<
>

East MVP of the Second Trimester: LeBron James, Cavaliers

Ken Blaze/USA TODAY Sports

I'm sure Eastern Conference residents, by now, have grown a bit weary of hearing us constantly dismiss the "East Is Back!" narrative that's getting so much play this season.

Yet I'm afraid our naysaying is only legitimized further when you start evaluating the MVP possibilities on an East vs. West basis.‎

There's simply no escaping the reality that the NBA's top six scorers since Jan. 1 all reside in the West. There's also no dodging the fact that the East's leader in that category -- Chicago's Jimmy Butler -- has missed the Bulls' past seven games and is still likely weeks away from returning to the lineup after suffering a knee sprain on Feb. 5.

Default choice is pretty unflattering terminology when it winds up in the same sentence as King James, but there is an inescapable Who else could we possibly choose? vibe if you try to add a layer of suspense to the annual MVP debate by spotlighting two guys in this category after the season's first two trimesters.

We're not suggesting LeBron has slipped in any significant way ... apart from his stubbornly worrisome 27.6 percent shooting from 3-point range. He's still averaging 24.7 points per game, 7.2 rebounds per game and 6.6 assists per game while shooting .502 from the field despite the struggles from deep.

Better yet: LeBron still ranks second in the whole league in terms of points per game in the paint at 13.4, trailing only Andre Drummond (13.6) and placing ahead of true centers DeMarcus Cousins (13.3), Jahlil Okafor (12.3) and Greg Monroe (12.0).

Yet it's simply the truth: With Paul George's efficiency dropping off after his sizzling November and Kyle Lowry co-carrying Toronto with DeMar DeRozan, LeBron is the only East representative who has any hope of snagging one of the five spots in official MVP balloting after the regular season.

And he thus qualifies as the only name we could really even consider in this division.

PS -- As of Friday morning, West teams had fattened their record against their counterparts from the other conference to 178-157, good for a winning percentage of .531. So, no, I wouldn't say the East is actually back. Sorry! (Not sorry.)