Can LeBron climb back into the MVP race?

Cleveland Cavaliers v Los Angeles Clippers

As the NBA rises from a week-long vacation it’s time to get ready for the final two months of the regular season. That’s right, there’s less than 60 days left in the 2014-15 NBA season and even though there is still a good chunk of games left to be played, we’re pretty far into an incredibly fun NBA season and so many storylines have yet to have any sort of resolution.

It’s fitting in a season where the number of teams who could the NBA title is above nine, to have an MVP race with four solid candidates. Anthony Davis jumped out of the gate and immediately lived up to his preseason hype. He’s given the Pelicans a chance to make the playoffs for the first time since the 2010-11 season. His early season run was phased out by Stephen Curry/Warriors talk, which dominated the basketball world for weeks. But as we reached the All-Star break, James Harden’s fantastic season began to make it’s way into the national spotlight.

But we’re not done! Somewhere lurking in the back of the line is LeBron. He was placed there after the Cavs early season struggles and his bad body language quickly made him an easy target. HE’S NOT THE SAME PLAYER!!! WE’RE ENTERING HIS POST PEAK YEARS!

There is evidence from the first half of the season that LeBron looked different from his time in Miami. He wasn’t playing the defense we expect to see night to night from LeBron. The numerous instances of bad body language made him one of the most popular players on Vine:

Cleveland’s predicament would only get worse as LeBron would go onto miss the most consecutive games of his 12-year career (eight). Things (predictably) got much worse for the Cavs team as Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and the rest of the Cavs went 1-7 without James.

Then LeBron returned from his sabbatical with three new players thanks to the Cavs’ co-GMs, David Griffin and LeBron James. He promptly threw his hat into the MVP ring with per game numbers on par with Curry, Harden and Davis, while leading Cleveland to a 12-game winning streak and beginning to shift the narrative around his homecoming season.

Before we get into the narrative talk, I believe we could all use a chart. Note, these are LeBron’s number since coming back on January 13th against the Suns.

TopfourJPG

There are holes to be placed in LeBron’s resurgence to the MVP conversation. His three-point shooting is below his career average (.34) and well below the total from his last three years in Miami (.38). His net rating since his return (difference between his offensive and defensive rating per 100 possessions) is 14.3, which is a pretty good number! But it’s not so good when you compare it to Harden (17), Curry (20) and Davis (25). The Brow’s current net rating is higher than any of the last 10 MVP award winners.

But stats are just a small part of the MVP voting process. There are certain numbers that voters could easily grab onto. For example, if a person wanted to base their argument for Curry around the idea that he’s at the forefront of ushering in pace-and-space era of the NBA, it’s very easy to do.  He’s tied with Wesley Matthews for the most three pointers taken this season, while pouring them in at a 40 percent clip and he’s fifth in assists for a team who is averaging 27 threes per game.

Curry’s case for the MVP is multiplied by the Warriors ridiculous 42-9 record in an unreal Western Conference, but when you mention the Warriors, you can’t ignore how well the other guys around Curry are playing this season.

If he were to miss time with an injury, the Warriors’ offense could temporarily be propped up by Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Mo Speights (can’t believe I just typed that), and 24 minutes a night of good David Lee.

If the Rockets were to lose Harden for a few weeks, their best offensive player would be a combination of Patrick Beverley, Trevor Ariza and Josh Smith.

The Pelicans are 2-5 without the services of Davis this season, which could have been 0-7 if not for an offensive explosion from Alexis Ajinca in Toronto and a big game from Tyreke Evans against the Clippers.

And yet, LeBron is the biggest difference maker out of the four when you break down the difference each player makes on his team’s offense and defense per 100 possessions.

OffDef

The MVP award always feels like an offensive popularity contest that translates into team wins, so the numbers do translate into the idea of having Curry and Harden as the two frontrunners to win the MVP award. But defense is also played in basketball, so it’s impossible to a player’s impact on team defense numbers.

The Warriors team defense is the best in the league per 100 possessions, but the interchangeability of their wing players and Andrew Bogut’s presence in the paint make Curry feel like he’s just part of the group.

Without Davis and LeBron causing havoc on defense, the Pelicans would be out of the playoff race in the West and the Cavs would be toiling around in the East. Harden’s impact on the Rockets’ offense has been well noted and his defensive effort has improved drastically from last season thanks to his conditioning and commitment to playing defense this year, however he’s the only player in the list to have a negative impact on the floor for his team.

Remember becoming the frontrunner to win the MVP award is much more than just a statistical argument; it’s a formula that involves a team’s final standings and their season long narrative.

Anthony Davis’ argument for MVP has to lead with the Pelicans first playoff berth in four seasons and then it can move onto his 31.86 PER.

James Harden’s MVP case is going to be centered on how he saved the Rockets home-court advantage in the first round without the services of Dwight Howard for two months. Houston is currently fourth in the West with a 36-17 record.

And also because of this:

Harden

Stephen Curry’s campaign for MVP is going to be led by his three point shooting, his Nashian ability to pass the basketball and the Warriors hanging onto the first seed in the West.

And then there’s LeBron, who is in the midst of reviving the Cavs season. His work is far from done however as the Cavs final 27 games is a daunting stretch. Cleveland will face current playoff teams 15 times, nine of which are on the road. Six of those road games are against current playoff teams in the West.

But what happens if LeBron and the Cavs continue on the pace they set before the All-Star break? The 10.5 games separating the Hawks and Cavs feels like it’s much larger, but grabbing the two seed from Toronto is easily doable (Cavs are just four games back). If the Cavs were to achieve this goal, it would create the best possible scenario for the Cavs entering the playoffs, but it might not be enough to give LeBron the MVP award.

This season feels a lot like the 2010-11 season when Derrick Rose was awarded the trophy due to how LeBron handled The Decision on the court in Miami.

The Heat’s early season struggles coupled with the Bulls’ run to the top of the standings in the Eastern Conference was enough to convince voters to give the award to Rose even though James and Dwight Howard’s stats were superior (it’s not even close). It helped that Rose was a fresh face for casual fans to get behind, much like Curry and Harden feel like fresh faces for the casual group of NBA fans this season.

There’s a sense of déjà vu in the air.

Follow me on Twitter @ScottDargis

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