Marc Stein’s MVP Ballot: LeBron over KD. Nash over Rondo
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Stein’s MVP Ballot
December prediction: Durant
If you’re a regular reader of the Power Rankings, or if you follow along onTwitter, you’re already aware of the one hesitation I have about crowning LeBron James’ statistically brilliant season with my MVP vote.
Simply put for those who haven’t heard that rationale yet: Miami’s failure to snag the top seed in the Eastern Conference, when MVP incumbent Derrick Rose has missed 26 games of a 66-game season in Chicago, could have been a fatal strike against LBJ’s MVP case.
Reason being: All those gaudy stats, in that scenario, wouldn’t have prevented LeBron’s team from underachieving. His team. The thing that matters most in any season.
Harsh? Possibly. Fair? Definitely. It’s simply going to be a struggle for me to bill you as the NBA player who had the best overall campaign, no matter what the stats say, if the team you’re leading underperforms.
It certainly won’t be all LeBron’s fault if the flaw-filled Heat fall short of the East’s best record, of course, but giving the standings that much weight when evaluating his MVP-worthiness is more than just. Two-time MVP Steve Nash illuminated that point for me last Friday, in a conversation in the visitors’ locker room in Houston that had absolutely nothing to with LeBron, when Nash said of his scrappy Suns: “We’re greater than the sum of our parts. And, as a team, that’s all you can ask.”
Without realizing it until he said it, Nash neatly summarized a good chunk of the rationale I’ve applied over nearly 20 years as an NBA awards voter: Steering your team to its presumed potential, or ideally just beyond that station, is a big part of any star’s MVP claim.
It’s why Nash has two Maurice Podoloff trophies and why he sneaks in at No. 5 on my 2012 ballot. He’s the undisputed driving, galvanizing force on a team that boasts no 20-point scorers — and no one who had even regularly started in the NBA outside of Nash himself and Grant Hill before they got to the Suns — but has somehow recovered from a 14-20 record at the All-Star break to make a legit playoff run. If the Nash-led Suns crack the West’s top eight, they’ll be the NBA’s first team since 1996-97 to make it to the postseason from a hole of six or more games under .500 at the break.
As strongly as I feel about all of the above, two major developments in the last two weeks have restored LeBron to MVP pole position and will ultimately earn him this vote barring another crazy, unforeseen landscape change between now and the time ballots are due via e-mail Friday at 3 p.m.
Development No. 1: Miami has quietly won five straight games since a loss at Chicago on April 12 dropped the Heat’s post-All-Star Weekend record to 13-10 and led me to make the initial claim that Miami’s failure to capitalize on all the time Derrick Rose has missed should impact LeBron’s MVP candidacy. Those five straight wins, furthermore, cut Chicago’s lead at the top of the conference to 1½ games entering Friday’s play, giving LeBron’s Heat renewed hope of digging out the regular-season conference title after all.
Development No. 2: There has to be a worthy challenger to capitalize on any potentially fatal strikes for James. But there really isn’t one. With the Oklahoma City Thunder at risk for blowing the No. 1 seed in the West themselves thanks to a 6-5 malaise in April, Kevin Durant’s MVP case has wobbled. The team-success card Durant needed to neutralize LeBron’s numbers and hurdle into the lead might have slipped away. And if Durant can’t do it, who else can?
Chris Paul is next in line thanks to a debut season in Clipperland filled with fourth-quarter brilliance and more on-court credibility than we’ve ever seen from the Lakers’ co-tenants, but just breaking into the top three is about as far CP3 can realistically take his campaign, even after giving Angelenos their first legit NBA rivalry. San Antonio’s Tony Parker is likewise a lock to appear on most ballots after taking on a bigger-than-ever role with the Spurs, but the moment appears to have passed for all the would-be challengers.
Although this will be remembered as the season that he truly began to look like a two-way player, Durant would need a monster finish now — and some sort of heinous collapse from James with Miami suddenly reborn mathematically in its race with the Bulls — to throw things into flux again. Even if OKC wins the West’s regular-season crown, Miami has presumably made up enough ground so that the standings can no longer hurt James. Not when Bron happens to be averaging 27.1 points, 7.9 rebounds and 6.3 assists while shooting 52.9 percent from the floor.
That doesn’t change the fact that his season will ultimately be judged on whether Miami wins it all … but it does set LeBron up to join Michael Jordan (32.5 ppg, 8.0 rpg and 8.0 apg in 1988-89) on the short list of players to average 27-8-8 in a single season if he can pick up the board work slightly.