In his quest to topple Michael Jordan as GOAT of the NBA, LeBron James has broken and cast aside a multitude of worthy opponents.
He has helped relegate the postseason success and therefore the careers of would-be Eastern Conference stars like Paul George, Paul Millsap, Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Al Horford and, now, Isaiah Thomas, to also-rans.
Sunday night's Game 3 no-show in the Eastern Conference finals notwithstanding -- plus Tuesday's weird disappearing act in the first half of Game 4 -- James has broken the very willpower of this current Celtics team. He kept at it in the second half of the Cavs' comeback in Game 4, scoring 15 of his 34 points in the fourth quarter en route to a 3-1 Cavaliers series lead and more proof that the Cavs are again contenders because they feature the best player on earth.
The list of those LeBron James has damaged is long. He stole from Golden State last summer a championship and the status as the greatest NBA team of all time. His soon-to-be seventh consecutive appearance in the NBA Finals has limited the scope and success of general managers and head coaches unfortunate enough to have tried to carve out their careers in LeBron's Eastern Conference. The Raptors and Celtics -- and all who face off with him -- end up broken, busted up and often torn down.
To face LeBron James has become a professional hazard, even with his occasional -- very, very occasional -- off game. And now you can add another victim to the list: The national NBA media, from whose ranks came an MVP vote so short-sighted and misplaced it will be hard to look back and defend. It's hard -- or should be -- to defend it even now.
It boggles my mind this is even a debate, and I say that as someone who has voted in the past and understands how seriously and studiously the voters take this responsibility. No, the issue here is not effort or seriousness but an inability to break from being captives of the moment. It's also about an overpowering pull of groupthink. And it all adds up to an inability to operate on the proper side of history.
There are shiny, alluring, captive-of-the-moment reasons to vote for Westbrook or Harden above James. Yet a closer look should offer some pause. Russell Westbrook would be one of the least efficient players to win an MVP. James Harden benefited from not just Mike D'Antoni's system but, like Westbrook, a usage rate that pumped up his stats while fraying the actual long-term viability of his team.
Creating long-term value to the team is value. Something it turned out Harden and Westbrook hadn't done. For them the season was a bunch of stats -- sound and fury signifying nothing lasting for their respective teams -- that are now just a handful of dust.
And to watch James -- to cover this league -- should be to know unconditionally that any team he joins becomes an immediate contender. We talk so much about Michael Jordan never having lost in an NBA Finals, but what about the fact LeBron James has never lost a first-round playoff series? Or that Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving had zero combined playoff appearances, ever, until they got to play with James?
There is an infuriating fallback for those who like to vote against LeBron: "This is not a postseason award." No kidding. Because some players will get to advance longer than others in the playoffs, you judge each by the regular season. I get it. But how do so many of you not get that the regular season is neither played nor should be judged in a vacuum? The goal of any team is a championship, and so a player's ability in the regular season to improve the team through personal greatness while also creating a climate and chemistry that carries through beyond has to be considered.
Yes, Harden led the league in assists. But he and Westbrook also dominated the ball, and in doing so they created teams utterly dependent on them and stunted in the kind of team growth one needs to have playoff success. We saw that as they, individually and as a team, fizzled once the postseason rolled on.
James went the other route. His 30 percent usage rate is his lowest since his second year in the league. He wasn't just great; he made the guys around him great, too. He trusted them. He prodded them. Even as his team supposedly limped into the playoffs -- laughable now in retrospect, and not something we would criticize, say, Gregg Popovich for -- James was spreading his value far beyond his own stunning season. And that has paid huge dividends -- lasting value -- well beyond the scope of the regular season.
But all those arguments and others I could throw out there aside, there is this: LeBron James is going to finish his career as the best or second-best player in the history of the game. And this past season is the best of that all-time great career.
Think about that.
LeBron James just finished the best season of his career and couldn't even get real consideration for Most Valuable Player. Even though he has won four of these awards before, in less impressive seasons.
James is the only player in NBA history to average at least 26 points per game, 8.5 rebounds per game, 8.5 assists per game and shoot at least 54 percent from the field. His rebounds per game (8.6) and assists per game (8.7) were career highs. And, again, he did it with a usage rate not seen from him since 2005, and markedly lower than Harden and Westbrook.
I don't know each voter's personal approach, but if it means that perhaps the greatest player of all time does not get a top-three vote during the best season off his life, then they did it wrong.
This is damaging. To the game. To the media who vote on it. To anyone who takes seriously that these awards matter, and that to those like me who believe to so grossly get it wrong undermines how we are perceived. In a league already struggling with the idea that the playoffs are an awful product, this is just another stunner to fans who think we don't get it. And they're right.
I used to have a podcast with retired tennis great Andy Roddick, and we would often argue aggressively about the role of the media, criticism and judgments cast on athletes, and whether my media colleagues know what they're doing. I usually argued for my craft, and Roddick often went the other route. He's a smart, thoughtful guy, and even if I often disagreed with him I found his perspective interesting and cutting and always in sync with a zeitgeist that was out there. He's a Hall of Fame athlete in his own right, after all, and a good barometer for a certain level of contempt bubbling around issues I cover and care about.
So when he texted me unsolicited over the weekend about the idiocy of the MVP voting it was with a sick feeling I thought: Damnit, he's right.
"It makes it really hard for me to take voting seriously when LeBron apparently isn't Top 3 most valuable player in the league," Roddick texted. "Serious freaking credibility issue for the sports media today."
He went on.
"It's like punishing someone for sustained excellence. Try doing that to Warren Buffet. 'The guy makes so much money, but we aren't interested. He's been doing it for decades.'"
"It's laughable. Tells me the wrong people are voting. James Harden is more valuable to the Rockets than LeBron James is to the Cavs???? How about if they switched places. Who would come out of that looking more valuable ? Just stupid …."
I just moved to New York City, and was walking around Brooklyn when the text came in. As if on cue, someone next to me, talking to their friends, started going in on how dumb it is that James isn't even in the final group for MVP.
People care. And many of them, not too close to this and not overthinking the issue or falling into a group mentality, think we're morons. Fans. Athletes. A whole lot of people.
I'll disagree with Roddick on this: The people voting are the right ones. But they voted the wrong way. Groupthink took over, the fear that if you're too far afield from everyone else you're doing something wrong. It's hard not to get caught up in that way of seeing the world when you're social with, and read, and tweet at, and have drinks and dinner over and over with the same colleagues.
I get it.
But it's also too late.
The damage is done. Years from now we will look back at LeBron James being snubbed and there will be no defense. James broke another adversary, and this time it's us.