We Finally Like LeBron, Even If MVP Voters Don't
The night belonged to the Golden State Warriors, to Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala. And despite the disappointment for the Cleveland Cavaliers, it also belonged to LeBron James, the moment the King rejoined the rest of us serfs and perhaps, finally, gained our sympathy and respect.
For even the most passionate LeBron hater out there, it was hard not to feel sorry for the man as you watched him, utterly exhausted, try to single-handedly keep his team in the series, as he had done throughout the NBA Finals. There will always be people who find a way to criticize him -- that comes with the territory of being the best player on the court. But it's nearly impossible not to respect what James did, what he tried to do, with little help around him and almost no option other than to sacrifice himself and his body.
James averaged 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists over the six Finals games, clocking an average of 48.3 minutes. Between the lack of rest, the demanding travel schedule, what one sports scientist called an "unfathomable" workload, and the physical and emotional weight of his entire team on his shoulders, it's no wonder that by the end of Game 4 James had "gassed out," in his words.
He was still the only thing fueling the Cavs, and put up a performance of historic proportions, even if his name won't be written in the history books as "2015 NBA champion LeBron James." But there's a real argument to be made that his name should have been enshrined on the 2015 NBA Finals MVP trophy.
That's not to knock Andre Iguodala, who won the honor after averaging 16.3 points, 5.8 rebounds and four assists, despite playing off the bench until Game 4. It seems Iguodala benefited from the LeBron James effect -- as Deadspin's Kyle Wagner notes, the last four straight Finals MVPs have gone to either James (in 2012 and 2013) or the player guarding him (Kawhi Leonard in 2014 and Iguodala in 2015). Sure, Iguodala held James scoreless in the fourth quarter of the Warriors' Game 4 blowout, he was also the guy LeBron torched for all those shattered Finals records. He also had an abysmal series at the free-throw line, shooting 10 for 28 (35.7 percent), and at one point missing nine straight free throws in Game 5.
All that didn't matter when it came to the voting, which I suppose shouldn't be all that surprising. In the major North American leagues -- excluding the NHL, because the Conn Smythe Trophy is awarded for overall postseason performance, not just the Stanley Cup Finals -- only one losing player in each sport has ever won the MVP for the championship round, and that hasn't happened in decades. New York Yankees' second baseman Bobby Richardson was World Series MVP in 1960; Los Angeles Lakers guard Jerry West was NBA Finals MVP in 1969; Dallas Cowboys linebacker Chuck Howley was Super Bowl MVP in 1971.
Still, the way Iguodala's MVP came about should raise some eyebrows. A glance at the final tally shows that the 11 votes from members of the basketball media went seven in favor of Iguodala, four to James.
If it strikes you as odd that Stephen Curry, MVP of the regular season who led all Warriors in scoring in the Finals, didn't get a single vote, you're not alone. (It might also strike you as odd that four of the 11 votes go to members of the ABC/ESPN family, the NBA's broadcast partner for the Finals, but at least half those voters got it right in voting for James: Grantland's Zach Lowe and ABC's Jeff Van Gundy.) It seems the story of the guy who didn't start a single regular-season game coming off the bench to quash the championship dreams of the best player in the world was too good for some voters to pass up -- even if it meant passing up the more obvious choice from the Warriors.
If Curry's candidacy was hampered at all by the Warriors' incredible depth, the Cavaliers' lack thereof should have been enough to anoint James.
None of this really matters in the long run for James, whose goal of bringing a championship to his beleaguered city remains unfulfilled. But perhaps the superhuman effort he put out this postseason, the sheer power of will and mind and body he showed on the floor only to come up empty, can finally be a reason for those of us outside Ohio to actually root for LeBron. That victory will have to be enough until James and the Cavaliers finally get their names inscribed alongside Larry O'Brien's.
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