While the NBA Finals have yet to be decided, it's obvious who the MVP has been.
LeBron James is playing the best basketball of his historic career, delivering numbers never before seen in the championship round.
His supporting cast decimated, James now leads a patchwork group that only began regularly playing together just a few months ago. Despite losing Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love to injury, James' 36.6 points, 12.4 rebounds and 8.8 assists have single-handedly kept the Cavaliers alive heading into Game 6.
Should the Cavaliers come back to win the final two games and the series, James cannot get the MVP trophy in his hands fast enough. Should the Golden State Warriors claim the throne, would it really be fair to still award the most valuable player to someone on the losing team?
Yes, yes, and again, yes. James has been that good.
It's Happened Before
Not since America first put a man on the moon has the NBA Finals featured an MVP that didn't actually win the championship.
In 1969, Jerry West of the Los Angeles Lakers took home the honor despite his team losing in seven games to Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics. West put up a combined 50 points, rebounds and assists (37.9-4.7-7.4) in the series. James is averaging a combined 57.8.
Now, 46 years later, James deserves to join West on such a unique list. No matter what.
Competition is Favorable
James is in a perfect position to capture MVP honors regardless of which way the series swings.
The core of J.R. Smith, Matthew Dellavedova, Iman Shumpert and Tristan Thompson wouldn't even sniff the playoffs, yet, here they are, two wins away from an NBA championship. The bench, never a strong point to begin with, has been depleted due to key injuries.
For the Warriors, strength truly does lie in numbers.
Golden State has 11 players averaging five minutes or more per game. The Cavs have eight. The Warriors see four players average 12 points per game or more. Cleveland? Just two.
The wealth, and success, is definitely being spread around in Oakland. While that's ideal for the team, it hurts any individual's chances of winning MVP.
Stephen Curry, the league's most valuable player in the regular season (deservedly so), has disappeared for stretches. He also set the record for most missed three-pointers (13) in a Finals contest during Game 2 and has registered a negative plus/minus rating two separate occasions. He's bouncing back as of late, but James has been consistently great throughout.
Klay Thompson is shooting just 29.7 percent from deep in the series, and Draymond Green has been even worse at 21.4 percent. Both have witnessed their production come and go, neither exhibiting reliable, consistent contributions.
Andre Iguodala is the only other Warrior to make a case, due to his defense and the team's success with him in the starting lineup. Still, Iguodala is averaging just 14.6 points, 6.0 rebounds and 3.8 assists—a far cry from the kind of production James is putting up.
Here's how the three leading candidates, James, Curry and Iguodala, stack up.
The numbers aren't even close. James is destroying any and all competition, all while racking up a higher usage percentage than Russell Westbrook's regular-season leading 38.4.
Guarding James has taken on an all new meaning. No other player in the series has reached 40 points, a mark James has already hit three times.
"You're not going to shut him down," Green said via Jarrett Bell of USA Today. "If he gets 40, he gets 40. That's why he's LeBron James. You can throw a triple-team at him, and he'll still probably get 40. As long as you make him work for those 40, you've got to be satisfied with what you do."
Can the same be said for anyone on Golden State?
One of James' biggest strengths has always been his ability to play and defend multiple positions.
The only spot he didn't truly fit into was center. With the Warriors going small the past two games, James has been able to play all five spots, something the NBA hasn't seen since Magic Johnson.
We've witnessed James orchestrate the offense as a point guard on one position before defending the Warriors' center on the next. He leads all players in scoring and assists, while finishing only second to teammate Tristan Thompson (13.0) in rebounding. As Tony Manfred of Business Insider points out:
We've seen more efficient, successful performance in the Finals, but we haven't seen a player completely take control of a team the way LeBron has. He's the primary ball handler, post player, distributor, creator, and scorer. He's responsible for everything Cleveland does on offense. If you go backwards from the moment the Cavs make any given basket, you'll almost always find that LeBron was, in some way, the origin.
Curry can go for 30-plus points while hitting impossible shots, but he's not going to grab double-digit rebounds. Iguodala can rebound, pass and defend, but he won't sniff James' scoring total.
James' versatility is the key to his value.
When Love had to undergo shoulder surgery, James became more aggressive as a scorer and rebounder, the two areas the Cavs needed. With Irving, the team's second-leading scorer, now sidelined, James has been forced to initiate the offense nearly every possession.
Cleveland's offense has suffered tremendously. Dellavedova can struggle simply bringing the ball up against a good defender. Smith, Shumpert, James Jones and Mike Miller are shooters who can't create offense for others.
It's LeBron, and it's not even close right now. Curry and Iguodala are both worthy candidates in any other year but if we're trying to measure a player's "value", well, just look at the rare stretches in this series when James has sat, forcing the J.R. Smith Traveling All-Stars to muck about until David Blatt looks as if he might have an aneurysm. We've never seen a performance like this—at least not in my lifetime—where a team was so reliant on one player and he brought them this close to a title.
James has been forced to flex his impressive versatility, something no other Warrior must do.
Support, or Lack Thereof
It's easy to forgot the Cavaliers could very well have begun this series up 3-0. Both James and Shumpert missed potential game-winning shots in Game 1 before the Cavaliers eventually lost in overtime.
At one point, Cleveland led the series 2-1, and it could tie things up 3-3 with a victory Tuesday night.
This is significant because, according to Neil Paine of FiveThirtyEight.com, James' supporting cast is one of the worst in the past 30 years. Out of a possible 62 teams, only the 1999 New York Knicks and James' 2007 Cavaliers have been worse.
The Warriors are on the opposite end of the spectrum, finishing 14th out of 62. Curry and Iguodala may be leading the charge, but they've had plenty of help as well.
"We haven't seen a player do what he's done, on a winning team or not," Grant Hill said via Bleacher Report's Howard Beck. "They're undermanned, and what they're doing is a result of what he's doing. He's been the best player consistently, throughout the series."
When asked if James should win the MVP, even if the Cavaliers lose the series, Hill said, "What LeBron's doing, I wouldn't have a problem with that. What he has done, what he's been forced to do, it's conceivable (he could win). It could happen...I would have no problem with that. And there's been a precedent."
Without a doubt, James has been the Finals' most valuable player. People can get hung up on the winning/losing side when the series ends, but his performance will go down as one of, if not the, best of all time.
James deserves the MVP award, regardless of if the Cavaliers win another game or not.