A quarter of the way into the NBA season is far too early to start seriously talking about the MVP race, but the public campaigning is well underway.
For LeBron James, it started last summer in the bubble and continued in earnest on Thursday night, when he put up a 27-point, 10-rebound, 10-assist triple-double in the Los Angeles Lakers' 114-93 win over the Denver Nuggets and maybe his biggest MVP challenger, Nikola Jokic.
The Lakers are in a dead heat with the Clippers and Jazz for first place in the Western Conference, and James is currently the betting favorite to win MVP. But the buzz started to swing in Jokic's direction over the weekend, after his 47-point, 12-rebound performance against Utah. You could see it all over social media, and James likely could, too. He sees everything.
That that momentum shift would immediately be followed up by a rematch of the 2020 Western Conference Finals, on TNT, with a chance for James to reassert his superiority in front of a huge audience, was too perfect. He's had the luxury of picking his spots this season, and this was a perfect spot to pick to solidify his MVP front-runner status.
Back in September, after Giannis Antetokounmpo was named league MVP for the second year in a row—after his Milwaukee Bucks had been eliminated from the playoffs, as James' Lakers were on their way to an eventual championship—James made some well-publicized, pointed comments lamenting that he only got 16 of the 101 first-place votes.
Three weeks later, as he cradled his fourth career Finals MVP trophy at center court after the Lakers put away the Miami Heat, James capped off his victory speech by declaring, "I want my damn respect, too."
The clip went viral, as he knew it would, as he knows anything he says on that kind of stage will. James is an all-time great basketball player, one of the two or three greatest ever. But as dominant as he is on the court, he's even better at controlling the message around himself and his career, and using that skill to his advantage. And he wants this MVP award.
James admitted in 2016 that he's chasing the ghost of Michael Jordan's greatness. Last year's renewed focus on Jordan's career around the release of The Last Dance only served as a reminder of just how far James has to go in the public imagination to reach Jordan's mythical status, regardless of statistical arguments in his favor.
A fifth title would put James within one ring of Jordan, but a fifth MVP award this late in his career would put him in a class of his own in the longevity column of the GOAT argument.
As it stands, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar holds the record for the longest gap between first and last MVPs, having won his first trophy in 1971 and his sixth and final one in 1980. James won his first in 2009, so a win in 2021 would represent a 12-year peak of dominance the likes of which has never been seen before.
The oldest MVP in league history is Karl Malone, who won the award at age 35 in 1999. James, who turned 36 in December, would have him beat there if he wins this season.
Always a student of the game and its history, James is fully aware of this. He's also aware that leading the Lakers to a title after complaining about coming in second in MVP voting would ensure that if the writers who vote on the awards can justify voting for him this year, they will. And he's certainly been good enough in the first quarter of the season to earn it.
He hasn't load-managed, as many speculated he would in light of his reported displeasure at the quick turnaround of this season from the bubble. He's appeared in all 23 of the Lakers' games, averaging a pedestrian-for-him-but-still-outrageous 25.1 points, 7.8 rebounds and 7.6 assists per game. He's shooting a career-high 40.9 percent from three-point range on a career-high 6.7 attempts per game. But he's long past the point where his regular-season stats will be the deciding factor for his MVP case.
Is a pretty good LeBron season at his age on a defending champion enough to win votes over an ascendant Jokic, a good-as-new post-injury Kevin Durant or a finally fully realized Joel Embiid?
Because he plays for the Lakers and knows when and how to remind people he's still the best player in the league, the answer is probably.
Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is a graduate of the University of Oregon and lives in Portland. His work has been honored by the Pro Basketball Writers' Association. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and in the B/R App.