A losing player in the NBA Finals has only won the series MVP award once—Jerry West took home the hardware for the Los Angeles Lakers in 1969 when the Lakers lost to the Boston Celtics in seven games. 1969 was also the first year the league gave out the award.
But West’s award was an exception, not the norm. If a player’s team doesn’t win four out of seven games, he couldn’t have been that valuable, right?
Through five games of the 2015 NBA Finals, LeBron James is pushing the limits of that assumption with all of the strength packed into his 250-pound frame. His Cleveland Cavaliers are behind in the series 3-2 to the Golden State Warriors and the games have mostly been close throughout, despite LeBron’s top two offensive teammates (Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving) going down with injuries at different points during the postseason.
With the Cavs’ depth nonexistent and the Warriors possessing quality players in spades, the series looks headed toward a Golden State victory.
But even if Cleveland does lose, whether in be in six or seven games, LeBron easily has the strongest case for Finals MVP. James IS the Cavs’ offense right now, and his defense has been stellar, as well. Remember, this series was supposed to be a sweep once Irving went down because of the severe talent gap between the teams.
— Larry Beil (@LarryBeilABC7) June 5, 2015
Yet, for some reason, many fans and media members will side with Warriors players, who have been good, but nowhere near the quality of LeBron. Andre Iguodala and Stephen Curry have gotten the most love for the award, presumably because of the baseless convention that the award has to go to a winning player.
I'm serious, Iggy for Finals MVP. #GSW
— ProSportsTalkRT™ (@ProSportsTalkRT) June 15, 2015
Stephen Curry looks like the MVP — the Finals MVP — leading Warriors to brink of title http://t.co/U0c31pfHwX
— Kurt Helin (@basketballtalk) June 15, 2015
Let’s look a bit deeper at two reasons why this year is one of those times that should break convention: LeBron’s unparalleled production and his indispensable value to the Cavs.
If LeBron’s Cavs can’t complete the series comeback, no losing player in the NBA Finals will have been this much more productive than the opposition’s best player.
If you add together LeBron’s gaudy series statistics of 36.6 points, 12.4 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game, they total 57.8—we’ll call this statistic “PRA” from here on out. The Warriors’ top player in terms of PRA has been 37.0 (Curry), which means James’ net PRA versus Curry is 20.8. Has a losing player ever had a net PRA that high versus the opposition’s best player in the same stat?
In the Finals MVP era, the closest to that number any losing player has come is James himself, when he had a net PRA of 12.6 last year for the Miami Heat against Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs. But that situation was different—not only is 20.8 a lot more than 12.6, but the Spurs set a record for how lopsided their five-game series victory was. No way were media members going to pick a Heat player.
Oh, and by the way—since 1969, no player in the NBA Finals, losing or winning, has ever achieved a 57.8 PRA. Michael Jordan has the No. 2 mark from his historic performance in 1993, when he accumulated a 55.8 PRA in helping his Chicago Bulls defeat the Phoenix Suns in six games.
Naturally, Jordan won the Finals MVP award that year.
LeBron is setting records from a production standpoint, and it doesn’t seem fair to reward someone like Iguodala or Curry who’s had a far inferior series just because they have a far superior supporting cast.
As amazing as LeBron’s raw numbers are, his value to the Cavs right now might be even more remarkable. Now that neither Irving nor Love can go, James is carrying a monstrous offensive workload. He’s used 41.2 percent of Cleveland’s possessions with either a field goal, turnover or free throws.
He’s also set a huge record so far in the percentage of Cleveland’s field goals he’s had a hand in (baskets he’s scored or assisted on). Check out the below infographic to see how he stacks up with his closest competition in that statistic.
(Once again, I’m just going on the assumption that LeBron loses the series here. If he does pull the Cavs through, picking him for Finals MVP would be as easy as picking chocolate cake over chopped liver for dessert.)
And now for the one weakness in LeBron’s Finals MVP campaign—he hasn’t been very efficient. He’s shooting only 39.9 percent from the field and has had to take 32.4 shots per game to get his points.
But by watching him play, it’s easy to absolve him of his inefficiency.
The Warriors’ Iguodala has guarded LeBron very well, but the Golden State swingman has had a bunch of help from teammates who have come to double-team James. The gravitational pull that James causes in the Warriors top-ranked defense is the one thing that Cleveland’s offense has going for it.
On shots not either taken by or potentially assisted by LeBron or direct from an OREB on LeBron shot, Cavs shooting 28.2% eFG in the Finals.
— Seth Partnow (@SethPartnow) June 14, 2015
The Cavs’ offense has been laughable in those rare occasions that LeBron rests. Besides James, Cleveland has zero players who can make plays for themselves or others and just has to pray that Golden State doesn’t totally blow the game open.
Per http://t.co/kzLg9M1fZ6, Cleveland's O in the 22 minutes LBJ hasn't played in Finals:
18.2 FG%, 00.0 3pt%, 54.6 pts/100 poss, -39.2 net.
— Dan McCarney (@danmccarneyNBA) June 15, 2015
James’ defense has been excellent, as well. He leads the Cavs in defensive rating (105) and is the team’s vocal leader on that end. Give credit to guys like Matthew Dellavedova, Iman Shumpert, Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov for doing a fantastic job on defense, but LeBron is still his team’s No. 1 versatile stopper.
If you’re complaining that LeBron is being a shot-chucking ball hog, promptly click out of the ESPN box score tab on your browser and just watch him play.
This arrogant statement was uncalled for, and is not empowering to his teammates who have worked hard (especially on defense) to make this series closer than it should’ve been. However, many people need to realize that disliking a person’s character and appreciating their basketball skills are not mutually exclusive.
Iggy is playing well and Curry has come up huge in a couple of the games, but are they contributing more value to their teams through five contests than LeBron is right now?
Not a chance.
Without James, the Cavs not only would have been swept, they’d have lost every contest by at least 20 points. The Warriors, meanwhile, are deep enough that losing one of either Curry or Iggy still leaves them with enough players to stay competitive every game.
If voters really want to reward the most valuable player, they’ll select the King.