LeBron James: Does Cleveland's Collapse Prove He's The All-Time MVP?

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LeBron James: Does Cleveland's Collapse Prove He's The All-Time MVP?
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

A note of clarification on two points regarding my use of the phrasing All-Time MVP which have some people misunderstanding my intent. First by MVP I mean it in the sense of the award for a single season, not the extent of an entire career, i.e. has any MVP award winner ever deserved it more? Second, I didn't consider post-season success because MVP is not a postseason award. 

 

The Cleveland Cavaliers are in the midst of a historic collapse. A team which won more games than any in the NBA the last two seasons is now on pace to become one of the worst teams in the history of the league.

There were an array of questions I had about the downturn. First, how much was the collapse really about LeBron leaving? Second, were there other collapses historically, where did this one fit, and were the circumstances similar? Third, how did other players who had carried teams historically compare to the 2009-10 Cavaliers? It seems, by answering the second and third questions we can ascertain the answer to the first. 

So the first thing I did was determine what were the biggest collapses, the largest wrong-way turnarounds in the history of the NBA? This year's Cavs team and the 1999 Bulls team are annotated with an asterisk because they are pace-adjusted in the loss column. The Bulls' numbers were affected by a lockout which shortened the 1999 season.

Year Team Loss Diff Decrease Key Player Reason for Loss
2011 CLE -46* -56.6% LeBron James Free Agency
1999 CHI -41* -49.6% Michael Jordan Retirement
1997 SAS -39 -46.6% David Robinson Injury
1983 HOU -32 -39.0% Moses Malone Trade
1965 SFW -31 -38.7% Wilt Chamberlain Injury
Mike Powell/Getty Images

These are the five biggest collapses in the history of the NBA. In each case, the team lost a key player from the previous year. In fact, the only case where that key player was not the prior season's MVP was Wilt Chamberlain, who finished second to Oscar Robertson but won the award in the two seasons following his inury. 

It is striking that this is the biggest collapse in the history of the NBA. Not merely one of the biggest, but the biggest, period. There are some things which need to be considered and it helps to compare these to the second biggest collapse, that of the post-Jordan Bulls. 

When Cleveland lost LeBron James this year, he was not the only player the team lost.  They also lost Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Delonte West, and Shaquille O'Neal. The significance of those losses can be easily overstated in comparison to the loss of James. 

West was the sixth most productive player on Cleveland last year, Shaq was the seventh, and "Z" was the tenth. The three combined for 8.5 win shares. They missed a combined 69 games. They combined for less than 28 points, 15 rebounds, and five assists.

That might not sound insignificant, but remember, we're talking about three players that can be replaced by three players who average less than 10, five and two respectively. This is not the reason the Cavs are mired in the worst collapse in NBA history. 

If that needs to be underscored, consider that this collapse is worse than the Bulls', a team which was also affected by the loss of Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman.and Luc Longley. That was a total of over 30 points, 30 boards and 11 assists. And that wasn't the extent of the hits the Bulls took. 

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Some argue that the Cavs also lost their coach. So did the Bulls, and they lost the best coach in the history of the NBA. Not only that, while Byron Scott had a full training camp to prepare players to learn his new his system, Tim Floyd did not. 

When the Spurs had their collapse, it wasn't just Robinson who was missing either. They also lost significant time from Chuck Person, Charles Smith and Sean Elliot. They also underwent a mid-season coaching change. Yet their collapse was not as severe as this year's Cavs. 

The bottom line is this. Exactly how much is the loss of James and how much of it is due to the loss of the other players and coach? There's no way to definitively say, but while it can't be dismissed, it can't be presented as the "real reason" either. The Spurs and Bulls had worse hits besides the loss of their MVP, had coaching changes, and yet their collapse was not as severe. 

But what can we determine about James while he was with Cleveland? Exactly how much was he carrying Cleveland, as opposed to other historic instances when a player virtually carried a team by himself. 

I wanted to compare to some of the other instances where players were teamed up with players who were less than complimentary. In each case below is the production of teams apart from the superstars who carried the their respective teams. 

Year Team Wins FGP PTS REB ASS STL BLK TOT
2009 Cavaliers 61 47.92 72.4 35.2 13.8 5.3 4.2 130.9.
2005 Lakers 34 43.82 71.1 37.3 14.4 4.9 3.4 131.1
1988 Bulls 50 47.3 77.1 38.8 20.3 5.5 4.2 138.8
1994 Rockets 58 46.0 75.0 32.7 22.3 7.3 2.6 142.0
1962 Warriors 49 40.2 75.0 48.5 23.5     147.0
1962 Royals 43 41.4 92.3 58.3 15.5     166.1
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

For my research I took what I thought were the best examples of players carrying their teams. You have Kobe with the 2005 Lakers, the team which failed to make the playoffs through no fault of Kobe's, the 1988 pre-Pippen Bulls which made it to the conference finals and the 1994 Rockets who won the championship behind Hakeem Olajuwon, Chamberlain's Warriors from his 50-point-averaging season, and Robertson's Royals from his triple-double season.

It is striking that in terms of actual production, even Kobe's 2005 Lakers gave him more help, albeit barely more. If you factor in the field-goal percentage, you could argue that James supporting cast offered more, but not that it was 27 games more.

Foreseeing the onslaught of "how can you say that" comments from enraged, vein-bulging Lakers' fans, I'll give you my answer right now. I can say that because it's true.

The facts speak for themselves, and no matter how many disingenuous and specious comparisons of Chris Mihm to Anderson Varejao you make, the facts don't change. The production provided by Kobe's teammates, was at most, slightly less than the contributions provided by James' Cavs.

That's not a knock on Kobe, it's to his credit that they won 34. While we can't say what they would have done without Kobe, we do know how the Cavs are faring sans LeBron. This is not a hypothetical situation here, it's reality. LeBron James really carried that scrub-squad to 60 wins two years in a row.  

Are LeBron's last two seasons in Cleveland among the most valuable in NBA history?

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Not just Kobe and LeBron though, these represented some of the finest individual performances in league history, but weren't supported by similar performances by their respective teams. Note that in each case the players in question actually received more from their teams in terms of production, but none of them won as many games. Granted, this might not be the finest year for each player, but they had more help at other times. 

So without reacting emotionally and your feelings about "The Decision" getting in the way, just consider this fact: the loss of LeBron is having a greater impact than the loss of Jordan. Just let that fact sink in.

Now consider this postulate, based on the previously mentioned facts: You can make the argument that no player in the history of the NBA did more with less talent around him than LeBron has the last two years. And if that's true, then it can be argued that LeBron isn't just the Most Valuable Player from the last two years, but the most valuable player of all time. 

Perhaps that doesn't coexist with the "ring theory" mentality that some have who want to judge a player by the caliber of his teammates, but it's nonetheless a substantive statement. Can you think of a player who won more games with less support? If not, then it's hard to argue that he's the all-time MVP, or at the very least, it puts him in the conversation.  

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