The shift from vocal support to utter silence was a gradual one, but it's almost impossible to find anyone who'll speak out in favor of LeBron James' MVP credentials these days.
And that includes the King himself:
LeBron on Durant: "I would say he's the most consistent player as far as MVP this year."— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) April 9, 2014
It's tempting to stop the analysis there. If James won't advocate for his own cause, why would anyone else? But LBJ is a different breed of superstar. He's as confident as anyone, yet he also consciously does and says things like this with an agenda.
Maybe it's reading too much into a simple comment, but it seems like James is giving Durant a little dap because he knows it'll play favorably with the media. LBJ is nothing if not image-conscious, thanks in large part to The Decision's near destruction of said image.
At any rate, James expounded on his comments to Joseph Goodman of the Miami Herald: "I think K.D. has had one heck of a season, and if he was rewarded with the MVP, it would be great. It would be awesome for him, for his family. It would be a great thing for him. He has played MVP-type basketball."
This feels calculated. It's the kind of thing you only hear from a guy completely confident in his superiority. It's almost patronizing.
Either that, or James actually means what he says, and I'm entirely too skeptical about his ulterior motives.
Whatever the case, James won't toot his own horn for MVP. And it's really hard to find anyone who will.
Sean Highkin of USA Today offers the closest thing to an endorsement of James' MVP worthiness. But his comments aren't anything close to a full-on defense of LBJ, and they come from a March 4 write-up that followed James' 61-point outburst against the Charlotte Bobcats.
He argued that James' big scoring night put him ahead in the race by a small margin, but he quickly acknowledged Kevin Durant's chances to make a move:
Of course, there’s still plenty of time for Durant to pull back in the lead. Westbrook only recently came back from his third knee surgery in less than a year, and Durant’s numbers are inevitably going to dip while the Thunder re-integrate the All-Star point guard into the rotation.
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.
Highkin touches on an interesting point and one that might explain why nobody's coming out in support of James' MVP candidacy: It's more fun to enjoy the race than argue about it.
If Durant is the narrow statistical leader, many people are fine with giving him the MVP. And instead of a wave of contrarian support for James, there's a huge contingent who are just enjoying the ride.
That kind of attitude is terrible for talking heads forced to argue about this stuff on TV, but it's probably good for sensible America. Not everything has to be a debate.
Yahoo! Sports' Dan Devine expounded on the idea of leaving behind comparisons in the interest of appreciating two almost equally awesome athletes:
This is less about ebbs and flows and more about one peak being left behind in pursuit of new heights; Durant's 54 points against the Warriors seemed pretty freakin' high until LeBron's 61 showed us a new summit, and now it's KD's serve with an opportunity to break back. The most exciting thing about James' 61 — beyond, y'know, SIXTY-ONE POINTS — is that Durant gets to respond. And then LeBron does. And so on, and so on.
If forced to find a justification for a pro-James argument, one could turn to the numbers. There are still a few that favor him.
Tom Haberstroh of ESPN (subscription required) noted LBJ's slight edge in WAR, but he quickly followed that observation by alluding to the fact that KD is actually still out front:
And from a WAR lens, the MVP race is far from over, even with James' defensive shortcomings that have hurt the Heat's standing. But James can't hide on that end anymore. With a little more dedication on that end, James would likely be on his way to another MVP.
Durant's current MVP pole position is derived mostly from his statistical advantages—as it should be in the age of analytics. He leads James in a number of categories—both basic and advanced—this season:
Really, the story hasn't changed much all year. James continues to enjoy a small edge in overall shooting efficiency, but Durant beats him out just about everywhere else. It's kind of interesting to note that the statistical picture hasn't changed much all year, yet the narrative that now has KD ahead in the race has.
It's practically unanimous at this point, which could signal a couple of things.
For starters, that voter fatigue everyone talked about all year might finally be coming to bear. And secondly, it seems the NBA community at large has acknowledged that a slim statistical advantage over a very long period (in this case, a season) adds up to a significant edge.
How significant? B/R's Josh Martin has KD as a prohibitive 1-33 favorite to win the MVP Award.
Sure, you still get the occasional pro-James joke:
Starting games alongside Toney Douglas and James Jones is one way for LeBron James to tighten that MVP race.— Steve Aschburner (@AschNBA) March 30, 2014
But ultimately, the sentiment around the league is that Durant has this thing sewn up. It's obvious, and whenever you need confirmation of something blatantly obvious, you turn to Magic Johnson:
Magic Johnson says LeBron James made a charge for a minute, but Kevin Durant is clearly MVP this season. » pic.twitter.com/VneYjkYerM— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) March 24, 2014
Thanks, Magic. Keep us apprised of water continuing to be wet and gravity continuing to make things fall down.
In the end, we can't be all that surprised nobody is seriously advancing James' MVP case, not even for the fun of playing devil's advocate or as an attention grab. Maybe if LBJ rips off four more 61-point efforts in the Heat's closing stretch, that'll change.
But when James himself is admitting KD deserves the trophy, there's not a lot left for the rest of us to say.