anyone. That's what he does. 

James is supposed to have the more complete game, the more triple-double-friendly skill set. Only this season, he hasn't registered a single triple-double. He may be approaching the record for almost-triple-doubles, but he still hasn't recorded an actual triple-double.

The last time James went an entire season without notching one of those beautiful stat lines was 2011-12, and this would be just the second time since 2004-05 he went an entire campaign without securing one. That cannot happen this year.

In truth, we shouldn't need James to post one triple-double. And in truth, we don't. He needs to rattle off more than one, as many as he can.

This deep into his career, James has little to prove. We know he's a triple-double threat every night. But elevating his play, actually snatching those triple-doubles, further reminds us who the most versatile player in the game is. 

Buckling down on defense is another thing. James' defensive rating (105) is a career worst, and he's on pace for 3.7 defensive win shares, his lowest total since 2003-04, when he was a rookie.

Basically, James just needs to show us more of James. While asking a lot, it's a necessity. 

Durant is on course to become just the eighth qualified player in NBA history to finish the season with a player efficiency rating of 30 or higher. James has accomplished the same feat in four of the last six years. Each time, he's won an MVP award, so anything he can do to drum up his statistical value is a must.

 

One Last Hurrah

MIAMI, FL - March 16: LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat looks on against the Houston Rockets at the American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida on March 16 2014. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this pho
Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

The Heat aren't going to win 27 games in a row like they did last season. There aren't enough games remaining. Quite frankly, they've also yet to prove they can maintain the kill-or-be-killed mentality that long this season.

One more obnoxious winning streak, though, goes a long way. Closing the season out on a high note, creates momentum, or at least the illusion of profound impetus. 

From now until the postseason, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra is going to be experimenting. Or rather, conserving. Dwyane Wade could find himself on the pine more frequently, and Greg Oden has already tasted the starting lineup.

If James can quarterback another lengthy winning streak over the final 17 games or so, his MVP stock goes up. Not only would he be leading a string of dominance through the usual lineup changes or additions, but he could do so amid a stretch that sees Miami play the Indiana Pacers twice. 

The Heat closed out last year on an eight-game winning streak. Playing out of his mind to the point where one last stream of wins, one final 2013-14 hurrah, becomes possible only increases James' chances at usurping Durant and procuring his fifth MVP award.

 

Speaking of Which...

MIAMI, FL - DECEMBER 18: LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat drives against Paul George #24 of the Indiana Pacers on December 18, 2013 at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading an
Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

Those Pacers. Those Eastern Conference-leading, still-struggling, offensively unimpressive Pacers. Those still-three-games-ahead-of-Miami Pacers.

James and the Heat need to catch them.

Winning the Eastern Conference won't guarantee James an MVP victory, but it's a good start. If he can help Miami erase a season-long deficit, in spite of Wade being on pace to miss more than 20 games, that's huge.

It deals a potential playoff foe a morale-rumpling blow while buoying James' case for MVP, or the equivalent of killing two pterodactyl-sized birds with one titan-weighted stone.

More to the point, it's something Durant may not do.

Russell Westbrook has already missed more games than Wade (31), and he's going to sit even more down the stretch. But it shows. In the Oklahoma City Thunder battling to remain in the top two of the Western Conference, it shows.

In their intermittent bouts with chemistry, it shows.

Overthrowing the Pacers is yet another token of James' on-court superiority, an intangible keepsake borne out of his ability to situate Miami at the top no matter what. And even then, there's no guarantee he overtakes Durant en route to his third consecutive MVP award.

But the race is close enough to where this counts, where everything counts. The slightest change in the status quo, the puniest gust of wind could change everything. James, aware of his MVP standing, could change everything.

"In today's age, there are players who would be looking for numbers with that type of start to see if you can go for 70," Spoelstra told reporters, per the Associated Press, after Miami's win over Cleveland. "LeBron's just trying to play the game the right way. It takes great maturity. He's selfless."

Now it's time for James to be a bit more selfish, as he was against Cleveland. As he needed to be against Cleveland.

Selfish for the sake of selflessness, for the sake of winning.

Selfish enough to create an MVP-favorite fire not even Durant can put out.

 

*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com (subscription required).


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