By Kelly Scaletta

LeBron James hasn’t won an MVP since the 2012-13 season. Since then, he’s finished in the top four every season and had two second-place finishes. He’s led his team to the Finals every year and had some magnificent postseasons, but he frankly hasn’t had the best regular seasons.

Sure, he’s always been up there, but he’s understandably leaving something in reserve for when things matter.

This year may be different as Isaiah Thomas has yet to return from injury and James has grabbed the ailing Cavaliers by the collective scruff of their losing necks and carried them on a remarkable winning streak.

On the season, James is averaging 28.5 points, 8.6 assists and 7.8 rebounds with a 30.5 Player Efficiency Rating and 66.1 true shooting percentage–arguably the greatest season in history for a player over 30. But after the Cavaliers’ staggering start, he’s been even better than that.

The numbers (27.1 points, 8.0 assists and 9.1 rebounds on 64.2 true shooting percentage) aren’t really that different. But what he’s done in the fourth quarter is pure magic. He’s averaging 39.2 points, 10.1 rebounds, 9.5 assists and 2.4 blocks on 61.7 true shooting and 42.5 percent true shooting per 36 minutes over the seven-game stretch. He’s scored an NBA-high 168 points in the fourth this season.

The problem is the other side of the court.

Cleveland’s defense was awful for the start of the season. I mean horribly awful. Like, when-my-dog-eats-her-own-poop-and-throws-it-up awful. But over the last seven games, the Cavaliers defense own the 10th-best defensive rating in the NBA. They’re all the way up to tied for last.

If you take a cursory look at the on/off ratings, it looks like that has nothing to do with LeBron. After all, the Cavs defensive rating without him is a team-best 92.2. And try as I might, I’ve struggled to find an explanation for this.

True, he plays with the bench a lot, and the bench has a lot of bad defenders, so that could be sandbagging him, but his minus-1.02 Real Plus-Minus (which allegedly accounts for such things) is still not very good.

In short, there’s no getting around that, as the supposed defensive leader of the team, at least some of the Cavaliers’ defensive awfulness is on him, though, perhaps the improvement does too. This could straighten itself out as the season progresses, but if it doesn’t, it’s going to hurt James’ chances of getting his first award since returning to Cleveland.

Sill, right now, he’s the best challenger to James Harden.

1. James Harden, Houston Rockets — There were questions about whether James Harden and Chris Paul could play together. Since Paul returned, there has been nothing but answers, and those answers are strongly in the affirmative. Since Paul came back, Harden is averaging 33.8 points, 8.3 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 2.0 steals. His true shooting percentage is 65.2. He’s arguably gotten even better and so have the Rockets, who are 5-0 when Chris Paul plays. Paul and Harden have a combined 78.6 eFG% off one another’s passes. If anything, Paul boosts Harden’s candidacy even more.

2. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers — See Above

3. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors — On the season, Stephen Curry has been impressive enough, averaging 26.0 points, 6.3 assists and 5.2 rebounds. That’s not quite up to the standard of his last MVP season, but it’s on part with his first MVP season. He may have gotten a little boost with Kevin Durant out the last two games. He’s averaging 30 points, 5.5 boards and 5.0 dimes, leading the Dubs to wins in both games. If Durant’s absence is prolonged, Curry’s chances go up, but I’m sure the Warriors would rather have Durant back.

4. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers — If you look at the on/off ratings for the Philadelphia 76ers, you get a good sense of why Embiid belongs in the MVP conversation. The Sixers net rating is plus-10.3 with him and minus-6.9 without him. That’s a 17.2 point difference in every 100 possessions. At 22.4 points, 11.2 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.8 blocks per game, it’s not like his box score numbers are suffering either.

5. Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics — I honestly don’t get the hype for Irving as a challenger for MVP. He’s just not there from a statistical standpoint. Sure, the clutch production is impressive, but the game is 48 minutes, not just the last five. Irving is 12th in scoring, 23rd in assists and 171st in rebounding. How does that spell out MVP production? Were he to win, his total of 31.6 combined stats of points, rebounds and assists would be the lowest in MVP history and just barely more than the 31.4 points alone that Harden averages. Irving’s team has the best record but it arguably has more to do with the defense, and Al Horford has more to do with that. It’s questionable whether Irving is even the best player on his own team.

Honorable Mentions

Al Horford should be next in line for the reasons mentioned above. Irving is over him becuase the media is currently fascinated with him, but it’s early and things could change.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is still having a great season, even if the Bucks are currently only playing .500.

DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis both continue to dominate, but they’ll take some votes from one another.

Nikola Jokic is leading the league in Defensive Real Plus-Minus in addition to his 25.1 PER, but hasn’t gotten the media to notice that, though.




Kelly Scaletta

Kelly Scaletta writes for Vantage Sports, Bleacher Report and BBALLBREAKDOWN. He has the crazy notion that watching games and understanding stats are not mutually exclusive.

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