The Bill Russell award goes to the Most Valuable Player of the NBA finals and, since its inception, has been awarded to 28 different players. Michael Jordan won it six times, Magic Johnson, Shaq and Tim Duncan have won it three times and Willis Reed, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird, Hakeem Olajuwon, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James have all won it twice. On every occasion since 1969 the winner of the finals MVP (renamed in 2009) has also won the NBA title. On the very first occasion that the award was given, however, in 1969, it went to Jerry West of the Los Angeles Lakers. The 1969 NBA finals saw the Bill Russell-coached-and-led Boston Celtics defeat West’s Lakers 4-3 for Russell’s eleventh title.
This season, the people who decide these things will face an interesting challenge when it comes to awarding the 2015 NBA Finals MVP. Or at least they will if the Cleveland Cavaliers cannot come back from the 3-2 deficit they currently face against the Golden State Warriors. That challenge is the fact that the most outstanding player in these finals has been LeBron James. And it’s not even really all that close. The issue at hand is whether or not the award can, again, go to a player who didn’t win the title.
The regular season MVP award went to Stephen Curry, who just happens to be the star player of the other team in these finals. Curry’s award was not welcomed in some quarters, notably in Houston where James Harden more or less carried the Houston Rockets into the Western Conference finals without a ton of help. Curry, notably, played the fewest minutes per game of any MVP in NBA history, averaging 32.7 minutes per game.
When we look at the 2015 NBA Finals, statistically, we see that Stephen Curry and LeBron James have dominated the scoring for their teams, though where Curry has scored 41 more points than Klay Thompson (131-90; Andre Igoudala is their third top scorer with 73), LeBron has scored 116 more points than Timofey Mosgov, who barely saw the floor in game 5. Mosgov’s 67 point total is only five more than Draymond Green, the Warrior’s fourth top scorer. The Cavs third-best scorer? JR Smith with 50. For further context, Harrison Barnes has 44.
Despite his team-mates not scoring in high volumes, LeBron also has an incredible 44 assists with only 15 turnovers (Curry has 30 assists and 25 turnovers). LeBron is only three rebounds away from leading the series in that statistical category as well (62 to Tristan Thompson’s 65). He leads the series in minutes played as well, with 227:47. The next most-used player is Curry, with 211:51. Those 16 minutes are quite a lot when you consider that, during the regular season, Curry played a total of 2613 minutes (his career total is 14,559) and LeBron played 2493 (career total of 35,769) despite only playing 69 games to Curry’s 80.
When you compare the starting lineups in these finals, the load on LeBron becomes even more obvious. The Warriors have options but started Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Igoudala, Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green in game five. Andrew Bogut, who had started the first three games before only seeing the floor for 3 minutes in game 4, didn’t even get off the bench. The Cavaliers, on the other hand, only have the luxury of leaving Shawn Marion and Brendan Haywood on the pine for the full game.
Clearing your mind of your biases, how many of the current Cleveland roster would you like to see on your team? LeBron, certainly. Tristan Thompson, with his career average of 3.4 offensive rebounds per game (total of 8.4 rpg)? Likely. Beyond those two, however, is there anyone whose name would invoke anything stronger than a “maybe” response? Sit down, Sixers fans, you’ll get there eventually. Let’s not pretend that Matthew Dellavedova merits consideration, though the feisty Aussie has earned his stripes these finals with his defensive hustle on Steph Curry. A guy like that needs to be used sparingly and in intense bursts. His trip to the hospital after game four is testament to the effort he has expended just trying to stay with Curry, though it’s a role he filled impressively until game four.
The key point here is that LeBron has nothing to work with, Thompson aside. Iman Shumpert is shooting 27%. JR Smith 30% but only 26% from three. When was the last time Kendrick Perkins did anything other than look moody? And yet, the Cavaliers still, bizarrely, have a shot to win the NBA title. In the era of “big threes”, LeBron is a big one and somehow keeping his team in contention with the weakest supporting cast of any superstar in the history of NBA finals. Even if you go back to the last three times the NBA Finals ended in a sweep, you see better losing rosters than the 2014-2015 Cavaliers:
1995 – the Rockets over the Orlando Magic, Magic starting five: Penny Hardaway, Nick Anderson, Donald Royal, Horace Grant and Shaq.
2002 – the Lakers over the New Jersey Nets, Nets starting five: Jason Kidd, Kerry Kittles, Kenyon Martin, Keith Van Horn, Todd MacCulloch.
2007 – the Spurs over the Cavs, Cavs starting five: Daniel Gibson, Sasha Pavlovic, LeBron, Drew Gooden and Zydrunas Ilgauskas.
We return, of course, to the concept of what makes a player valuable. Clearly if a team loses then any given player on that roster simply cannot have been that valuable. Ordinarily, yes, but these are no ordinary finals. The Cavaliers top four paid players are LeBron, Kevin Love, Anderson Varejao and Kyrie Irving. Three of them are absent. Yet, still, the Cavaliers remain in contention. The Warriors are missing nobody, scratching the healthy Brandon Rush and Ognjen Kuzmic, and they cannot completely shake the Cavaliers.
Lets imagine for a second that you took LeBron out of the Cavaliers lineup for game 6. What would the final score be? Even the biggest Cavs homer surely cannot deny that the game would end in a blowout.
We are indeed “witnesses” to one of the all-time great finals performances. Even if it ends in a losing effort, we should acknowledge that there is only one candidate for Finals MVP.