When the 2014-15 season finally comes to a close, LeBron James may very well become the fourth.
James has already taken home four MVP trophies and has finished in the top five on five other occasions. Despite some close finishes, he's never been in a race as tight as this year's version appears to be.
Along with James, three other candidates can make an impressive argument for why they deserve to be the league's most valuable player.
James Harden has led a Dwight Howard-less Houston Rockets team to a top-three seed in the Western Conference. Stephen Curry is the best player on the 49-12 Golden State Warriors, owners of the league's top record. Russell Westbrook is collecting almost nightly triple-doubles while carrying the Oklahoma City Thunder back into the playoff picture without last year's MVP, Kevin Durant. Anthony Davis also deserves some consideration, but the New Orleans Pelicans' so-so record (34-29) will ultimately prevent him from winning.
All are worthy candidates, but none have been as valuable to their respective teams as James has been to the Cavaliers.
What James Means to the Cavs
OK, how bad would this Cavaliers team be without James?
To put it kindly: pretty stinkin' bad.
Even with current and former All-Stars in Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, Cleveland's success lives and dies with James.
The Cavs are 2-9 when he misses a game this season, a record that would be even worse if not for Irving's heroic 55-point performance against the Portland Trail Blazers on Jan. 28. That's a win roughly 18 percent of the time, a lower success rate than the NBA's worst team, the New York Knicks (19.7 percent).
In those 11 games James has missed, Cleveland's offense has sputtered. The Cavs average 91.3 points per game when James sits, a drop of 11.2 points per game off their season average.
It's not just his 26.0 points, but rather James' overall court vision and playmaking ability that stands out. He's averaging 7.3 assists, tied for second-most of his 12-year career. Both totals lead the Cavaliers, as do his 33.3 usage percentage, 38.7 assist percentage, 6.9 box plus/minus and 25.8 player efficiency rating.
Of course, there's all the little things that don't show up in stat sheets.
James is always pointing out what he sees on the court to teammates. He shouts defensive assignments from the bench. He supports, encourages and even criticizes when necessary.
Even back in training camp, James kept teammates after practice to work with them on coach David Blatt's offense. He had already mastered the playbook for his position, along with the other four spots as well.
James is once again the undisputed leader of the Cavaliers, with his every move dictating their success.
James Is Great, but MVP-Worthy?
We know what James does for the Cavs, but he's certainly not the only one leading a successful franchise.
Curry, Harden and Westbrook are all in the MVP conversation, and deservedly so. At various points, all have seemingly taken turns sitting atop the mountain.
Here's how the four stack up in key categories:
|Westbrook||27.4 PTS||7.1 REB||8.3 AST||35 WINS|
|Harden||27.1 PTS||5.8 REB||7.1 AST||43 WINS|
|Curry||23.6 PTS||4.4 REB||7.8 AST||49 WINS|
|James||26.0 PTS||5.7 REB||7.3 AST||40 WINS|
If the race came down to pure power stats, Westbrook would be the runaway winner. Unfortunately, the Thunder are eighth in the West and aren't even guaranteed a playoff spot.
Curry's stats may not measure up to the others, but his Warriors have been the best and most consistent team all season.
Harden and James are somewhere in between, mixing impressive stats with team success. As of March 9, the Rockets are No. 3 in the West while James' Cavaliers hold down the No. 2 spot in the East. Both are locks not only to reach the postseason but likely collect home-court advantage as well.
Points, rebounds and assists are usually the first stats that jump out to fans and voters, and for good reason. They help show who's had the best statistical season, though not necessarily who was the most valuable to his team.
Instead, on/off numbers are far more telling. These assist in measuring a team's success when a player is in the game and its potential demise when he needs a rest. In all, they can be bundled into one total number that calculates the offensive and defensive impact of a player on his franchise.
When it comes to this ultimate net rating, no candidate is more impressive than James.
|Westbrook||+10.5 offense||+3.4 defense||+7.1 total||52% MP|
|Harden||+15.0 offense||+2.3 defense||+12.6 total||75% MP|
|Curry||+13.1 offense||-4.3 defense||+17.3 total||68% MP|
|James||+11.7 offense||-5.9 defense||+17.5 total||63% MP|
The Cavaliers are 17.5 points per 100 possessions better with James on the court, the highest total of all four candidates.
Even with five-plus weeks remaining in the regular season, James has his supporters throughout the league.
He looks like the MVP to me. I know we've got all this argument going on, but man, he's hard to stop. …
I don't know that there is a viable option in the whole league defending LeBron. … But what makes LeBron special is not just his ability to do what he does 1-on-1 -- because nobody can guard him 1-on-1 -- but to also make plays for his teammates if you do make times. And you're almost forced to bring two at times, especially when he's on the deep block.
Rewind back a week to what was perhaps the Cavaliers' biggest statement game of the season, and one where James may have leap-frogged another candidate.
On Feb. 26, the league-leading Warriors came to Cleveland in a nationally televised contest. James was eager to show what he and his team were capable of, notes Joe Vardon of the Northeast Ohio Media Group:
The Cavaliers handled the Warriors 110-99, and James was the obvious star. He dropped a season-high 42 points, tied a season-high with 11 rebounds, and contributed five assists. Those 42 points came on 15-of-25 shooting.
Curry, meanwhile, finished with 18 points on 5-of-17 shooting. He didn't score in the fourth quarter.
"Well I hope it's not based on this game," Curry said. "If I'm playing one-on-one against him and you look at tonight, then I lost, obviously. It's about a body of work."
In three games against Curry, Harden and Westbrook this season, James is averaging 37.6 points, 4.6 assists and 8.6 rebounds.
Ignore the Past, Focus on the Present
Who's the most valuable player?
One factor that could plague James, although unfairly, is his past success.
In a way, all four others would be a sexier pick than James. After he won the award four times, it's natural to think some voter fatigue would set in. Much like with Durant the year before and Derrick Rose in 2010-11, it's arguably more exciting to see a first-year winner rather than someone who's done it before.
James certainly shouldn't be penalized for this, however. The most valuable player should be a blind award based off who's made the biggest difference for his team, regardless of past success.
Hopefully, the voters will get it right.
All stats provided by Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.