In his first game without a headband since the 2003 preseason, LeBron James’ point total of 27 was exceeded only by Cleveland’s margin of victory — 33 over the Dallas Mavericks. So that makes it four wins in the last five games and 22 wins in the past 26. The Cavaliers’ lead over the injury-riddled Chicago Bulls has grown to 1 1/2 games and figures to continue growing, and I have a question to ask.
Why is James so absent from the MVP discussion?
Do those two missed free throws at the end of overtime against Houston a couple weeks ago continue to loom large? They did in my last rankings, but we all try to move on. Do voters simply want to try a different flavor after so many years of casting ballots for the obvious runaway winner? And as good as James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry and Anthony Davis have been, is it really a two-man race or a three-man race or — gasp! — a four-man race if Davis can get the Pelicans into the playoffs?
Or does LeBron merit making it a five-man race with a little more than a month left in the season?
These are the questions we shall ponder over the next month as we take breaks from watching the Kentucky Wildcats march undefeated to the NCAA championship, ponder the future of Rory McElroy’s Doral-drenched 3-iron and wonder whether he will need it at the Masters, and await the arrival of Naked Day. That is the day when the mercury hits 70 degrees Fahrenheit for the first time in months, the layers of clothing that the pretty women have been wearing get discarded, and an endless sidewalk fashion show commences. It is not to be missed.
The Cavs certainly do not look like a “fragile” team anymore, everybody is beginning to understand that “rookie coach” is not a moniker befitting David Blatt, and the Executive of the Year award might just be a two-man battle between Dell Demps (where would the Pels be without Norris Cole?) and David Griffin (Mozgov, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert within the space of a week? AYFKM?)
LeBron James is about one weeklong binge away from surpassing Harden and Westbrook for the league lead in scoring, and his shooting percentage is now sitting at a tidy .491. After five consecutive seasons of shooting well above 50 percent (he was at .565 and .567 the past two seasons in Miami), my money is on The King getting well above 50 percent before all 82 games are in the books, and the talk of the discarded headband will eventually be replaced by discussion of the receding hairline — and whether it makes him look more mature.
I know this: There is one and only one team that everyone in the Eastern Conference fears in a playoff series, and it is NOT the Atlanta Hawks.
Let’s see what kind of a finishing kick LeBron has, and what Harden, Westbrook, Curry and Davis do over the final five weeks.
Again, five weeks to see if it is a five-man race. My money is on LeBron making it happen — headband or no headband. As as I do every year, I will make my final decision after all 82 games have been played. Not 81. 82.
On to the rankings.
1. James Harden, Houston Rockets: Check out this stat from Chris Bernucca’s Monday column on the Westbrook v. Harden debate: In games in which Westbrook has scored at least 38 points, the Thunder are 2-7. When Harden scores at least 38 points, the Rockets are 7-1. Now, which of those players would I fork over money to see? That would be Russell. Which of them do I expect to achieve the most in the playoffs? Well, Harden is not worried about making the playoffs right now. Westbrook is. And then there is this: In 30 games without Dwight Howard, Harden has been averaging 28.5 points, 6.2 rebounds and 7.1 assists. He is the leader heading into the home stretch … but the hoss race ain’t over. (LAST EDITION: No. 1)
2. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder: Six triple-doubles in seven games, and he goes for another one tonight against a Los Angeles Clippers team that will take things down to the final possession before Chris Paul makes a crucial mistake. The award is very much within his reach, but it will not be decided over a six-game span or an eight-game span or a 12-game span. Now, if Russ want to make it 20 triple doubles in the Thunder’s final 26 games, that’ll be a different matter. But as Bernucca points out, this is an award earned over the long haul, not the short haul. And as anyone in New Orleans will remind you, the Thunder lost the season series to the Pelicans, who continue to nip at the back of their heels like a puppy in a field chasing an older dog. (LAST EDITION: No. 2)
3. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers. Like Westbrook, LeBron needs a strong, sustained finishing kick to come from the pack and seize this award. I’d say 55 victories is a minimum threshold. Oh, and a shooting percentage somewhere north of 52. Oh, and a sustained slump from Harden … and perhaps Westbrook and Anthony Davis, too. And just for good measure, making two free throws Thursday night with 1 second left at San Antonio and the Spurs leading by one … yes, that would provide some redemption for his worst moment of the season. But I am not counting him out. I never count this guy out. And sometimes I have a good idea of what’s to come from him when those around me shake their heads in disbelief until they discover I was right … again. (LAST EDITION: No. 3)
4. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans. If they make the playoffs, he can jump from No. 4 on this list to No. 1. That’s why I don’t cast my vote after the 81st game. I wait until the 82nd is in the books. And for the Pels, No. 82 comes against the San Antonio Spurs, who are currently 1-2 against New Orleans this season. He is the game’s next great superstar, no matter what Sam Hinkie thinks about Emmanuel Mudiay. He got a massive boost from his teammates as they went 5-1 in his absence. But since then, all he has done is average 29.8 points. 10.6 rebounds, 4.2 blocks and shot 81.2 percent from the foul line. A beast. More on Davis’ MVP credentials from Mike Scotto. (LAST EDITION: No. 4)
5. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors. I love watching him do his thing — and not just shooting, but playmaking and ballhandling; I love that the long-suffering fans in Oakland have a chance to have homecourt advantage all the way through the Finals; I love that his teammate, Draymond Green, added some jet fuel to the fire by refusing to call the Clippers’ coach “Doc,” opting instead for “Glenn.” Oh, and I’d watch a Warriors game even if Curry has to sit out because I am almost equally enamored of Klay Thompson. But here is a hard and fast truth: When voters cast their ballots, they will look long and hard about who carried his team when others were injured and absent. Every guy on this list except LeBron carried that distinction. So although he is fifth, he is not a distant fifth. The NBA season is like the Belmont Stakes. It doesn’t end quickly. Let’s see what he brings in the finishing stretch. (LAST EDITION: No. 5)
DROPPED OUT: None.
NEXT FIVE: LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland; Jeff Teague, Atlanta; Pau Gasol, Chicago; Chris Paul, LA Clippers; DeAndre Jordan, LA Clippers.
EDITION X: WESTBROOK IS RISING LIKE A VIKING BEAST
EDITION IX: CONSUMMATE NEW YORKER EDITION
EDITION VIII: BLATT IS RIGHT ON LBJ, SORT OF
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.