The NBA began the process of selecting one player as Most Valuable Player of the Finals in 1969. The first recipient, Lakers guard Jerry West, won the award but lost the title. Los Angeles fell to Boston that season. West's triumph remains the only instance of the player on the losing team winning the MVP award.
That changes this year assuming the Warriors wrap up the series.
LeBron James' numbers are that good.
They're also a bit misleading.
Golden State leads the best-of-seven series 3-2 following Sunday's 104-91 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Warriors won despite James' second triple-double of the series. He finished with 40 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists. The only other player with at least 40 points in a triple-double during the NBA Finals? Jerry West in 1969.
Through five games, the do-everything forward is averaging 36.6 points, 12.4 rebounds and 8.8 assists. Remarkable numbers indeed and certainly better than any cumulative stats produced by Golden State's top two candidates, Andre Igoudala and Stephen Curry.
Igoudala's shooting helped secure Golden State's Game 1 win. The decision to move the assertive forward into the starting lineup before Game 4 led to two straight wins. He's averaging 14.6 points a game, shooting over 40% o 3-pointers and only his defense gives the Warriors any hope of slowing down James. That's all solid, but unless he hits the title-clinching buzzer-beater, Iguodala isn't surpassing James.
Curry's signature game in the series came Sunday as he exploded for 37 points with seven 3-pointers. That's the type of performance we saw from the regular season MVP throughout the campaign. However, while James was making his fifth straight finals appearance, neither Curry nor any of his teammates had ever played in the Finals before this season. Collectively, they appeared unsure of how to handle the moment as they fell behind 2-1 after the first three games.
"I think there is a glaring difference between having been there before and having not been there before," Indiana Pacers head coach Frank Vogel said of the Warriors during an ESPN radio interview before Game 4. "Most of the Cavaliers haven't been there before, but LeBron James won championship. He's been there many, many other times. I think on some level you're seeing that experience gap show up in these [Finals]."
So while Curry needed a minute - or least three games including his first in the finals on the road - to find his swagger, James has been on point with producing points from the start. He's been on track to win the MVP since game 2. The only question was whether he would so as champion or not.
Which brings up one final point about his stats. For the most part, the Warriors don't mind at all.
Not that they could "stop" the most athletically advantaged player in the league since Shaquille O'Neal, but the Warriors have been content with using single coverage on the four-time regular season MVP. That means the physical force can often get anywhere on the court he desires, not to mention see all available passing options without much interference.
The thing is, the plan is working. All that work also wears James out late in games. Without any consistent rhythm - lots of isolation plays being called for No. 23 -, Cleveland's other players are struggling for any offense not directly generated by James. When James doesn't score, neither do the Cavs.
Though he's missing plenty of shots (39.9 FG%), James is scoring lots of points. Golden State isn't "letting" him score nearly 37 points per game, but they aren't exactly trying to slow down his scoring either. This is the plan.
At times, especially during the first half of games, Warriors coach Steve Kerr must wonder if James is just unstoppable. Many of the stats suggest he is. Thanks to his unreal production, James may match West's unique MVP honor.
Golden State doesn't mind. That's because it will have come in a losing effort, which will have occurred in part because the Warriors can offset points from James with plenty of their own while defending Cleveland's supporting cast with vigor.
West, otherwise known as the NBA's logo, surely won't mind losing his unique MVP status. That's because, as a member of Golden State's front office, he's one win away from another NBA title. Who better than West to understand that's really all that matters.