Your MVP debate means nothing without LeBron James in the mix

The NBA world has correctly honed in on two names that deserve serious NBA MVP consideration. Too bad it’s vastly overlooking a third -- equally deserving -- candidate: LeBron James.

Yes, yes, I know: Russell Westbrook is about to average a triple-double over the course of a regular season, a statistical feat of wonder that only Oscar Robertson has ever accomplished. Westbrook has taken the Kevin Durant departure and turned it into his own private catalyst for basketball brilliance, almost single-handedly pulling the Oklahoma City Thunder into the playoffs.

By all means, he should be in the mix for the game’s top honor.

And I know -- we all know -- that James Harden has been a sensation under Mike D’Antoni’s free-flowing system. He’s averaging a career high in points per game (29.2) and, more impressive, in assists per game (11.2). That last number is Steve Nash-esque, the kind of dishes-per-games success that helped Nash twice best Kobe Bryant for the same award.

Harden, of course, should also be strongly considered and evaluated.

But how are so many missing LeBron’s place in that same group? How do so many of you not see that the best player on earth deserves to be among that trio of NBA stars who this year are propelling one of the most complex, competitive and interesting MVP races we’ve ever seen?

Let’s start with LeBron, before we try to temper some of the numbers-lust that has people so focused on Russ.

The Cavaliers superstar is having a career year. Think about that: One of the two or three greatest players of all time is having, arguably, one of his best seasons ever. 

And he’s not in serious MVP talk.

Ponder this fact: LeBron James is on track this season, along with Westbrook, to be one of three players in NBA history to average 26/8.5/8.5 in a season. The other was the Big O.

Those 8.6 rebounds per game and 8.7 assists per game for LeBron? They’re the best of his career. And his 26.3 points per game become even more impressive when you consider his usage rate (29.9) is near an all-time career low. Westbrook’s (40.9), by the way, is markedly higher and leads the league.

LeBron James is also about to become the only player in the game’s history to average 26/8/8 and shoot 54 percent or better from the field.

So we have an all-timer, having a career year, and putting up silly numbers despite having the ball in his hands less often than this MVP competitors. And he plays both sides of the ball as well as almost anyone in the league. He is without a doubt as critical to his team’s success as anyone on the planet.

Because we all love stats.

So here’s some more -- a quick comparison of LeBron’s season this year vs. those of the last two seasons he was named the MVP:

2016-17: 26.3 points per game, 8.6 rebounds per game, 8.7 assists per game.

2012-13: 26.8, 8, 7.3.

2011-12: 27.1, 7.9, 6.2.

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LeBron James is having a career year, yet somehow is not in the MVP discussion. USATSI

The Cavs, meanwhile, are poised to win the Eastern Conference thanks to LeBron having a ridiculous game Wednesday against the Boston Celtics. That Harden has the Rockets poised to be No. 3 in the West, and that Westbrook has OKC headed to the playoffs at all, albeit as a sixth-seed, is impressive.

It’s the stuff of being a Most Valuable Player.

But it hardly lifts them head and shoulders above LeBron, to a place where they’ve excluded him from a legitimate place in the conversation. 

And about Russ’ season: He is averaging a league-high 8.6 uncontested rebounds per game (vs. 6.5 for LeBron and 6.4 for Harden). And according to NBA.com, as of Tuesday he led the league by a wide margin in rebounds off opponents’ free throws, with 91. The next closest player was Hassan Whiteside at 65.

It doesn’t take a brain -- or, say, someone who has watched a lot of Thunder games and noticed his teammates gifting him some rebounds -- to wonder whether, maybe, his stats are just a tiny, tiny bit padded.

We become so fixated by numbers. They have a hold on us, and that’s great. That’s part of sports: Batting .400. Scoring 100 points. Belting 500 homers. Throwing 50 touchdowns in a season. It’s the stuff of history.

We can hold onto those nice, digestible, well-rounded numbers and feel a sense of real and lasting awe.

But is scoring 99 points in a single game really that different? Should the gulf between batting .399 and .400 really be baseball mortality? 

Is averaging a triple-double truly so special that it should rise to its own level of excellence?

If not, then it’s time to take a longer look. At Harden. And most certainly at LeBron James.

I get it. LeBron has more stars on his team. For many voters, that’s a significant factor that weighs against him when stacking him up against his MVP competition. But is Russ having OKC only at sixth in the West truly not under consideration? And if we’re digging deep -- and we should, the race is too close and important to do otherwise -- let’s point out that Harden playing under D’Antoni can be as liberating for stats and regular-season success as having a star player is. 

A few more thoughts: LeBron is the best player on earth. Period. And though they aren’t as sexy, the numbers he’s putting up this year -- and his value to a team very capable of winning it all, a fact that only exists because of him -- should not be overlooked.

Talk Westbrook MVP. Talk Harden MVP. Fine. You’re not wrong. Just don’t be so short-sighted to do so -- and for some of you, eventually vote -- without LeBron James getting an equal look.

National Columnist

Bill Reiter began his career as a newspaper journalist before becoming a national columnist at CBS Sports. He currently hosts a national CBS Sports radio show from New York City from 6 to 10 p.m. ET called... Full Bio

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