- KD and Steph have been magnificent, but no one has carried a heavier burden (and delivered more) than LeBron James. His strongest case for Finals MVP? The moments he sits.
At age 32, in his 14th season, in his seventh straight Finals, LeBron James is having the finest championship performance of his career. Even with the Cavaliers down 0–3 to the relentless Warriors, James cannot be blamed. LeBron is averaging 32 points, 10.3 assists and 12.3 rebounds through the first three games of the series, and is on pace to become the first player to average a triple double in Finals history. And unlike his epic 2015 performance against Golden State, James has been absurdly efficient this year, shooting 55.4% from the field, including a blistering 39% from three. LeBron won MVP last year after leading the Cavs back from a 3–1 deficit, and he’s making another stellar case for the honor again, regardless of whether Cleveland wins or loses.
First things first, James’s stats are simply ridiculous right now. He’s improved across the board from what he did during the regular season, and he’s putting together one of the best all-around playoff series of his entire life. When you really want to see James’s value, however, all you need to do is look at how his team performs when he’s not on the court.
In 125 minutes with James on the court against the Warriors, the Cavaliers have a net rating of -8.6. Obviously, that’s not great. It’s certainly not an unsurprising number given the blowout nature of the first two games of the series, either. What’s truly insane, however, is Cleveland's net rating in the 19 minutes James has been on the bench. Seriously, are you sitting down for this? With James off the floor, the Cavs’ net rating craters to -45.4.
Somehow, Cleveland’s defense improves slightly with James off the court, but it’s offense is sucked into a black hole and lost forever in the dark recesses of the universe. Sans LeBron, Cleveland’s offensive efficiency is 66.8. Without James, Cleveland’s offense is essentially the equivalent of an infant slamming two hands and drooling onto a controller during a game of 2K. The Cavs, without James, are pitiful. And that’s with talented scorers like Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love still in the game.
In Game 3, which ended up being a five-point loss, James was a plus-seven in 46 minutes. As Vice Sports’s Michael Pina astutely pointed out after the game, that means in the two minutes LeBron sat down, the Cavaliers were a minus-12. In 120 seconds—in the time it takes for you to microwave a Hot Pocket—Cleveland’s supporting cast completely undid LeBron’s heroic efforts.
And this is where the argument of value comes in. Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry are having incredible Finals performances in their own right. But if you take either one of them off the team, it’s possible Golden State is still favored in this series. (Like they were last year, when Durant wasn’t on the team.) Remember when Durant missed a couple games at the start of the postseason? The Warriors didn’t skip a beat.
With Durant off the court in the Finals, the Warriors still have a net rating of 9.3. For reference, Golden State finished the regular season with a 12.3 net rating, and the Spurs ranked second at 7.9. Curry may have a better case than Durant, as the Warriors have a negative point differential when Steph sits. But even then, the negative effect is nowhere near as drastic as LeBron’s splits. All three players—Durant, Curry and James—are having great series, but it’s clear which of the trio is carrying the biggest burden.
Golden State’s wealth of talent makes it tough to distinguish one of its players as most valuable. The Warriors are a true collective, with Draymond Green’s defense, Klay Thompson’s shooting, Curry’s gravitational pull and Durant’s all-around game feeding off one another until their opponent’s will is broken. Remove one cog, and the other three can likely compensate for the loss with their immense skill.
There’s no such parallel for the Cavs, however. As we saw in Game 3, even a precious few seconds of rest for LeBron could be the difference between victory or gut-wrenching defeat. If LeBron playing 48 minutes as opposed to 46 minutes is the difference between a win or loss, it’s hard to argue that any player on the court is more valuable than him.