Back when his team was under .500 and LeBron James was or was not on strike, I sent a text to David Blatt letting him know that I was hearing rumblings that certain members of the Cleveland media had an intense dislike for him, asking him where he was getting his p.r. advice.
He wrote back tersely, the implied message being: Don’t text me anymore. I do not believe you.
Well, then this Brian Windhorst column came out saying that folks around the league were already politicking for Blatt’s job, and then came a report in the Akron Beacon-Journal that Cavs management and ownership had conducted serious discussions about firing him … and then everything changed. LeBron James returned, “chill mode” became something the northern residents of the United States had to endure on a daily basis weather-wise, and the Cavs started winning. And they haven’t stopped.
And now, with Cleveland having defeated Detroit on Tuesday night for the Cavs’ seventh consecutive victory, Blatt is leading the chorus of LeBron for MVP chants … and with good reason. The Cavs have gone 25-12 with James in the lineup this season, and the 12-year veteran is now averaging 30.5 points, 6.8 rebounds, 6.4 assists and 2.0 steals in eight games since returning from a two-week rest period to rehab strains in his left knee and lower back.
“That’s just kind of funny, to be honest with you,” Blatt said before the Pistons game. “First of all, he’s the greatest player in our game, and he’s had, since he’s been healthy — and really all year, but particularly since he’s been healthy — his performance has been as high level as ever. And you don’t have to look very far at our record to see what impact he has on this team when he’s playing and not playing.”
Well, let’s stop Blatt for a minute here.
James is shooting 49 percent from the field — not a bad number, but nothing near the .567 he shot last season in Miami. Heck, James hasn’t shot below 50 percent in a season since 2008-09 — his next-to-last season in Cleveland before departing for Miami. His free throw percentage is .733 — his worst since ’06-07. His turnovers are at 4.0. Haven’t seen a number like that since Chris Childs was playing for the Knicks.
But a seven-game winning streak is a seven-game winning streak, and the Cavs are six games over .500 with a firm grip on fifth place in the conference. If the season ended today, Blatt and Tom Thibodeau would play a first-round series with each of their jobs on the line.
But it is only January, a time when doomsayers (myself and New York mayor Bill DeBlasio included) have the podium and can make accurate predictions that can change dramatically if the wind shifts. Along those lines, you think it was fishy that Thibodeau held a Kumbaya meeting with his troops and then held a 75-minute practice the next day — two things he almost never does — after I reported that his job was in jeopardy? Those were the acts of a desperate man. And as for Jeff Van Gundy’s assertion that Bulls management leaked the story, and that Bulls management has the Chicago beat writers in their hip pocket? Well, let’s just say that Van Gundy has a history of his own of preventing beat writers from going to press with stories that would have been front-page tabloid news for weeks. It happened in New York a decade and a half ago, and the guys on the beat now who were on the beat then know exactly what I am talking about. (and no, that is not a reference to his old hair plugs.)
As Bulls president John Paxson said, Van Gundy has an anti-Bulls bias that he cannot hide. It goes back to his days of being an assistant coach for the New York Knicks and getting beaten in the playoffs every season by Michael Jordan. That’s also the reason behind Van Gundy’s anti-Knicks bias, which has become more acute, if that is even possible, since Phil Jackson took over.
Perhaps people should be reminded that the Knicks were 10-9 when Van Gundy quit as coach of the Knicks in 2001. One of his players, Kurt Thomas, said it was partly because of family issues. I rank him third on the ESPN phony list behind Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith, which of course means he should be gainfully employed for the next several decades. (But that list only includes on-air talent. If we want to include everyone in the company, Leon Carter has a permanent hold on the No. 1 spot.)
If Van Gundy is given an MVP ballot by the league office, and it’ll be interesting to see who he casts it for given his numerous agendas. If Van Gundy votes, we’ll get to see, because the NBA now releases that information at the conclusion of the season.
For now, the race is still wide open … and James is gaining ground as Blatt said he should. But he ain’t No. 1 in my book yet. Or Top 5.
1. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans. I watch these guys almost every night now, and it is refreshing to see the level of genuine enthusiasm being displayed by this kid, who will end up being a 15-time All-Star and a four-time Olympic gold medal winner (unless Andrew Wiggins and the Canadians are in peak form for Tokyo, 2020). The Pels have so many losses to horrible teams that at the end of the day, it’ll likely keep them from claiming a playoff spot. But heck, there are other teams that have lost to the Knicks (right, LeBron?) and have bounced back rather nicely, and it speaks volumes that the Pels have put together their current three-game winning streak without Jrue Holiday. Sure is nice to have Tyreke Evans able to slide over from small forward or shooting guard and not miss a beat having him as your point guard. If the Pelicans make the playoffs, this guy is getting the award. That is my late January prediction. (LAST EDITION: No. 4)
2. James Harden, Houston Rockets. He is averaging 27.6 points per game, which means by the All-Star break he should be trailing LeBron (26.4) by a couple of decimal points. He averages 30.2 points in wins (the Rockets have 31 of them) and 21.7 points in losses (the Rockets have 14 of those), but he has been terrific in January, averaging 30.2 points and shooting .537 from the field in Houston’s past 10 games, which has not gone unnoticed. His last four games: 45, 33, 33 and 37. Those, folks, are MVP scoring numbers. Now, will the Rockets’ loss total work against him — especially with Golden State and Atlanta running away with their respective conferences? That is a tough question, because the Hawks and Warriors have multiple players responsible for their gaudy records. For instance, I have had Stephen Curry as a mainstay in these rankings, but Klay Thompson shot his teammate out of the Top 2 with that 37-point third quarter last week. We shall see how that evolves. (LAST EDITION: No. 5)
3. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors. Update: Tom Thibodeau is keeping himself safe. Wins over Curry and the Warriors on Tuesday night, and over San Antonio and Dallas last week got him off the hot seat. But you can bet your bottom dollar that he was losing his locker room the last time these rankings were published, and I give him a lot of credit for facing the problem head-on. He is a good guy, maybe a bit of an oddball … but so am I. Anyone who thinks I was out to get Thibodeau is barking up the wrong tree. Anyway, as for Curry, his 22.8 ppg average along with his 8.2 assists and his team’s league-leading 11.5 point differential are more than enough to keep him in the top three. Apologies to Klay Thompson and Draymond Green for taking this long to mention their names as being facilitators for Curry being in consideration for this award. (LAST EDITION: No. 1).
4. Al Horford, Atlanta Hawks. I have been partial to Jeff Teague in this space, but I am switching my Hawks love to their center, who has been a beast during the latter portion of their current 16-game winning streak. Among his January lines: 8-for-10; 8-for-8; 11-for-14; 8-for-9. Look, Horford has about as much chance of winning this award as Carmelo Anthony does, but he merits some pub this week in place of Teague, who has been a rock — as had Kyle Korver, who is shooting a mere 53 percent from 3-point range despite taking an astonishing 254 attempts in 44 games. When Korver set the NBA’s 3-point accuracy record of .536 for the Utah Jazz in 2009-10, he attempted 110 3s all season, making 59. Oh yeah, Horford? He is on a streak of scoring double figures in 25 straight games. (LAST EDITION: Unranked)
5. LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland Trail Blazers. No player is making a bigger personal sacrifice on behalf of the team than Portland’s big man, who watched the Blazers sink and slide after he went down with a hand injury, then changed his mind, put off his surgery — even though it could double his recovery time as he enters unrestricted free agency this summer — and went out and led Portland to a 7-point victory over Washington that halted a slide of five losses in six games. They have dropped from No. 2 to No. 3 in the West, and they are 0-2 against the team that has leapfrogged them, the Grizzlies. Let’s see if Aldridge’s return keeps them from slipping to No. 4 or No. 5 in the conference. Maybe that’ll be the thing that actually gets LeBron James a Top 5 spot in these rankings. (LAST EDITION: No. 3)
DROPPED OUT: Jeff Teague (N0. 2).
THE NEXT FIVE: LeBron James, Cavs; John Wall, Wizards; Jeff Teague, Hawks; Klay Thompson, Warriors; Chris Paul, Clippers.
EDITION VII: MUTTERINGS ON THIBODEAU
EDITION VI: MOZGOV THE MVP, IN A WAY
EDITION V: LeBRON JAMES APPROACHES THE BIG THREE-OH
EDITION IV: FROM NEW YORK TO SLOVENIA TO CUBA
EDITION III: PRINCE WILLIAM MEETS LeBRON JAMES
EDITION II: HEADLINE PORN FOR MARK CUBAN
EDITION I: ODE TO VANCOUVER
Chris Sheridan, publisher and editor-in-chief of SheridanHoops.com, is an official MVP voter. Follow him on Twitter.