Isaiah Thomas forces his way into Stein's East MVP race

Jaime Valdez/USA TODAY Sports

The Cleveland Cavaliers are not going to be happy.

I just read all of their rather determined lobbying on behalf of LeBron James' MVP candidacy in a neatly assembled piece Friday ‎by my longtime colleague Dave McMenamin. Yet it wasn't going to sway us ... as well-timed as it was.

Not even as we acknowledge, along with several of his Cavs teammates, that it's hard to believe LeBron hasn't hoisted the Maurice Podoloff Trophy since the 2012-13 season.

As ridiculously good as James was in February -- 63.7 percent shooting from the floor and 56.8 percent shooting from deep jump off the page most -- Trimester 2 in the Eastern Conference belonged to Isaiah Thomas more than anyone.

Or have you forgotten what LeBron himself dubbed a " s---ty" January?

Thomas, meanwhile, posted a player efficiency rating (PER) of 31.1 in the season's middle third, which was tops in the East in that span.

Within that same slice of schedule, Boston's little big man established himself as the NBA's Mr. Fourth Quarter, averaging 13.1 points per game in the final period in that time frame. Next in line leaguewide was Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook ... at 9.1 points per game in the fourth quarter.

Of greatest importance, Boston went 21-7 in Trimester 2, matching Washington's 21-7 mark for best in the East and helping the Celtics seize control of the East's No. 2 seed, despite all those well-chronicled concerns about Thomas' defensive limitations.

As a bonus, Thomas is the closest competition Westbrook has for the league's scoring title, which is something no Celtic, amazingly, has ever won. And this is a franchise, remember, that boasts 33 Hall of Famers.

Factor in Thomas' increase from 22.2 points per game last season to 29.6 PPG this seas on and we'd probably be talking about him as a Most Improved Player candidate as well ... if not for the fact that IT essentially disqualified himself from that category on our ballot because we typically don't give MIP consideration to players who've already reached All-Star status.

Let's be clear here as we swing this back to Bron: Taking James for granted is the last of our intentions. He was our First Trimester MVP in the East and has been undeniably brilliant when you zoom out from Cleveland's January struggles and remind yourself that James has a good shot to average better than 25 points, eight assists and eight rebounds per game for the season while shooting better than 50 percent from the field.

There have been only two such seasons previously recorded in NBA history: Michael Jordan in 1988-89 and Oscar Robertson in 1962-63.

However ...

Thomas is getting the nod here as we move into the season's final third, because we see him, in recognition terms, as the Kawhi Leonard of the East.

In other words: Thomas is the underappreciated star in his conference who realistically can't win the MVP award but deserves much more frequent mention as a contender for one of the five spots on the official MVP ballot than he's been getting.