MVP race is on LeBron's mind

LeBron James has given the quote so often that it has become almost mindless: He doesn't focus on individual accolades because they come only with team success.

Versions of it have piled up over the seasons, often stemming from the annual moments when James is asked about the MVP award. It's one of those tricky statements that can be defined as accurate but not true.

James does care about team success first, but he also cares deeply about individual awards. That includes right now and the developing MVP race. He has been privately wondering why he's not more involved in the national conversation on the matter, considering his play in the past quarter of the season.

While much of his attention has been on the Cavs' dramatic turnaround -- 17 wins in 19 games -- the four-time Podoloff Trophy winner has been considering what his chances at a fifth might be. James has either won the MVP or finished in the top three of the voting in each of the past six years, yet sportsbooks currently have him as an underdog.

There are a few reasons why James' case is weaker this season than in years past and why he's generally viewed as currently being on the outside. But for him to really get into the race -- which James surely wants, whether he articulates it publicly or not -- an opportunity is coming the next few days.

The Cavs host the Golden State Warriors and MVP candidate Stephen Curry on Thursday -- James was out with injury when the teams played last month -- and on Sunday they visit the Houston Rockets and candidate James Harden. If James is going to change the conversation, this is his chance.

The reality at this point in James' career is that he doesn't so much compete with his peers but with himself. Whether it is fair or not, when evaluating James, he is competing against his past MVP seasons. And this season, by that measurement, he does not rate as well.

By the cold numbers, James is having a "down" statistical season -- 25.7 points, 5.6 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game while shooting 49 percent, with a 25.4 PER. Rather impressive, but all told, this is probably James' lowest across-the-board output since his rookie season. His shooting numbers are the lowest they have been in six seasons, and he is committing a career-high 4.3 turnovers per game, second-worst in the league behind DeMarcus Cousins.

Those previous seasons -- at one point James led the NBA in PER for six straight years -- technically don't mean anything when it comes to this season's MVP race. But the voters aren't computers who can be instructed to ignore that or the idea of seeing a fresh face take the trophy, factors James must battle.

The natural defense for James' case is that some of the numbers are weighed down by what was a less-than-standard first two months of the season, when he was battling some injuries. Those numbers, however, still count.

It can be argued that since Jan. 13, when he returned from what turned out to be a valuable midseason sabbatical, he has been one of the best players in the league. The Cavs certainly have been the league's best team the past six weeks, and James, looking totally energized, has been the biggest part of that.

However, he is actually shooting slightly worse during the past six weeks than he was before the injuries; both his overall and true shooting percentages are down during the 20 games since he returned. He is also averaging more turnovers per game (a full 5.0) during the Cavs' hot streak, a product of playing so much point guard but also because he has been downright sloppy all season.

So even as the Cavs' starting lineup has far and away been the most dominant group in the league in the past 20 games, during which James owns a league-leading plus-253 in plus/minus, he is only sixth in PER in that stretch. That puts him behind the performances of MVP competitors like Curry, Harden, Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis over the same period.

In the past 25 seasons, the winner of the MVP has been on teams that have averaged 61 wins. James is a part of that trend; in the three full seasons in which he won the MVP, his teams averaged 64 wins. He also won the award in the lockout season in 2011-12, when the Heat went 46-20. Quite often it is an award to the team as much as the individual, and the Cavs, who started the season 19-20 before going on their run, may have trouble helping him in this regard.

Last season, James was second in MVP voting to Kevin Durant, when the Heat won 54 games and Durant's Thunder won 59. In the end, James conceded the award, not because he believed he was outplayed, but because of the standings.

"I think I played well enough to win [the MVP]," James said in May. "But I don't think our team played well enough to win it."

He is facing an equal challenge this season, as the Cavs have just the 10th-best record in the league. They have been on the rise but likely will not finish high enough to be a true asset to James' résumé.

No, if James is going to do it, then he will need a strong individual finish with some dominant efforts in high-profile games. There's time and opportunity. He's likely going to win the East's Player of the Month award for February, and the Cavs are embarking on a challenging stretch where they play 12 games in 21 days and face the Warriors, Rockets, Toronto Raptors, Atlanta Hawks, Phoenix Suns, Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs.

It is a referendum on their recent streak, which was largely against a soft portion of their schedule, and a chance for James to build a case. He has plenty to focus on, as he must manage the Cavs' fight for playoff seeding, which some of Cleveland's stars and its coach have never dealt with before.

But don't think for a second the MVP isn't on his mind.