We haven’t even reached the All-Star break yet, and the Cleveland Cavaliers are in a tailspin. Yes they’re nine games over .500, but they're 3-7 over their last 10, and just last week held a contentious team meeting ostensibly regarding Kevin Love’s leaving a game early due to illness. That became a moot point when he broke his hand last night, sidelining him for six to eight weeks. But take this any way you see fit—it’s not all Love. It remains hard to imagine that they won't get it together by the time the postseason starts, that—trade or no trade—they’ll be back in the NBA Finals once again. Well, maybe. Why? LeBron James, who in his 15th season is playing at his usual sky-high level. Right now he should be your MVP.
It wasn’t supposed to be this difficult for the Cavaliers this year. But then Kyrie Irving requested a trade, the Cavaliers complied, and Irving was replaced by Isaiah Thomas, still recovering from a hip injury that ended last year’s phenomenal season. The defending Eastern Conference champs had quite the roster turnover, adding eight new players. Thomas missed the first 36 games, and even without an elite scoring guard (Derrick Rose just kind of...left for a while), the Cavaliers opened the season 24-12—and were 24-9 before dropping all three games of a West Coast swing.
Now, 36 games (or 33) does not decide an MVP race. At least the first 36 games don’t. And both James and the Cavaliers have shown some signs of mortality of late—James’s 3-point shooting has fallen off a cliff, and just this month the Cavs lost games by 24, 34, and 28 points. JR Smith, Tristan Thompson, and Jae Crowder have been disappointments, Dwyane Wade is 36 years old. Love, the apparent focus of his teammates ire, has actually been one the few Cavaliers besides James who’s shown up every night. The very next day after the contentious team meeting, he was deservedly named an All-Star reserve, a game he'll now miss. Thomas is healthy, but hasn't quite found his place in the Cavs offense—even if he has found his place in the Cavs' hierarchy.
As for James, all he’s done this season is average 26.7 points—his highest ppg average since returning to Cleveland—on 55 percent from the floor to go with 8.8 assists and 7.9 rebounds per. Those numbers are very close to what he posted last season (26.4, 8.7 and 8.6), only this season he’s done it without a definitive number two guy for most of the year. His consistency in the face of change has been impressive and, unfortunately, just one reason why he’s yet to land that Jordan-tying fifth MVP.
Jordan himself could tell you that consistency isn’t what MVP voters are looking for. Continued excellence, no matter how excellent, is often overshadowed by the singular seasons of others. That’s not to say that Steph Curry’s obliteration of the single-season 3-point record or Russell Westbrook’s Robertsonian triple-double average didn’t deserve to be recognized with MVP trophies. They did. (James Harden's 60-point triple-double will no doubt help his own cause this year.) But it’s insane that no player has won three MVPs in a row since Larry Bird (‘84-86), even while winning two in a row is almost easier than winning just one.
LeBron came as close as anyone’s ever come to winning five straight MVPs, and honestly it’s still not enough
Jordan never won three in a row, his one back-to-back set ended by Charles Barkley in ‘93, and James won’t either. His four came in two sets of two, ended by Derrick Rose in ‘11 and Kevin Durant in ‘14. (He finished a distant third in ‘11, behind both Rose and Dwight Howard.) The chances of the 33-year-old James winning this year, and then the next two years on top of that, are decidedly slim.
So yes, LeBron came as close as anyone’s ever come to winning five straight MVPs, and honestly it’s still not enough. He last won MVP in 2013, and since then he’s averaged 26 points, 7.3 assists and 7.2 rebounds a game—and played in the Finals every year. To be fair, Jordan should have won more than five, too. And while it’s not possible to correct past wrongs (cough, Karl Malone in ‘97), there is still time to reward the best player of this generation with at least one more MVP. Just look at what James is doing, still turning in superlative performances peppered with otherworldly athleticism, even as he climbs the all-time minutes-played list (22nd and counting, less than 600 behind Vince Carter). He became just the 7th 30,000 point scorer in NBA history this season, and scoring isn't even his primary talent.
Is it too early to declare James the MVP of the 2017-18 season? Of course it is. Things might go from bad to worse in Cleveland (perhaps they already have), any number of players could find themselves traded, Kevin Love could be sacrificed to any number of pagan gods. Teams that are used to winning tend not to handle it well when the winning stops.
It seems more likely, however, that the Cavaliers will figure it out. That they will put this rough patch behind them and that they’ll once again enter the postseason as formidable favorites to return to the Finals for a fourth straight year. James hasn’t entered the postseason as the reigning MVP since 2013, when he was a member of the Miami Heat. His return to Cleveland has so far produced everything he’s promised and more. It’s long past time he was rewarded properly for it.