Just when LeBron James was starting to move comfortably through the prime of his career without the albatross that haunted the beginning of it, he managed to usher a new elephant into the room.
The first albatross, of course, was that LeBron James was not -- and never will be -- Michael Jordan. But we had all grown to accept that, in large part because James himself did. The loss to Dallas in the 2011 NBA Finals changed him, and refocused him on the more appropriate goal of simply trying to be LeBron James.
Being LeBron James is enough, as he has proved time and again. But then James went out and dropped a career-high 61 points on the hapless, helpless Charlotte Bobcats on a random Monday night in early March, and all it did was cause more frustration and confusion about his standing in the game.
Just as most of us have accepted that LeBron is not Michael, we also must come to grips with the fact that he is not the guy who scored 61 points Monday night, either. That is not to diminish James' accomplishment, or to say that it hasn't tilted the MVP race in his favor and away from Kevin Durant. It is, instead, to afford James the highest compliment.
He's so much better than that.
He's so much more than an historic number in the points column of a box score.
What comes to mind today as far as the two-man race for MVP is, "Your move, KD." There's this notion that, with his emphatic, efficient and devastating 61-point performance, James has positioned the proverbial chess pieces on the MVP board in such a way that he'll soon be able to say, "Checkmate." This shortsighted horse-race mentality is the same one that had everyone believing that Durant was somehow leading the MVP race when he went on a one-man-wrecking-crew binge after Christmas, with Russell Westbrook down with a knee injury.
Neither is true. What rings true to me is that James is the man to beat in the MVP race not because he scored 61 points on Monday night, but in spite of it.
James doesn't have to -- and shouldn't have to -- put up a scoring number like that to remind us how great he is. Scoring doesn't define him because he's so much more.
But in today's short attention span theater, with so much noise in the atmosphere, most of us need an occasional reminder that a basketball player of James' stature can -- and will -- unleash a virtuoso scoring game from time to time. Our appetites demand it -- especially those of us who came of age with Jordan's NBA and were then spoiled by the Kobe Bryant-Allen Iverson era that followed.
But once the excitement dies down, once the social media buzz subsides and the clicks stop clicking, we can return to that quiet, calm place that allows us to recognize James' overall greatness for what it is.
He can play five positions and guard five positions. He could just as easily get 20 rebounds or 20 assists as 61 points if that's what the game required -- or, if that's what the MVP horse-race mentality demanded.
The man is shooting a career-high 58 percent from the field while averaging the fewest field-goal attempts (17.4) of his 11-year career. Put another way, that's 3.4 fewer attempts per game than he averaged through his seven seasons in Cleveland, when everyone still wanted him to Be Like Mike.
Is he better than Mike? I'm not even going there. Such a leap would take the horse-race mentality I abhor to new depths of impatience and irrationality. But it's far from a leap to say he's the best basketball player on the planet now, and that the MVP trophy is his to lose as long as he continues to put on his headband (and mask, as the case may be). Even on his rare night of scoring indulgence, James needed only 33 shot attempts to do it. Since 1985-86, only four other humans -- Bryant, Karl Malone, Gilbert Arenas and Tom Chambers -- have scored 60 points on 33 or fewer field-goal attempts.
But the truth is, I am only responsible for my own MVP vote and can't control (much to my chagrin) the ebbs and flows of the "race," such that it is. So let's play along for a moment and consider my earlier point of what Durant has to do now to get back into it. What now, KD?
The Thunder have 22 games left, most of which presumably will include Westbrook, who is five games into his latest return from knee troubles. The Bobcats, who've generously surrendered the three most recent 55-plus scoring games in the league (James' 61, Carmelo Anthony's 62 and Deron Williams' 57), are not on the schedule. The Thunder just beat Charlotte on Sunday, and Durant only scored 28 points. (More fuel for the horserace crowd, you see.)
Ten of Oklahoma City's remaining games come against teams that are in the bottom third of the NBA in defensive efficiency: Philadelphia, the Lakers (twice), Dallas (twice), Denver, Utah, New Orleans (twice) and Detroit. Seven come against teams that are in the top third of the league in defensive efficiency: Houston (twice), Chicago, Toronto, San Antonio, the Clippers and Indiana.
What does that mean? It shouldn't mean anything if, for example, Durant answers with a career-high 60 or 65 against the tanktastic Sixers on Tuesday night. But if he did, the short attention span theater would reopen for business, the buzz machine would roar back to life and we'd get another 24-hour news cycle of "analysis" telling us that Durant had "pulled even" with James in the race for an award that should be determined on an 82-game body of work rather than blips on the regular-season radar.
What if Durant did it on Sunday against the Lakers on national TV? Would that move the needle more?
No more than LeBron's 61-point outburst moved the needle for me. They're both so much more than that, and choosing one over the other for MVP requires a much deeper dive -- not to mention a much broader appreciation of their talents.