LeBron James, MVP: The Coronation of the King
LeBron James has won the 2008-2009 NBA MVP award. He was given the award this afternoon at the high school gym in Akron, Ohio where he first burst into the national consciousness. He was selected first on 109 of 121 ballots. He totaled 1172 points overall in the voting, outpacing Kobe Bryant, who was second with 698 and two first-place votes. Dwayne Wade was a close third with 680 points and seven first-place votes.
If you’ve been around the BetUS Locker Room for a while you know how I feel about LeBron James. He’s what I would call a transcendent, transformational player. He changes the way people see basketball, what their expectations are for a superstar. It’s his combination of skills, they break the mold of each superstar that has preceded him. His size and passing are reminiscent of Magic. He has the intensity, smoothness and recently, the on the ball defense of Jordan. And there’s something about his speed, his strength and his explosiveness that defy any comparison with anyone.
I think that any real observer of basketball has seen his ascendency coming. He still lacks the veteran polish and dazzling offensive arsenal of Kobe. He doesn’t have the lithe, twisting explosion of Dwayne Wade. All the same, he’s been the best for a while, and this award is merely the cherry; it’s almost like an honorary degree. You know he’s the best, and now he has the papers and letters after his name to go with the game, to quiet any remaining doubters.
There are two main reasons why LeBron won it this year and not last year or next year (although he’ll probably win again next year). First, his team. The improved Cavs went 66-16, the best record in the Association. They acquired Mo Williams, which gave the Cavs a shooter that could legitimately play off LeBron. Mike Brown, the Cavs’ coach, emerged from his defensive shell and created an effective, ball-moving offense.
It’s still amazing to look at that record though. Compare the Lakers and Cavs without LeBron and Kobe: at C it’s Ilgauskas vs. Odom/Bynum, at PF it’s Varejao vs. Gasol, at SG/SF it’s West vs. Ariza and at PG it’s Williams vs. Fisher. The Cavs only have a small backcourt advantage, compared to a huge front court advantage for the Lakers, and the Cavs had the better record. If you cancel out the superstars, the Cavs are much, much worse, and yet they finished with the better record. What does that say about LeBron? Because, you know, Kobe’s no slouch.
The other factor that led to LeBron taking the award this year is his huge improvement on defense. LeBron was always a decent defender, but with his physical gifts and understanding of the game (as exemplified by his passing) he had the potential to be great, game-changing. This year, he realized that potential. Most commentators say that it was his Olympic experience, watching how Kobe prepares and plays D. Whatever it was, it worked. He’s the best transition defender in the league, with more out-of-nowhere blocked shots than anyone else by a mile. It’s his willingness to guard and shutdown the best player on the opposing team at any position (except maybe center and some point guards). He finished second this year in Defensive Play of the Year voting, which is sensational because his blocks, rebounds and steals, while very respectable, weren’t eye-popping. The voters realized that he doesn’t gamble like D-Wade, he just shuts you down, and his help defense ain’t bad either.
Oh, and of course, there’s his numbers. 28.4ppg, 7.6rpg, 7.2apg, 1.7spg, 1.1bpg all of which led his team. And he only played 37.7mpg, three minutes less than his career average. That’s right. He led the best team in the league in every single significant category. And I didn’t mention it until paragraph six. MVP, no doubt.
The amazing thing about LeBron and his performance this year is that his game isn’t perfect. In fact, it’s nowhere close. His jumper is unreliable and his shot selection suspect. It’s not scary to think about what his game would look like if he had a jumper like Kobe or Jordan, it’s blinding. I’m not sure that’s the direction I expect his game to go, though. His size and strength, he’s 6’8 and easily 270lbs, coupled with his balance and passing make him a potential terror in the post, and that’s where I expect his game to improve.
LeBron James is the MVP of the NBA. He may soon add Finals MVP to that resume. So please, next time the Cavs play, just watch him. Watch him on both ends of the floor, watch his passes, the way he attacks the rim, his speed and leaping. Watch the King.