Sorry Kevin Durant, but LeBron is the True MVP

Feb 20, 2014; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Miami Heat small forward LeBron James (6) handles the ball while being guarded by Oklahoma City Thunder small forward Kevin Durant (35) during the first quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 20, 2014; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Miami Heat small forward LeBron James (6) handles the ball while being guarded by Oklahoma City Thunder small forward Kevin Durant (35) during the first quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports /

Michael Jeffrey Jordan is unequivocally the greatest basketball player of all time.  At the risk of committing the “no true Scotsman” logical fallacy, every sensible basketball fan agrees that Jordan is the GOAT.

From 1988 to 1998, there was not another player in the National Basketball Association that any team could rationally covet over Michael Jordan.  He won six titles during that span, and Jordan almost assuredly would have won another two but for a curious “retirement” from professional basketball and subsequent stint in minor league baseball with the Birmingham Barons.

To be sure, for effectively a decade Jordan was understood to be the best—so why did he only win five MVP awards?

The Maurice Podoloff Trophy is awarded annually to the NBA’s “most valuable player.”  No other qualifications are given.  As a result of such ambiguity, the subjective concept of “value” has devolved from being associated with arrant hierarchical greatness to seemingly just the performance of a surprising outlier.  Michael Jordan was named NBA MVP in 1988, 1991, 1992, 1996, and 1998.  He was the clearly the most valuable player in all of professional basketball those seasons.

He had to be; he was always the scariest dude in the entire gymnasium.

But wasn’t he also the top player in 1990 when Magic Johnson won the MVP?*  And would you be comfortable arguing that 1993 MVP** Charles Barkley was better than Michael Jordan?  What about when “the Mailman” Karl Malone was named Most Valuable Player*** over Jordan in 1997?  It would not take the oration of Clarence Darrow to demonstrate that Barkley and Malone were inferior to “His Airness.”

* Johnson: 22-12-7; Jordan: 34-7-6

** Barkley: 26-12-5; Jordan: 33-7-6

*** Malone: 27-10-5; Jordan: 30-6-4

In what bizarro world should being the “most valuable” differ from being the “best”  It’s almost nonsensical.  Pursuant to ratings, torrent seeds, and “buzzworthiness,” it is not controversial to argue that Game of Thrones is the best television show on HBO.  But in 2014, Mike Judge’s Silicon Valley has debuted to some fanfare and noteworthy critical reception.

Assume that Silicon Valley puts together a stellar eight episode first season.  Also assume George R.R. Martin’s tale of Westerosean lore kills off four two many likable characters during its fourth season and is perceived to take a nominal step backward.  Would Silicon Valley suddenly become HBO’s “best” show?  No!  And would Game of Thrones remain HBO’s “most valuable series?  Absolutely!  

I can play this game all day.  If Junot Diaz releases Monstro and it ends up being brilliant, are we going to automatically vaunt him above savant authors such as Haruki Murakami?  I think not.  If Rolling Stone, as unlikely as it might be without the services of Matt Taibbi, suddenly goes on a six month stretch of timeless and important journalism, will it suddenly eclipse The New Yorker?  Did the Philadelphia band The War on Drugs suddenly surpass Bob Dylan with their heralded 2014 release of “Lost in the Dream?”  I feel I should apologize to Dylan for even asking that rhetorical question.  It seems to me that as a society we are more interested in spurring abdication than we are embracing and enjoying status quo greatness.

Today, we look back on Michael Jordan winning just five MVPs as a historical absurdity—likely a product of NBA awards voters simply becoming bored with awarding the greatness of No. 23.  One of the many purposes to the study of history is to no longer repeat past mistakes.  Let’s learn from history and crown King James the 2013-2014 NBA Most Valuable Player over Kevin Durant.

LeBron James is on track to potentially become the second best player to ever play professional basketball.  At 29-years-old, he has won two NBA Championships with a third realistically on its way this postseason.  And while I am not a medical doctor, it appears as if LeBron’s back has fully recovered from carrying the likes of Donyelle Marshall, Daniel Gibson, Sasha Pavlovic, and Eric Snow to the 2006-2007 NBA Finals.****

**** I have nothing bad to say about Marshall, Gibson, Pavlovic, and Snow.  They each were legitimate and reliable role players.  Problematically for the Cleveland Cavaliers, however, these players were counted on as “stars” purely out of poor roster construction.

With apologies to fans of Kevin Durant’s explosive offensive repertoire and swiss cheese-like one on one defense, Lebron James is absolutely the best basketball player on the planet.  Backing up that assertion, James currently has four MVP awards to his name—winning the Maurice Podoloff Trophy in 2009, 2010, 2012, and 2013.  But similarly to Michael Jordan, LeBron has already experienced voters questionably voting against him for the league’s Most Valuable Player award, despite LeBron clearly being the best player in the world.

In 2011, Derrick Rose won the MVP over James.  That year, Rose tallied 25-4-8 to LeBron’s 27-7-7.

As evidenced, the basic statistics give Lebron the slight edge over Rose in terms of performance, but you don’t even need statistics—would more people want Rose than James for an entire year in 2011?  The answer is a resounding “no,” and that is all you need to truly know about which player was the rightful MVP for the 2010-2011 season.  If Kevin Durant wins the MVP over LeBron James, it just might be another Derrick Rose circa 2011 awards gaffe.  Or 1993 Charles Barkley over Jordan.  Or dare I say 1997 Mailman over MJ.

The way I see it, there are three different variables required in gauging who should be the Most Valuable Player: (1) who would you rather have for a single season in a vacuum; (2) individual statistics; and (3) what their respective teams would look like if they disappeared.

The first criterion is rather telling.  Regardless of team and in a vacuum, would you rather have LeBron James—the 29-year-old freak athlete 4-time MVP & 2-time NBA Champion who has the ability to guard every position and singlehandedly bring an abysmally-coached, talent-lacking Cleveland Cavaliers squad to the NBA Finals—or Kevin Durant—the 25-year-old defensive liability skinny scoring machine whose teams have historically floundered in the postseason without Russell Westbrook?  I’m taking the better player; I am taking LeBron James every day of the week.  And in taking LeBron, I know this much: I can give him a cast of replacement level players and Anderson Varejao, and I can count on LeBron to somehow get me to the NBA Finals.

With Kevin Durant, however, I can give him one of the top 25 players in the NBA in Serge Ibaka and still expect to lose 4-1 to the Memphis Grizzlies in the Western Conference Semifinals.

LeBron wins decisively regarding criterion No. 1.

The second variable is less clear cut and in fairness might actually favor Kevin Durant. Statistically, LeBron James and Kevin Durant are each having post-video game type seasons.  Consider the numbers as of April 14, 2014:

Durant: 32 pts / 5.5 asts / 7.4 reb / .505 FG%/ 30.2 PER / 6.65 Real Plus Minus / 17.36 Wins Above Replacement

James: 27.1 pts / 6.4 assists / 6.9 reb/ .567 FG% / 29.45 PER / 7.72 Real Plus Minus / 17.27 Wins Above Replacement

It’s basically an exercise in futility to attempt to poke holes in the respective games of either player through statistics.  James and Durant are both phenomenal.  Durant might even be having a nominally better statistical season in totality than James.  But ultimately I must go back to defense not accounted for in these statistics.

In a last second scenario, I would trust LeBron to stop Steph Curry; I would not trust Durant.  I would trust LeBron to stop James Harden; I would not trust Durant.  I would trust LeBron to stop Paul Pierce; I would not trust Durant.  And I would trust LeBron to stop Tim Duncan; I would not trust Durant.

KD35 may have the slight edge statistically, but he isn’t going to give you elite defense on positions 1 through 4 in crunch time.  LeBron can, LeBron, has, and LeBron will.

Finally, the third criterion is virtually a wash.  LeBron James and Kevin Durant are 1a and 1b in the NBA, and they are equally important to their respective teams.  But at the end of the day, if you take James off the Heat, they’re still a playoff team led by Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade.  Likewise, if you take Durant off the Thunder, they’re still a playoff team led by Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka.  Neither LeBron nor Durant are in a situation quite like that of Goran Dragic— whose absence from the Phoenix Suns would take his team from a fringe playoff contender to a possible candidate for the #1 pick in the NBA Draft.

LeBron James is a reigning two time NBA Champion and the winner of the MVP Award four of the last five seasons.  By most accounts, he is best player on alive.  Kevin Durant might arguably have better total numbers than James this season by the narrowest of margins, but are we really dethroning King James as MVP based on Durant have a greater Player Efficiency Rating by a half a point?  I hope not.

In the words of the immortal Ric Flair, “To be the man, you gotta beat the man!”  You want to be the Most Valuable Player, Kevin?  Then how about getting your team to the NBA Finals and taking it directly away from King James.


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