James has been statistically dominant, but that doesn't mean he'll win MVP. Just ask MJ and Shaq.
Asking around the league, the general consensus appears to be that LeBron James is on his way to his third MVP. His credentials are certainly compelling. He owns the highest player efficiency rating by a wide margin. He has played all five defensive positions while being an elite defender at small forward. His team, despite a weak supporting cast and an absent Dwyane Wade for a big chunk of the season, will end up with one of the top records.
We've gone over before how his numbers are off the charts this season. He currently possesses a 30.8 PER, which is a full four points higher than the next-best player, Chris Paul. But here's the thing: statistical dominance does not guarantee an MVP. Far from it.
James' lead in PER this season is the fifth largest since 1979-80 when the 3-point line was introduced. And in the four times where someone blew out the competition on the stat sheet more so than James this season? None of them won the MVP in that dominant season.
Who were the names of the crestfallen statistical juggernauts? Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal.
If James doesn't end up with the MVP this season despite a runaway lead in PER, we can look to four instances for a precedent: Shaq in 1998-99 and 2000-01, and Michael Jordan in 1988-89 and 1989-90. How did they post eye-popping numbers and lose the MVP?
Let's take a case-by-case look at the scenario.
1988-89 Michael Jordan
MVP that season: Magic Johnson
MJ's PER: 31.1 | Next-best: 76ers' Charles Barkley, 27.0 | Difference: +4.1 PER
MJ's statline: 32.5 points, 8.0 assists, 8.0 rebounds, 2.9 steals on 53.8 percent shooting.
Take another look at that statline. For perspective, James has tallied 32 points, eight assists, and eight rebounds just once this season. Jordan averaged that over a full season. He actually won the MVP the previous season, so he was the reigning award winner. In probably the most amazing stretch in NBA history, Jordan record 10 triple-doubles over an 11-game stretch at the end of the season. Still, it somehow wasn't enough.
Why? The Lakers won 10 more games than the Bulls. Chicago was a team that took a step back in the win column from the previous season and the Lakers were in the final stages of their Showtime run under Pat Riley (that was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's final season). Johnson posted a gaudy campaign of 22.5 points, 12.8 assists and 7.9 rebounds so he wasn't exactly a statistical slouch. All said and done, the media voted 664-598 Johnson over Jordan.
What does it mean for James? Very little. The Heat disappointed some by (probably) not winning the East this season, but the Heat chased the league's top record all season. The Bulls, however, were a six-seed in the East in 1988-89. Although it's an individual award, it seems that the standings made all the difference, despite Jordan's historic season.
1989-90 Michael Jordan
MVP that season: Magic Johnson (again)
MJ's PER: 31.2 | Next-best: Jazz' Karl Malone, 27.2 | Difference: +4.0 PER
MJ's statline: 33.6 points, 6.9 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 2.8 steals on 52.6 percent shooting.
Johnson wins yet again. Actually, there were a lot of things going for Jordan this season. He was just coming off the timeless Craig Ehlo shot in the 1988-89 playoffs. Phil Jackson took the helm and the Bulls improved by eight games in the win column. Still, Johnson took home the hardware.
In fact, Jordan finished third in the MVP voting that season behind Johnson and Barkley, who actually finished with the most first-place votes that season. The 76ers won the Atlantic Division that season behind Barkley's 25.2 points and 11.5 rebounds with an astounding 60 percent conversion rate. Jordan took it out on Barkley in the playoffs as the Bulls beat the 76ers in five games in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
This evokes a little bit of last season's MVP race since James, like Mike (I know, too easy), finished third in the voting despite being statistically being superior than everyone else. Also, Jordan shared the "hasn't won anything yet" label that has burdened James up to this point. Alas, no MVP for Jordan despite lighting the box score on fire night in and night out. Though Barkley wasn't any closer to the title than Jordan, he generated more favor from the media. In that sense, Barkley could be this season's Kevin Durant. If you find it hard to believe that Jordan wasn't a media darling yet, just read "The Jordan Rules" by Sam Smith.
1998-99 Shaquille O'Neal
MVP that season: Karl Malone
Shaq's PER: 30.5 | Next-best: Jazz' Karl Malone, 25.6 | Difference: +4.9 PER
Shaq's statline: 26.3 points, 10.7 rebounds, 1.7 blocks on 57.6 percent shooting.
In a lockout season full of quirky stuff, this one might take the cake. Shaq led the league in points scored, shooting percentage, finished in the top ten in rebounding and crushed the competition in PER. No one could stop him. And what did it get him? One measly first-place vote for MVP and a sixth-place finish overall in total votes. With two coaching changes, a roster blowup and a disappointing 31-19 record, the voters essentially blackballed Shaq from the MVP vote amid the team's turmoil.
Shaq may have been considered the source of the Lakers issues that season in the media's eyes, but statistically-speaking, Shaq had no equal during that season. His points per game numbers dipped from the year before but mostly due to a shaving of playing time during a hectic season.
Once again, this was a case of team performance influencing the votes more than the individual accomplishments. Statistical dominance and the shortened season might be the only two similarities between Shaq's 1998-99 season and James' current season. For James, there are no desperate trades, no coaching swaps and no seeds dropped in the standings.
2000-01 Shaquille O'Neal
MVP that season: Allen Iverson
Shaq's PER: 30.2 | Next-best: Raptors' Vince Carter, 25.0 | Difference: +5.2 PER
Shaq's statline: 28.7 points, 12.7 rebounds, 2.8 blocks on 57.2 percent shooting.
You could make an argument that this was the most statistically superior season of the modern era. Shaq was essentially the same Shaq that won the MVP in 1999-00 with 120 of the 121 first-place votes, but half of those votes vanished into thin air even after he won the championship. But when a player takes a gaudy 26 shots per game at an ugly 42 percent clip in front of a dominant defensive team, then I guess that means an MVP is in order.
Like Derrick Rose and the Bulls last season, the Iverson-led Sixers took the league by surprise in 2000-01 and vaulted to the top of the Eastern Conference with a 56-26 record -- the exact same record of the Los Angeles Lakers. With Iverson shooting practically every time down the floor and gambling on defense, the Sixers emerged from the middle of the pack and won the East. For that, he stole the MVP from a reigning MVP and defending champion.
The 2000-01 and 2010-11 MVP votes are almost mirror images of each other. Like James last season, Shaq finished third in the MVP vote behind a big man (Tim Duncan) and an electric high-scoring, low-efficiency guard that played for a defensive guru. Even though James and Shaq were far and away the PER leaders in both seasons, they were a distant third in the MVP vote.
In the end, the lesson is clear: statistics aren't everything when it comes to MVP votes. Even destroying the competition isn't enough to convince voters. And because of the nebulous "valuable" term in the award, team performance matters more than if it were a vote for most outstanding player.
But the common thread of Jordan and Shaq's unrewarded banner seasons is that their teams didn't dominate as much as the individual did. That's true for the Heat this season to some extent, but the key difference is that no team has separated themselves from the rest of the pack in 2011-12. The Spurs, Bulls, Heat and Thunder have jockeyed for the top record all season long. With that being a virtual tie, James' historic numbers should propel him to an MVP. But if he doesn't win it with jaw-dropping numbers, know that it's happened before.