Thursday February 12th, 2015

By posting the best season of his NBA career in 2013-14, Thunder superstar Kevin Durant took home his first MVP award. Infamous “voter fatigue” couldn’t be considered much of a factor after back-to-back wins for LeBron James, because KD made an air-tight case as the league’s best player by leading OKC to a No. 2 seed despite the prolonged absence of co-star Russell Westbrook.

In 2014-15, however, overlooking the 30-year-old James as a result of voter fatigue or other variables would be misguided. The four-time MVP experienced rough patches initially in his return to the Cavaliers—the team got out to a 5-7 start—but they’ve been meeting lofty expectations since James returned from injury in mid-January.

The Cavs are 14-2 since James returned to action on Jan. 13. A healthy LeBron has cobbled together team chemistry with point guard Kyrie Irving and power forward Kevin Love, as well as new additions Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert. The results over the past month have lived up to the original hype of this team.

After sitting out for eight consecutive games to rest his knee and lower back, James is averaging 27.0 ppg on 56.7 percent shooting from two-point territory. Prior to taking time off, he averaged 25.2 points per contest on 52.7 percent shooting inside the arc.

Of course, what LeBron does out on the court goes far beyond the stats he puts in the box score—a scary thought considering that he’s averaging 25.8 points, 7.4 assists and 5.6 rebounds on the season.

When James is on the court for the Cavaliers, the team’s offensive rating is an exemplary 114.9. For reference, the league-leading offensive rating is 110.5, credited to the Clippers.

When Cleveland’s MVP candidate heads to the bench, the roster’s offensive rating plummets to just 103.2. The team’s effective field goal percentage with LeBron (53.1 percent) is also far better than without him (47.5). The Cavs suffer when James isn’t gliding up and down the hardwood. Not surprisingly, their opponents take advantage when he sits:

Those on/off stats account for a total net difference of 17.5 points per 100 possessions. That’s better than other MVP candidates like the RocketsJames Harden (11.8), the Pelicans' budding superstar, Anthony Davis (13.6), and Warriors floor general Stephen Curry (16.7).

Simply put, the Cavaliers aren’t a good (or even decent) team without James. Their record without the team’s alpha dog is an ugly 2-8. With him it’s 31-13.

In terms of a player adding the most value to the finished product, James is far above his peers by being an anchor on defense as well as the head of the snake on offense. With four MVP awards already on his mantle, voters may opt to back an up-and-comer like Harden or Curry instead of James.

Nevertheless, LeBron is still making an incredibly strong case to win the award six years after winning his first. Improvements from other league stars may overshadow the two-time champ, but James has shown an ability to adapt to a new crop of teammates while righting a rickety ship. That speaks volumes about his impact and overall importance to the Cavs' identity.

Note: All stats used in this article are accurate as of Feb. 12, prior to games played. Visuals used will update automatically.

More from Ben Leibowitz:

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