CLEVELAND—Bucking nearly 50 years of precedence and convention should require a once-in-a-generation performance, at minimum, and that's exactly what LeBron James has delivered in these Finals.
Only once in history has a member of the losing team won the NBA Finals MVP: Lakers guard Jerry West in 1969. That 45-year run of rewarding players on winning teams should end this year, assuming the Warriors, who are up 3-2 in the Finals entering Tuesday's Game 6 in Cleveland, finish off the Cavaliers, as is widely expected.
Assuming Cleveland falls, James deserves to join West as the only players on losing teams to win the Finals MVP. In fact, voting for anyone else would be a borderline travesty. That's said without hyperbole or emotion, as any decision that is so obviously out of step with established conventions must be held to the highest possible scrutiny.
In this case, James's performance against Golden State simply aces every test. Here's a look at the top five reasons James deserves to win Finals MVP, win or lose.
1. This is, by far, the best Finals performance of LeBron's career
James has been so exceptional for so long, and his life has been documented so thoroughly, that his brilliance can be numbing. After more than a decade of All-NBA level play, assessing his production on any given night requires a jeweler's eye for the most minute details and a marathoner's endurance. James's ability to do the unprecedented is at once subtle and overwhelming.
Take his three triple doubles in the 2015 playoffs.
- East finals Game 3 vs. Hawks: 37 points, 18 rebounds, 13 assists
- Finals Game 2 vs. Warriors: 39 points, 16 rebounds, 11 assists
- Finals Game 5 vs. Warriors: 40 points, 14 rebounds, 11 assists
All three were brilliant performances, and all three stand as unprecedented in the playoffs since 1985. It boggles the mind that one player can do something that hasn't been done in 30 years on three separate occasions in less than one month. What's more, remember that the use of "unprecedented in the playoffs since 1985" also means that James himself has never reached those heights, whether in his early stint with Cleveland or when surrounded by Miami's loaded rosters.
Simply put, the last few months has been the statistical pinnacle of James's career. Although James has played in a total of six Finals, winning two titles and two Finals MVP awards, his 2015 production blows away his previous numbers. Perhaps that shouldn't be surprising—he was still young with the 2007 Cavaliers and he had a lot of help during his run with the Heat—but the difference is truly stark. Here's a rundown of his averages for points, rebounds and assists in each of his six Finals runs, plus a combined total to reinforce the difference between his 2015 production and all the rest.
- 2007: 22 PPG, 7 RPG, 6.8 APG | Combined: 35.8
- 2011: 17.8 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 6.8 APG | Combined: 31.8
- 2012: 28.6 PPG, 10.2 RPG, 7.4 APG | Combined: 46.2
- 2013: 25.3 PPG, 10.9 RPG, 7 APG | Combined: 43.2
- 2014: 28.2 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 4 APG | Combined: 40
- 2015: 36.6 PPG, 12.4 RPG, 8.8 APG | Combined: 57.8
Winning is so ingrained in our collective perception of performance that it's counterintuitive to view James's uphill battle against the Warriors as the most impressive of his career. After all, when we think back to NBA legends like Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, we think first of Jordan's championship-sealing jumper against Bryon Russell or Johnson's junior skyhook. But James's postseason career hasn't been quite as charmed, in large part because he hasn't had the same degree of help, and it's possible that he never reaches this individual summit again, even if he does ultimately succeed in bringing a title to Cleveland. To not recognize this level of play, when it stands so far above his own production in winning the Finals MVP award twice, would be inconsistent.
2. This could go down as the greatest individual performance in Finals history
If James's 57.8 combined points, rebounds and assists per game in the Finals seems like an awful lot, that's because it is. In fact, as noted by Neil Paine at 538, it is currently on pace to surpass the combined points/rebounds/assists totals of every previous Finals MVP.
Here's a rundown of how James compares to the top 10 Finals MVPs using numbers provided by Basketball-Reference.com.
- 2015 | LeBron James | 36.6 PPG, 12.4 RPG, 8.8 APG | Combined: 57.8
- 2000 | Shaquille O'Neal | 38 PPG, 16.7 RPG, 2.3 APG | Combined: 57
- 1993 | Michael Jordan | 41 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 6.3 APG | Combined: 55.8
- 2001 | Shaquille O'Neal | 33 PPG, 15.8 RPG, 4.8 APG | Combined: 53.6
- 2002 | Shaquille O'Neal | 36.3 PPG, 12.3 RPG, 3.8 APG | Combined: 52.4
- 1969 | Jerry West | 37.9 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 7.4 APG | Combined: 50
- 1995 | Hakeem Olajuwon | 32.8 PPG, 11.5 RPG, 5.5 APG | Combined: 49.8
- 1991 | Michael Jordan | 31.2 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 11.4 APG | Combined: 49.2
- 1971 | Kareem Abdul-Jabbar | 27 PPG, 18.5 RPG, 2.8 APG | Combined: 48.3
- 1987 | Magic Johnson | 26.2 PPG, 8 RPG, 13 APG | Combined: 47.2
- 1992 | Michael Jordan | 35.8 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 6.5 APG | Combined: 47.1
What a stacked list. This group represents the cream of the crop—Finals MVPs—with that cream going through one more purification step to pull out the most dominant all-around performances. All three of Jordan's first three-peat titles make the cut, as do O'Neal's first three title runs. Throw in young Abdul-Jabbar, prime Johnson, West's "MVP as a loser" season, and prime Olajuwon and it doesn't really get any better than this.
Except for one little fact: James currently tops them all, and he will likely finish the Finals second on this list, at worst. Considering the quality of the opponent (see below) and the numerous injuries to key teammates, James's ability to produce at historic levels becomes even more impressive.
3. This will be the most commanding offensive performance in Finals history... by a mile
When we look back at the 2015 Finals, 10 or 20 or 50 years from now, it will be framed as "James vs. the Warriors." That's an inescapable fact given: injuries to Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love; Cleveland's young, inexperienced and underwhelming supporting cast; and James's unique ability to take on additional responsibilities. James's usage rate has been sky-high since Love went down—progressively increasing against the Bulls, Hawks and Warriors—and he will likely break the Finals record for usage in a series.
Game 4 really crystallized James's near-total command of Cleveland's operations: he scored or assisted on 16 of the Cavaliers' 17 first-half field goals. "Reliant" doesn't even begin to describe what's been happening, and yet this wasn't some great anomaly.
In fact, as Kevin Pelton of ESPN Insider noted, James has been the greatest one-man offense in Finals history, and it's not close.
Entering Game 6, James has made 65 field goals and assisted on 44 others. All told, Cleveland has 164 field goals through five games. Crunch the numbers, and James has scored or assisted on 66.5% of Cleveland's baskets, easily a Finals record. For comparison's sake, James never topped 50% in his previous Finals runs (his previous best was 49.4% with the Heat in 2012).
With data from Basketball-Reference.com, here's a look at how James compares to previous Finals MVPs when it comes to what percentage of the offense their own scoring and assisting generates.
- 2015 | LeBron James | Cavaliers | 66.5%
- 1991 | Michael Jordan | Bulls | 56.3%
- 1997 | Michael Jordan | Bulls | 55.7%
- 1993 | Michael Jordan | Bulls | 52.9%
- 1969 | Jerry West | Lakers | 52.7%
- 1987 | Magic Johnson | Lakers | 51.4%
- 2009 | Kobe Bryant | Lakers | 50%
- 1992 | Michael Jordan | Bulls | 49.8%
- 2012 | LeBron James | Heat | 49.4%
- 1995 | Hakeem Olajuwon | Rockets | 48.1%
- 2001 | Shaquille O'Neal | Lakers | 48.1%
That sound you hear is the eyeballs of stat nerds who haven't been born yet popping out of their heads when they come across this table in 2075. James's central role in the offense puts every other lead option in Finals history to shame. Certainly, there's a debate to be had about whether turning to one player for so much is the most prudent and efficient approach, but James and the Cavaliers really haven't had a choice. Other than a strong Game 1 from Irving, a surprising breakout from Matthew Dellavedova in Game 4, and a career night from Timofey Mozgov in Game 5 (with an assist to Golden State's small ball game plan), James has had precious little help, and yet he's still managed to generate at least two victories in this series.
It seems virtually inconceivable that anyone will top James's mark here, including James himself. Will he ever again be asked to carry such a burden? Will any player ever mix his Jordan-esque scoring ability with his Magic-like passing instincts? Will any player ever produce at such a consistently high level when facing the scrutiny, pressure and defensive intensity that comes with life in the Finals?
One postscript: Note again that West appears on this list, as he did on the previous list of combined points/rebounds/assists above. Note also that James tops West on both lists. The takeaway from that should be that West's selection set a worthy precedent, and that James has surpassed it cleanly.
4. This is all coming against an excellent opponent
Perhaps the most overlooked reason to give James the Finals MVP is the quality of the competition he's facing. While the Cavaliers have endured more than their fair share of adversity during the postseason, they have also run into a buzzsaw in the Warriors, a team that won 67 games and posted a +10.1 point differential in the regular season while running up a 15-5 record and a +7.8 point differential so far in the playoffs.
The Finals has been an exhausting matchup in every sense of the word.
For one, LeBron has had to play 45.6 minutes per game in the Finals because the Cavaliers are hopelessly lost without him. With James on the court, Golden State has outscored Cleveland by 4.5 points per 48 minutes. Without James, that number jumpers to a whopping 28.3 points per 48 minutes. When James plays, the series is competitive; when he sits, a blowout could happen at any moment, as Cleveland's offense grinds to an absolute halt.
For two, there are no off plays for James, who has had to deal with the likes of Andre Iguodala (2014 All-Defense), Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green (2015 All-Defense) and Andrew Bogut (2015 All-Defense) on one end while also defending all five positions himself on the other end.
Let's go back and look at how the Warriors compare to the opponents faced by the other top performers on the all-around production list above. Here's a comparison of James to the top 10 Finals by combined points/rebounds/assists laid out next to the regular-season point differential of each player's opponent in the Finals.
- 2015 | LeBron James | Combined: 57.8 | Warriors: +10.1
- 2000 | Shaquille O'Neal | Combined: 57 | Pacers: +4.6
- 1993 | Michael Jordan | Combined: 55.8 | Suns: +6.7
- 2001 | Shaquille O'Neal | Combined: 53.6 | Sixers: +4.3
- 2002 | Shaquille O'Neal | Combined: 52.4 | Nets: +4.2
- 1969 | Jerry West | Combined: 50 | Celtics: +5.6
- 1995 | Hakeem Olajuwon | Combined: 49.8 | Magic: +7.1
- 1991 | Michael Jordan | Combined: 49.2 | Lakers: +6.7
- 1971 | Kareem Abdul-Jabbar | Combined: 48.3 | +0.6
- 1987 | Magic Johnson | Combined: 47.2 | Celtics: +6.7
- 1992 | Michael Jordan | Combined: 47.1 | Blazers: +7.3
There's no question that the top performers on this list overcame some very strong teams, highlighted by the 1987 Celtics, the 1992 Blazers, the 1995 Magic and the 1993 Suns. Still, Golden State easily tops all of those teams by regular-season point differential, and it has dealt with no major injuries in the Finals, even if it hasn't always played to its scintillating 67-win standard. If the Warriors close out this Finals in six, they will have compiled a 16-5 postseason record to go with a 67-15 record, which would make for a gaudy 83-20 (.806) record. For James to play like he has against an opponent achieving that level of rare air is even more remarkable.
5. There's no ideal alternate candidate
Golden State's balance works against it a bit when it comes to this Finals MVP discussion. Regular-season MVP Stephen Curry would seem to be the logical go-to pick: he's averaging 26.2 points, 6 assists and 5 rebounds in the Finals, and he came up huge in a decisive Game 5 victory on Sunday. But Curry hasn't been as consistent nor as dominant as James as he struggled through a 5-for-23 shooting night in a Game 2 loss, endured a 27+ minute scoreless stretch in a Game 3 loss, and committed at least four turnovers in all five games in the series. Meanwhile, he's gotten considerable scoring help from the likes of Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala and others, and the importance of his defensive role just doesn't match James's. Even if Curry explodes again in Game 6, sealing his franchise's first title in 40 years, it's hard to make the case that he, or anyone else, can stack up to James's value in this series.
Iguodala has been another popular stealth MVP pick, and Warriors coach Steve Kerr rightly identified the wing as his team's best player through the first four games of the series. There's no question that Iguodala has been excellent in hounding James, hitting clutch shots, generating easy points in transition and posing matchup problems for Timofey Mogzov when Golden State goes small, but he is merely a very talented foil to James's leading role. This isn't quite the same last year, when Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard took home MVP honors by making a meaningful dent in James's effectiveness and contributing on the other end. Despite Iguodala's best efforts, James has still produced at historic rates, and Iguodala's averages of 14.6 points, 6 rebounds and 3.8 assists look downright puny stacked up next to James's numbers, even if they're pretty close to Leonard's 2014 Finals production (17.8 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2 assists).
In all likelihood, the Warriors will leave this series with confirmation that they are the best team on the planet. Their approach has emphasized the importance of depth, minutes management, ball movement, and sacrificing for the common good, and it has produced one of the best season-long performances in recent memory.
Golden State's dream season hasn't, however, produced a better individual performance than James in these Finals. Indeed, James's play has been so sensational, so dominant, so unprecedented and so consistent that it's worthy of the Bill Russell Trophy, even if Larry O'Brien heads to the Bay Area.