CLEVELAND — LeBron James remains at the center of the NBA universe, not just because the sound of his voice alone makes a headline, but because he's more likely than anyone to be the greatest basketball player on the planet anytime he tries.
James enters the 2017-18 season as the 4-1 favorite to win MVP, according to Odds Shark. Even at 32 years old, half of all NBA general managers think he'll win it again. And why not? He's relatively healthy, still improving by several statistical metrics, and he's one MVP trophy behind Michael Jordan, who won his fifth and final MVP award in his age-34 season.
But four seasons have passed since James won his fourth MVP with the Miami Heat in 2012-13. Breakout seasons from various superstar guards coupled with what James frequently refers to as "voter fatigue"—the idea that the voting media prefers fresh storylines, always itching to crown the next superstar rather than recognizing perennial dominance—have preempted his quest for No. 5.
"He's at the top," James' frontcourt teammate Kevin Love told Bleacher Report. "I know last year he wasn't in the top three, but every year he could be MVP. You look at his numbers last year, and they were all up—assists, rebounds, the way he was scoring the ball, efficiency all the way around. This year will be no different. The way he feels, the way he looks...I know he had a little setback here in training camp, but we expect him to be right there. What he means to this team, he's that guy for us. We always expect greatness out of him."
So, what must James do to get back to the top of MVP voting ballots?
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"Just be LeBron James," Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue said to B/R. "LeBron could be MVP every year. He put up 26, eight and eight last year; 26, nine and eight the year before. But the years that Westbrook, Harden and those guys had, you have to commend them for doing that.
"LeBron's a lot like Shaq. He could win it every year. If you look at the numbers, how he plays, and how he makes his team better ... When guys have phenomenal years like Westbrook, Harden, Kawhi Leonard, Isaiah [Thomas], you have to give them credit for doing that."
If there is anything working against James (outside of the minor ankle injury he suffered during training camp), it is that 79 percent of all MVP winners have been between the ages of 24 and 30. Voter fatigue tends to slant toward up-and-coming players, but Father Time also has a way of knocking candidates down the list.
If James were to make his fifth trip to the MVP stage, he would be the fourth-oldest to win it. Nash turned 32 during the 2005-06 season. Abdul-Jabbar won the final of his six MVP awards at 33. Utah's Karl Malone won the trophy during his age 35-season. Jordan was 35 when he won his last one, too.
Just don't tell James that his window to win a fifth MVP is closing any time soon.
"I have a window?" James asked with a smile. "I don't like a window."
At Cavs media day, James insisted he's been training maniacally since July, a month after the Golden State Warriors eliminated Cleveland from the 2017 NBA Finals. Phrases like "LeBron's renewed focus" started to repeat on loop amongst talking heads.
James, who turns 33 in December, had just undergone one of the most rigorous offseasons of his 14-year career. Following the Cavaliers' six-game exit from the NBA Finals in 2015, James took part in three-a-days in the late summer months, working on his conditioning and various facets of his game. The Cavaliers would go on to win the Finals that next year, led by a heroic mid-June effort by James.
James spends each offseason fueled by the months of basketball that preceded it. When things don't go well for him in June, he'll torture himself more in July and August. But this year, losing to the Warriors in five games wasn't necessarily the fuel he needed.
"I've had one of the best offseasons of my career," James said about the summer months. "I always get better in the offseason, always working on my body and my game in the offseason. Something was just different. Something was just different. I'm not going to talk about it; I'm going to put it on the floor."
Those who have played alongside James since his return to Cleveland have also noticed a change in his overall demeanor. James has been more jovial this preseason relative to his business-like approach in years past. Cavs shooting guard JR Smith said he has seen a difference. Earlier in training camp, Lue referred to James as "Benjamin Button," an ode to the character whose age reversed course, allowing him to grow younger with each additional day.
Internal, External Forces
In 2015, James carried an injury-riddled Cavaliers team to the NBA Finals, where he put up averages of 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists that would have won the Finals MVP award in any other year. He asserted himself in a way that made that year's Finals MVP, Golden State's Andre Iguodala, appear middling. James, who averaged 25.3 points, 7.4 assists and 6.0 rebounds during the regular season, finished third in MVP voting.
A year later, James finished third again in MVP balloting. Then? In that year's NBA Finals, he averaged 29.7 points on 49.4 percent shooting, 11.3 rebounds and 8.9 assists while Curry, the first-ever unanimous league MVP, was held to 40.3 percent shooting from the floor. James turned Curry into a walking viral Vine victim, blocking live-ball and dead-ball shots and frustrating Curry to the point of ejection for his infamous mouthguard toss.
The Cavaliers would eventually stun the Warriors in Game 7. Did James find extra motivation in that year's late-season voting?
Last season, Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook averaged a triple-double while posting a league-leading usage rate of 41.7 en route to his first MVP award. James Harden, who had a 34.2 usage rate, was second in MVP voting, and San Antionio's Kawhi Leonard finished third. James, who had his lowest usage rate since the 2004-05 season, wound up fourth—the first time he finished outside the top three since 2008. He came the first player in league history to average a triple-double in the NBA Finals: 33.6 points, 12.0 rebounds and 10.0 assists.
James has finished among the top four in MVP voting 11 times in his 14 years in the league. Early in his career, he was deemed too young. He'd have his entire career to win an MVP. Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash made more narrative sense.
More recently, James' candidacy has been diluted by his superstar teammates. Some voters punished him for not exerting full effort on a nightly basis during the regular season, particularly on defense. His otherworldly playoff statistics raise the bar higher for what fans and media members demand between October and June.
ESPN.com's Tom Haberstroh and Titus Smith recently estimated only 20 of the 450 players on opening-night rosters will have a realistic chance of being named this season's MVP. James is not the only player to have voter fatigue work against him. Shaquille O'Neal, who dominated the league through much of his 19-year tenure, was snubbed twice. Kobe Bryant, one of the top players in the league for 20 seasons, somehow only has one MVP award.
The fatigue factor, however, may actually work in James' favor this season. The only players to be named MVP in back-to-back seasons outside of James are Curry, Nash, Tim Duncan, Michael Jordan, Moses Malone, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell.
The usual MVP suspects all suddenly seem to have superstar teammates hurting their chances this year. Westbrook now has new All-Star teammates in Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. Harden has one as well in perennial All-Star point guard Chris Paul. Kevin Durant and Curry will again dilute votes for one another. Kawhi Leonard enters the season injured with a nagging quadriceps injury, a carry-over setback from last year.
The season James lost out to Rose was the first of many where a strong supporting cast hurt James' vote count. This offseason, All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving requested a trade away from the shadow of No. 23. (That took place in July—the exact time James recalls getting extra inspiration.) With Isaiah Thomas likely out until January, James will be expected to carry much of the team's overall production early in the year.
If James stays healthy, there's little reason to doubt his viability as an MVP candidate. As long as he scoffs at the notion of wearing down, James can match Jordan's five MVPs and further strengthen his Greatest of All Time application.
LeBron vs. Himself
During any Cleveland Cavaliers radio broadcast, the city's flagship station rolls a minute-long clip where the starting five players introduce themselves along with where they went to school and what position they play. LeBron James is always announced last, offering "LeBron James, Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary, every position." Though a score-at-ease small forward on paper, James' ability to handle the ball and find open teammates is peerless. His first play in an NBA uniform was a fast-break opportunity where he ultimately lobbed the ball to then-teammate Ricky Davis.
In 2009, James became the first member of the Cavaliers to be named MVP. The irony here is that this season saw James' scoring, rebounding and free-throw rate all decline over the previous year when he was the NBA's scoring champ (30.0 points per game), but Kobe Bryant took home the award. He would be named MVP the next season as the Cavaliers continued to dominate the Eastern Conference under Mike Brown and James' statistical efforts (29.7 points, 7.3 rebounds, 8.6 assists) were coupled with one of the weakest supporting casts of his career—Jawad Williams, Jamario Moon and Daniel Gibson all had minute shares in the teens.
James' 2010 free-agency decision to improve his chances at winning a championship had its fair share of collateral damage as he saw drops in his usage rate, win shares and box score plus-minus. This was also where "voter fatigue" really started to take shape as the narrative surrounding James' joining of All-Stars in Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh was used against him when attempting to derive total "value" to the NBA.
A year later, however, all bets were off. James, fresh off a season where his hopes of an instant title would be thwarted by the Dallas Mavericks, put together what was to that point his most efficient and dominant season in the NBA. Supporting cast be damned, James saw his PER once eclipse the 30.0 mark (30.7) with a career high in true shooting (60.5) and effective field-goal percentage (55.4)—this all while producing his customary 27 points, eight rebounds and six assists per game. And if this all wasn't enough, James somehow improved in 2012-13, a year later, turning his efficiency up to a PER of 31.7 and a true shooting of 64.0—at that point, a career-high number.
Kevin Durant's "You the real MVP" speech would take place in 2014 as he would lead the league in scoring (32.0) and win shares per 48 minutes (.295). James finished second that season, the only other player to receive first-place votes (6). He wouldn't know it then, but this would be the start of a multi-year slide at the hands of the three-point revolution, high usage rates and the dominance of the Golden State Warriors. James would go on to finish third in the MVP race in 2015 behind Steph Curry and James Harden, third in 2016 behind Curry and Kawhi Leonard, and eventually fourth last season despite producing numbers that effectively mimicked those of his trophy-winning seasons in Miami.
LeBron vs. the Field
While the typical array of players will be in the mix for MVP consideration, the 2017-18 season has already started with its own unique storylines. A recent run of season-long predictions by Bleacher Report includes the possibility that Westbrook not only doesn't defend his crown as the league's best, but earns fewer votes than his new teammate, Paul George. Thinking is, if the Thunder can finally compete with the Golden State Warriors, it will be because of the addition of George. A season ago, George averaged 23.7 points, 6.6 rebounds and 3.3 assists per contest—all three of which were considerably lower than James—without having to share the ball. He received zero MVP consideration.
Two other players who could creep into the conversation are Washington's John Wall—a guard who many have tried to lump into the discussion as a top-tier player, but one who has also been hampered by a lack of overall team success—and Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo, a long-limbed, highlight-reel dynamo who has become one of the best two-way players in the entire league. Wall and Antetokounmpo finished tied for seventh place in MVP voting a season ago and could easily climb up the ranks in the event one of the top four—Westbrook, Harden, Leonard or James—were to fall as they've long had the eyes of those looking to crown yet another first-time MVP.
What could Antetokounmpo do to ascend into the discussion? It's simple: win. Of the top 11 to receive votes a season ago, Antetokounmpo had a higher win share per 48 minutes than only Wall, Anthony Davis and DeMar DeRozan.
"I think that's it," veteran swingman Kyle Korver said to Bleacher Report. "It's winning more games. I mean, averaging a triple-double gets you an MVP, but Milwaukee's got to win. He has to play well, be consistent and stay healthy—all things that are very possible for him.
"He feels pretty unique to me. A lot of guys get better over their first four or five years, but I don't know if there is anyone who has his physical abilities and length. He's really special, really unique. There are guys with unique skill sets who have changed the game in a variety of ways, and he could very well be one of those guys."
A dark-horse candidate for the award could be New Orleans' Davis. In 2016-17, the paint-owning big man finished with more points than Leonard, more rebounds than Westbrook and more blocked shots than the top three vote-getters combined. Much like Wall, the Pelicans' win total has worked against the former No. 1 overall pick, but is something that could decidedly change alongside DeMarcus Cousins for a full season.
But if one were to create a Frankenstein out of MVP traits—the stats, the consistency, the health, the winning—the end result would look like a 6'8", 270-pound small forward who can score, rebound, defend and pass while eying up an eighth-consecutive trip to the NBA Finals. James' statistical domination may have faced a few headwinds in terms of voters over the last four years, but both the player and the situation are ripe for him to get that long-coveted fifth Maurice Podoloff Trophy.
"That I have to still talk about free agency lets me know where my game is," said James. "If I wasn't that good, I don't think we'd be talking about it."