It's been a rough week for LeBron James.
On Sunday, as he watched J.R. Smith set a volume-shooting record that seemed to annoy some of his New York Knicks teammates, James was privately perturbed that he needed to play 43 minutes against a bad team on his home floor to help eke out a win.
Tuesday, he was stunned when rookie Mason Plumlee, essentially the Brooklyn Nets' third-string center, got the benefit of a 50-50 call from officials on a game-winning dunk attempt in a stinging one-point loss.
Wednesday, one of James' favorite people in the league, Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers, said he'd have to bump James down to third place on his own Most Valuable Player rankings to make way for Blake Griffin behind Kevin Durant in the top spot.
This was while James was dragging the Heat on his back with a 37-point performance as Dwyane Wade sat out his 27th game of the season and Chris Bosh contributed a grand total of three points. The Heat lost to the Memphis Grizzlies and fell behind the Indiana Pacers for the top record in the Eastern Conference.
Over the past 10 games, eight of which Wade has missed with a hamstring injury, James has averaged 29 points, seven rebounds and six assists. In the past five games he's averaging 31 points but also 40 minutes, something he hoped to avoid as the playoffs approach.
Those are MVP-type numbers, but the Heat are only 5-5 in those 10 games and that has essentially sealed the deal for James. He most likely will not become the first player in history to win five MVPs in a six-year span as he'd aspired to this season.
In 2011, James gave what amounted to a concession speech in early April when he knew Derrick Rose was taking the MVP title that he'd held for two seasons from him. He did it again Wednesday when he effectively admitted he knows the award is probably going to Durant this season.
"He's the most consistent basketball player as far as the MVP this year," James said about Durant. "He's put up some great numbers."
James, as has often been said because he's been revelatory about the topic, is a true student of the game's history and constantly aware of his place in it. He's routinely gotten headlines over the past few years when he's been willing to go on the record saying he wants to become one of the greatest players of all time.
Also on James' list of traits is that he's a realist. He knows he probably won't match Bill Russell's 11 championship rings. He is going to make a run at it, but even Michael Jordan's six titles is a huge mountain to climb and James knows very well he could be on great teams and play historically great for the rest of his career and circumstances out of his reach could prevent him from racking up four more titles.
But one brass ring that James knows is within his reach, and a genuine potential cornerstone in his legacy, is to chase down Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and win the most regular-season MVPs in history. James has four of them and he certainly wanted to reach his fifth this season before hitting his 30th birthday.
Abdul-Jabbar won six, but just one after he turned 30. Jordan won five, two after he turned 30, although he essentially skipped two chances at it by playing minor league baseball. Russell also won five, only one of which came after age 30. Last season, James became the first player since Russell to win four MVPs in a five-year span. All of these are facts James knows off the top of his head because he's studied these feats and he wants to surpass them.
Adding up those bronze trophies has meaning to James because of all the challenges, both mental and physical, they represent -- not just sustained dominance but also a recognition of discipline. James, who prides himself on his offseason routines and willingness to play through nagging injuries, cares about such things.
Wednesday, for example, James played in his 75th game of the season, something he's now done 10 times in his 11 seasons. In the season he didn't, he played in 62 of the possible 66 games during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season. This is not a trivial factoid to him.
So when James yields the honor to Durant it should not be taken as a flippant comment without meaning. Certainly James would rather win the title, and if he grasps his third Finals MVP in June, not winning a regular-season award will not dampen his feeling of accomplishment. But he absolutely cares about the MVP.
"I think KD has had one heck of a season," James said. "If he's rewarded with the MVP, it would be great. It would be awesome for him, for his family. He's played MVP-type basketball. I don't really get caught up into what people say. At the end of the day, they have their own votes and they go from there."
James and Durant worked together during the summers of 2011 and 2012. These sessions weren't just pickup games. They did work in the pool. They ran steep hills. They put in work in the weight room. They did tiresome drills with cones and such. They did it in September in the final days before training camp as they were in full season-preparation mode.
Last summer, however, the workouts were canceled. James got married in September instead. During that last month before training camp, James spent one week on a rented yacht in the Mediterranean, another week in San Diego for his wedding and then his honeymoon in Italy.
He had certainly earned it. The two previous years James had won two titles and gave up the majority of the summer in between them to win a gold medal with Team USA. That was around three working trips to China for promotional purposes.
While James was on vacation, though, Durant was putting himself through his rigorous paces. And when training camp came, Durant was ready and James needed to ease in, at least by his standards.
Over this season's first few months, as Durant was carrying the Oklahoma City Thunder, as Russell Westbrook came back from injury in a brutally competitive Western Conference, James cruised a bit in a historically weak East. As Wade got numerous games off to rest his knees, as the Heat considered the long haul, James seemed to take his rest during games. His defensive intensity slacked considerably as did his effort stats like rebounding, steals, blocks and advanced defensive metrics like real plus-minus.
Most likely, the Heat will end up with their lowest winning percentage over the past four seasons and currently have the fifth-best record in the league. None of this is shameful or all that important in the grand scheme. But when James competes for the MVP he also competes against his past self and his team's past record, and this season's performance doesn't quite measure up. The fact he had to carry more of a load this season than before because Wade has missed so many games will probably be forgotten in history, as the details of runners-up often are.
This may not be fair in a vacuum, but it is candid. When it comes to these things, James is, too. And that is why he's sized things up and offered the de facto concession.
In a few weeks, when Durant will likely be holding up that MVP trophy, James will applaud it and truly be happy for his friend and rival. Don't think for a second, though, that he won't take it as a personally motivating defeat.