Fact or Fiction: LeBron James' best?
Key questions about LeBron James after his 61-point game against the Bobcats
1. Fact or Fiction: LeBron's 61-point performance is his best career game.
Zach Harper, A Wolf Among Wolves: Fiction. It's probably the best game his jumper has ever had, but his Game 6 against the Boston Celtics in 2012 or his performance in Game 7 of the 2013 Finals against the Spurs were both much better overall games.
John Krolik, Cavs: The Blog: Fiction. This would be a very different question if we were talking about best regular-season games. As it stands, LeBron is less than a year removed from putting up what could arguably be considered the best Game 7 performance in the history of the NBA Finals on his resume, so 61 points in a blowout game in early March doesn't really compare.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: Fiction. The 25 straight points against Detroit, Game 6 in Boston, his Game 7 last June against the Spurs ... all of LeBron's playoff hits trump a Monday night in March against Charlotte. But let's appreciate it for what it was: The best game ever played by an NBA player wearing a mask. It is the smallest of sample sizes, obviously, but he is shooting 67.2 percent from the field in his three games as Masked LeBron. How is that possible?
Michael Wallace, ESPN.com: Fiction: As impressive as LeBron's performance was, it's the third-most memorable for me. The defining game of LeBron's career came in Game 6 against Boston two years ago, with the Heat facing elimination in the Eastern Conference finals. He was relentless from start to finish in the ultimate must-win situation, finishing with 45 points in 45 minutes to go with 15 rebounds and five assists. Second on the list is LeBron's triple-double to clinch his first title in Game 5 of the 2012 Finals against Oklahoma City.
Brian Windhorst, ESPN.com: Fiction. It's not even in the top five because you could never compare a regular-season game to the value of a playoff game, especially a conference finals or Finals game. But it might've been the best pure shooting performance for an entire game in his career.
2. Fact or Fiction: LeBron could average 40 points if he wanted to.
Harper: Fact. The problem, though, is that there are a few players in the NBA who could do this and it would never be a good 40 per game. They'd be forcing up a dozen horrible shots just to get their scoring average and it would actually take away from their game immensely.
Krolik: Fiction. Even though LeBron is third all-time in career points per game, he's really not a volume shooter at heart. His game isn't perimeter-oriented; if he misses two or three outside shots in a row, he decides to break down defenses by trying to get into the lane or set up his teammates. To average 40, you need that Kobe/Curry/etc. mentality that you're going to make your next deep jumper, even if you've missed your last five in a row, and LeBron isn't wired that way, as we saw in his hot-and-cold Finals performance.
Stein: Fiction. Because he'd never want to. Erik Spoelstra and Pat Riley would talk him out of trying in the unlikely event he ever thought about going down that path. He's also clearly at the stage of his career where he recognizes conserving energy during the regular season whenever possible is a must, which is why we see LeBron playing his stickiest D only in spots.
Wallace: Fiction. Considering the way he's shooting the ball from the paint, free throw line and 3-point range, he certainly could reach 35 or maybe even 36 points per game. But to average 40 for a season is something not even a determined and relentless Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant has done. It requires a level of physical stamina for 82 games that 99.98 percent of even the most gifted basketball legends just can't maintain. Plus, LeBron is an instinctive facilitator.
Windhorst: Fiction. He's not the kind of pure scorer like Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant; he doesn't play the same way. To illustrate, Jordan had 130 regular-season games of 30-plus shots, Kobe has 105, and Monday was LeBron's 28th of his career. LeBron did average 30 points a game for a season earlier in his career and won a scoring title, but that is not his style.
3. Fact or Fiction: Crushing KD's MVP candidacy is on LeBron's to-do list.
Harper: Fact. His comments during Kevin Durant's run seemed a little salty, so I'm sure it's somewhere on his to-do list. I don't think it's all that high on the list but I would be shocked if he made comments about being jealous of Durant's shots without having some agenda behind those words.
Krolik: Fact. LeBron cares about being the best, and he cares about being respected as such. His meltdown in the 2011 Finals overshadowed this, but when Derrick Rose won the MVP that season, LeBron guarded him down the stretch in the Eastern Conference finals, and Rose shot 35 percent for the series. Given that and LeBron's comments to the media this year, I think the MVP is clearly motivating him this season.
Stein: Fact. A most definite fact. I'm fairly certain LeBron doesn't want to concede one centimeter to his nearest individual rival. I'm just as certain LeBron found it unpalatable during All-Star Weekend to hear as much pro-KD chatter as he did. LeBron does not see the MVP trophy as some mere regular-season trinket. He wants it.
Wallace: Fact. But don't just expect Durant to step back now and escort LeBron to a third consecutive MVP award. Durant dominated the month of January to sprint ahead of the field. But LeBron tracked him down in February to set up what will likely be a photo finish in the final few weeks. And it's not just Durant whom LeBron has on the radar. It's also the Indiana Pacers, and sending a blow to their spirits by targeting that No. 1 seed in the East.
Windhorst: Fact. LeBron only begrudgingly accepted Derrick Rose winning the MVP in 2011 and sees it as his award for now. Durant's hot streak and the game in January where Durant and the Thunder beat the Heat in Miami are at the root of LeBron's run.
4. Fact or Fiction: LeBron is now the front-runner in the MVP race.
Harper: Fiction. I think it's a dead heat between LeBron and Durant for the final quarter of the season. LeBron had the advantage heading into January. Durant followed that up with his historic play up until the All-Star break. LeBron has come out of the All-Star break on a tear. We're even.
Krolik: Fiction. If the season ended today, Kevin Durant would still be my pick. The Thunder have a better record, Westbrook has missed significantly more games than Wade. Plus, the Thunder have been a top-5 defensive team all season, and they've been significantly better on D when Durant plays than when he sits. Meanwhile, LeBron has been coasting on defense this year when compared to years past. However, if I had to pick who's going to win at the end, I'd go with LeBron because of how strong he's coming on. Ultimately, I'd be shocked if it doesn't just come down to whose team has the best record at the end of the season.
Stein: Fiction. Since 5-on-5 rules forbid hedging, I'll say that I've still got Durant in the lead because of the load he's shouldered in carrying OKC to a 22-8 record in the games Russ Westbrook has missed because of injury. But I'm using lead in the narrowest sense. What we've seen from LeBron in the past few weeks -- don't forget the crazy 3 he drained in Golden State before All-Star Weekend -- has essentially prompted me to delete the word "front-runner" from my MVP lexicon for the rest of the season. As covered here today on Stein Line Live, these guys keep pitching front-runner status back and forth in such a spectacular manner that we're probably all just better off letting them play this out to the finish line before we try to call the race. In keeping with one of the mantras of the season, let's run through the tape. The right answer might very well be: Neither has the MVP lead on March 4.
Wallace: Fiction. Durant's body of work over the course of 55 games still gives him an edge over LeBron, who recently turned up the heat the past 15 or so games. Durant is doing it nightly, primarily playing against winning teams in a much tougher conference, with much of that work put in as Russell Westbrook sat out nearly half the games recovering from knee surgery. LeBron will have to keep up this pace -- well, maybe not 61 a night -- for the rest of the season to overtake Durant.
Windhorst: Fiction. I'm not sure he's the front-runner. A month ago, it looked like it was Durant's award, and now it's probably a tossup, and that says a lot because it's not like Durant has fallen off much.
5. Fact or Fiction: LeBron should attend Zydrunas Ilgauskas' ceremony.
Harper: Fact. As long as it doesn't take away from the Miami Heat's travel and preparation and the team is fine with it, there's no reason for him not to attend if he wants to. Sounds like he does.
Krolik: Fact, but it's unfortunate that it has been leaked to the media already. Ilgauskas was a locker-room leader and a dear friend of LeBron's for years, and they had the best years in the history of the Cavaliers franchise together. Ilgauskas followed LeBron to Miami. LeBron and Ilgauskas have been teammates through playoff triumph and heartbreak, as well as a family tragedy for Ilgauskas, the birth of LeBron's second child, and the adoption of Ilgauskas' children. This is absolutely a moment that LeBron and Z deserve to share together, as friends. It shouldn't be about anything else, but because of the nature of the beast, it may have to be.
Stein: Fact. Ilgauskas is one of LeBron's best friends in the game. Their mutual love and respect is genuine. I understand that everything LeBron does becomes a story -- that's part of the deal when you're the biggest name in the game -- but I think he understands by now that somebody is going to question his motives no matter what he does. So tune out the noise and do what feels right.
Wallace: Fact. It's an off day for the Heat, who will be in Chicago already. That also makes it a really short flight to Cleveland for the night and will put LeBron back with the Heat well in time for Miami's mid-morning shootaround Sunday. As considerate as LeBron has been to his teammates in Miami, he's even more fond of Big Z, who was a mentor during those early seasons with the Cavaliers. Big Z came to Miami for a season at LeBron's request. LeBron shouldn't hesitate to share in a special night in Cleveland at Big Z's request.
Windhorst: Fact. I want to say fiction here because I think it would take attention away on Ilgauskas' night and generally create a sideshow. But Ilgauskas personally invited him and it's his night. He did it knowing what it would probably do to the crowd and if that is what he wants, then who am I to say differently?