Can LeBron James Get Back in the Driver's Seat for 2014 NBA MVP?

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Can LeBron James Get Back in the Driver's Seat for 2014 NBA MVP?
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A few weeks ago, it looked like the 2013-14 MVP race was headed for a photo finish. Today, the trophy figures to go to Kevin Durant.

On March 3, LeBron James didn’t just hammer the No. 6 defense in the NBA for a career-high 61 points, he seemingly bent the MVP race in his direction.

It was an incredible performance. According to Elias Sports Bureau (h/t Zach Buckley of Bleacher Report), James’ 78.8 effective field-goal percentage was the third-highest for a 60-point game in the shot-clock era, behind only Wilt Chamberlain and Karl Malone.

“That’s Wilt Chamberlain-esque,” Miami Heat forward Shane Battier, a man who knows his history, aptly pointed out to the Miami Herald’s David J. Neal moments after the 124-107 win over the Charlotte Bobcats.

It was also timely. James had spent most of the previous month or so in an unfamiliar position—second place—to Kevin Durant, the league’s uber-efficient leading scorer. But after the early "March madness," it suddenly seemed James might have wrested control of the MVP race, or at least the narrative, back from his young counterpart. At worst, it seemed he’d played him to a draw.

“Really, the MVP race is a hotly contested fight to the finish because we've got two historic talents performing at the peak of their abilities every other night and, most importantly, we're not finished,” Yahoo! Sport’s Dan Devine wrote the day after the spectacular performance.

Devine was right that we certainly weren’t finished then. But we might be now.

Since the Charlotte spectacular, Durant has been scintillating, while James has been more conventionally great. In an MVP race that figures to be one of the most competitive in ages, this might be enough to sink James’ personal three-peat hopes.

Since LeBron’s obliteration of the ‘Cats, the Oklahoma City Thunder forward has played some of his best basketball of the season, posting averages of 36.1 points, 8.2 rebounds and 5.4 assists to go along with a field-goal percentage of 51 and a ridiculous 46.3 percent mark from three-point range, per NBA.com. The Oklahoma City Thunder went 6-3 in this time.

Meanwhile, according to NBA.com, James has puttered along—by his stratospheric standards—to averages of 22.8 points, 6.1 rebounds and 6.7 assists, with overall and three-point field-goal percentages of 50 and 36.8 while the Heat stumbled to 4-7.

Durant also holds advantages on the season, so far. According to Basketball-Reference.com, he leads James in scoring average (32.2 to 26.8) and rebounds (7.2 to 6.9), plus has the edge on LeBron in advanced metrics win shares (17 to 13.3), player efficiency rating (30.5 to 29) and, via Boxscore Geeks, wins produced (18 to 16.7).

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
After a jaw-dropping January, Durant has been might in March too.

Now, losing out statistically isn’t always a death knell for MVP aspirants. Team considerations also hold sway.

Without consulting the standings, it might seem strange to future hoops historians that Derrick Rose beat LeBron in the 2011 MVP race, given that James, per Basketball-Reference.com, had more win shares (15.6 to 14.3) and a higher PER than Rose (27.3 to 23.5), even in a down year.

But a quick check of the said standings clears this up. Rose’s Chicago Bulls finished 62-20 and grabbed the conference’s No. 1 seed, while James’ Heat ran up a 58-24 record.

This is a dynamic that won’t help LeBron in 2013-14.

So far this season, the Thunder have a .739 winning percentage through March 24 and their remaining opponents, according to PlayoffStatus.com, have won 53 percent of their games. On the other coast, the Heat, after a bit of a skid, are at 47-21 on the season, with a remaining opponent’s winning percentage of 48. In other words, it seems unlikely James and the Heat will be able to catch the Thunder.

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And unfortunately for James, voter fatigue, MVP ennui, is another factor that seems to sway these races. Again, not to pick on anyone, but Rose’s 2011 trophy comes to mind here, as do Karl Malone and Charles Barkley’s 1997 and 1993 awards.

With LeBron having won two MVPs in a row, and four in five seasons, it stands to reason that voters might want to honor a star who’s yet to be decorated—someone like Kevin Durant.

As things stand now, it seems a long shot ‘Bron will claim his fifth MVP award. That is fine. While they’re hardly mutually exclusive, you get the sense the trophy he really wants is awarded at the end of June. And that one is still very much in play.

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