Is LeBron a real Finals MVP candidate?

By Cory Smith -

Jerry West made history in 1969 when he was named the first-ever NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award. In the near-half century since then, West remains the only player to win the award that was a part of the losing team.

But why?

The Finals MVP Award is mean to represent the best player in the series, not just the best player on the winning team. The argument made by many basketball pundits is that to win the MVP a player must have the biggest impact on their team, and if the best player was on the losing team he could not have made the biggest impact. Yes, the best player on the winning team often does have the most impact on the series, but that can’t be considered gospel due to a few outliers.

Enter LeBron James. Regardless of your opinion of King James, it’s undeniable that he’s had some incredible performances in the NBA Finals. James is tied with Tim Duncan, Magic Johnson, and Shaquille O’Neal for the second-most Finals MVP awards with three. Only Michael Jordan is ahead, with six such awards to his name. In each of his six finals appearances, Jordan was the guy to stop. Had Jordan not been with Chicago in any one of those appearances, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, and Shawn Kemp may have earned a ring or two.

People underestimate the value of Jordan’s teammates. Although Jordan was undoubtedly the best player on the Bulls, it was the efforts guys like Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Ron Harper, and Horace Grant that propelled Chicago into a league of their own.

LeBron James is the only member of the Cavaliers in the top-5 Vegas odds (Bovada) to win Finals MVP, behind Steph Curry and Kevin Durant. So, barring another miraculous comeback, it looks as if Golden State is headed for its second straight title. If the series continues as it does now, should LeBron James be considered for the MVP? Take a look at both sides of the argument and pick a side.

Most Valuable Loser

“I wouldn’t feel good about it at all,” LeBron James told reporters before game six of the 2015 NBA Finals. “Because at the end of the day, I’m here to win a team prize, and that’s to win a championship, not an individual prize.”

As uncomfortable as he would be winning the MVP without winning the championship, it very nearly happened.

James and the Cavaliers were down 3-2 when he said that, before ultimately falling to Golden State in game six to lose the series 4-2. The Cavs were short-handed in those finals after injuries put both Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving on the sideline. James led a rag-tag group that included Matthew Dellavedova and Timofey Mozgov in the starting lineup in the finals.

LeBron averaged 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds, and 8.8 assists in the six game series. In games 1-5, the Cavaliers shot 18.2 percent and had a net rating of negative 39.2 when LeBron was on the bench. The case was made that James should be awarded MVP for even getting his team to the finals, not to mention keeping it competitive. He was statistically the better choice over Finals MVP Andre Iguodala, who finished with an average of 16.3 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 4.0 assists.

Had Iggy been removed from the Warriors, Golden State would’ve likely took the series to seven games, perhaps still winning the championship. But a LeBron-less Cavaliers team that already lost Love and Irving would’ve been doubtful to even make the playoffs.

When West won Finals MVP in 1969, he averaged 37.9 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 7.4 assists in the seven-game series against Boston. West even had a triple double (42 points, 13 rebounds, and 12 assists) in game seven. This year, LeBron is averaging (yes, averaging) an insane 40 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 10.5 assists and 46 minutes of play. Just a reminder that James is in his 15th season.

LeBron has proven his worth to the Cavaliers. Only one other player on the team, Love, is averaging double-digit points in the playoffs. So in terms of impact to a team, LeBron is far and away the most valuable player. The Warriors have a core of four all-stars that makes them a near-unstoppable force. Curry, the player with the best odds to win Finals MVP, didn’t even start the playoffs due to an injury. Even then, Golden State made it through without any real fear of losing the series.

Win or Go Home

It’s hard to not to go with the best player on the best team as the most valuable player. LeBron has led his team to the Finals and is putting up numbers like never before, but numbers aren’t everything. For example, James became the first player to ever to average a triple double in the finals in 2017. Why wasn’t he discussed for MVP? Because the Cavaliers were blown out, 4-1.

The only reason James was considered for Finals MVP in 2015 was because he played the series close. With the second and third-best scorers on the team out, it was a true feat when James kept the Cavs in the series for six games. But this year, there are no excuses.

It takes a special case for a player on the losing team to even be considered for the MVP. This year is not one of those cases.

It’s one thing to put up incredible numbers, but an entirely different story to put up crazy numbers and win. Russell Westbrook, the 2016-2017 Season MVP, has averaged a triple double for two consecutive years. He has also failed to make it out of the first round since Kevin Durant moved to the Golden State. The Cavaliers are in real danger of being swept in the 2018 finals. If LeBron was really that good, shouldn’t he at least make it competitive? Or alternatively, if other Cavs players were contributing (or at least remembering the score) would James’ numbers be near what they are.

The other reason LeBron won’t win Finals MVP is because Steph Curry has stepped up in these finals. Curry dropped off from his regular season performances in 2015 and 2016, and didn’t have to be “the guy” with Durant playing out of his mind in 2017.

But 2018 Curry is on a mission. Just recently, he made a finals record nine 3-pointers. He did so shooting nearly 53 percent from beyond the arc. Curry is averaging 31 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 8.5 assists in the finals. Following Curry’s record-breaking game two, Warriors coach Steve Kerr told The Ringer that Curry, “is the best shooter probably in the history of the Earth.”

Both Curry and James are playing some of the best basketball of their respective careers. The difference is that in two weeks’ time, Curry will be hoisting his third NBA Championship while LeBron will have lost his sixth NBA Finals. Only time will tell who the league deems most valuable.

By Cory Smith

Reach Cory on Twitter @MrCoryLeeSmith

Reach Cory on Twitter @MrCoryLeeSmith