CLEVELAND — This could be the season LeBron James gets his hands back on the most valuable player award.
It has been four years since James won his fourth MVP, and he’ll turn 33 in December (Michael Jordan won the last of his five MVP awards at age 34). Last season he finished fourth in the voting, the lowest in a decade.
Lue: Youthful LeBron like ‘Benjamin Button’
Despite a roller-coaster offseason for the Cleveland Cavaliers, LeBron James is happy and confident as ever after the team’s first practice of the season.
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But the table may be setting up for James. Last season’s winner, Russell Westbrook, has seen his circumstances change significantly with the addition of new teammates Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, who will likely dilute his stats. The runner-up, James Harden, will be playing with Chris Paul, and the same should happen to him.
When there are multiple superstars on a roster, regardless of how talented a player is, it can be challenging to stand out enough to win the league’s highest individual honor. That seemed to be the case for Stephen Curry with the arrival of Kevin Durant last season, as the most recent example.
With Kyrie Irving now in Boston and replacement Isaiah Thomas out likely for at least the first two months of the season, James could find himself playing point guard more than he ever has for the Cavs. Coming off the highest rebounding and assist season of his career, the situation may set up for James to have the type of statistical start that could frame the race.
The sportsbooks have adjusted the odds accordingly, William Hill has James as 6-to-1 to win the MVP, behind favorite Kawhi Leonard, who has 9-to-2 odds.
Beyond that, everyone around the Cavs has taken notice of a renewed James this summer and early fall. His workouts in recent weeks, especially at a pre-training camp gathering in Santa Barbara, California, have raised eyebrows among his teammates who were used to seeing James moderate his early-season energy level over the past several years.
It has been a poorly kept secret that James seems to be looking at his 15th season as a chance to make a statement.
“I’m ready to go. This was one of the best offseasons I’ve had in my career. And I’m extremely excited,” James said. “What got me excited about the game of basketball is actually being with my sons this summer and watching their AAU games. You probably saw a couple videos where I was not a nice dad during the course of those games. But the ‘Basketball Jones’ and the basketball fever was put back in me early in July, and it’s crazy to say that my 12-year-old and my 10-year-old can inspire me and they did, and their teammates inspired me to get in the gym.”
“He seems younger. I call him Benjamin Button. He seems happier with the game right now, enjoying the game. Hopefully he can carry on for 82 games.”
Cavaliers coach Ty Lue
Those videos of him at the youth games are out there. James yelling at the scorekeeper. James acting as an assistant coach. James challenging the officials. James chiding the opposing team for bad sportsmanship. James jumping up and down with excitement about a play by LeBron Jr.
That’s a rationale and reasonable explanation. Being immersed with his energetic son playing high-stakes games all summer got the competitive juices flowing.
Of course, early July is also when Irving went to Cavs management and asked for a trade. During the meeting, sources said, he made it crystal clear he no longer wanted to be James’ teammate. That information reached James’ ears quickly, leading him to immediately reach out to Irving. The two have not communicated since.
That may have had something to do with James’ newfound motivation. Sending a message to an old teammate certainly was a storyline in last season’s MVP race, which was Westbrook’s personal response tour.
This is all unspoken around the Cavs but at the same time seems quite clear.
“From being around him for at least three years pretty much every day, I can see the difference. He’s just driven,” J.R. Smith said. “For whatever reason, he’s not in those conversations, whether it’s MVP or ‘he might not be the best player in the world.’ It’s not so much to prove to [voters], it’s to prove himself.”
It’s to prove something to someone. It also doesn’t hurt training camp motivation that the season opener is against the Celtics.
“He seems younger. I call him Benjamin Button,” coach Ty Lue said. “He seems happier with the game right now, enjoying the game. Hopefully he can carry on for 82 games.”
That could be an issue. Last season was a slog for James and the Cavs as they waited around for the postseason and had long stretches of lifeless play. James’ mood, which can swing at times over the course of the season, was challenged at times. He went off about the roster, complained about his teammates’ competitiveness and sometimes flat-out brooded.
Maybe that will happen again and the Cavs, still the favorite to win the Eastern Conference, could end up with more dog days. Last season the team was judged to have underachieved in the regular season, winning just 51 games, and it affected James’ MVP finish.
But with new teammates, notably close friend Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose, whom James has connected with after summer workouts, perhaps the refreshed mood will last. And when James is in a positive frame of mind, he often plays his best.
“Something was different. Something was just different throughout the offseason,” James said. “Hopefully I can — I’m not here to talk about it, because that’s not what I do — I’ll put it out on the floor.”