Bethlehem Shoals: It's looking all but inevitable that LeBron is going to win the MVP again. Which is kind of crazy, since it's more or less voters admitting that they (or the institution of voting, at least) fucked up with Shaq. O'Neal could either get it every year or never, so he got it once. LeBron is hands-down the most dominant player in the game, but like Shaq, he's terrible with narrative. Worse, even. Shaq is static, LeBron is constantly backsliding, unless we judge him only by his play. Durant was the favorite for a lot of this year because he was enjoying a storybook season, like Rose last season. LeBron's entire narrative thrust is about the postseason, which couldn't play into this voting if it wanted to.
Eric Freeman: His narrative is about the postseason, yes, but the MVP almost acts as a vote of confidence that he can succeed, or maybe even a setup for an even greater fall. It's easy to think of an award like this one as a culmination of a narrative, like Derrick Rose assuming superstardom last season or, as with Kobe Bryant in 2008, a player "figuring things out" in a way we hadn't seen before. With James, though, the MVP is more like a stepping stone to some other ending. If he wins, this becomes the year he overcame all that failure, and he proved it in the regular season. If he loses, it's an even greater shame.
Bethlehem Shoals: Shaq got his MVP in 2000, which was the first Lakers title. That was the tipping point for that team—when they emerged as a dynasty—and when O'Neal earned the right to not be seriously considered ever again (even when he deserved it in 2004-05). With James, we're looking at an even more insidious kind of transition: There will be no way to deny him the MVP after this; the voters will have created a monster. It will take an even greater narrative force to upend him with each passing year. Remember how Steve Nash couldn't be given the MVP three years in a row because it would put him in company too distinguished? The problem there was that nobody liked the precedent it set. This would be a natural disaster we could totally predict coming (typical LeBron predestination), as opposed to Nash's dishonoring of the tradition. The Chosen One has taken down basketball from the inside out without ever winning a ring.
Eric Freeman: Aren't you just describing the Michael Jordan situation? Won't people eventually get bored of LeBron and vote for whomever else does well? And he loses again in the postseason, why won't everyone just stop trusting him and opt for the Durants of the league?
Bethlehem Shoals: Jordan's story evolved every year. That was part of his magical brand. Each year was a new chapter to endorse, in addition to being a dominant campaign. And again, if LeBron wins a third, and then has a better season, and no story is so compelling it can plausibly unseat LeBron (you know Durant would get it if the Thunder hadn't slowed toward the end), then it will be James's to loan to others. It will go from excuses to vote for others to basically making an exception to. I wonder if we don't need a new kind of MVP, a renegade Most Valuable Player, that rewards narrative whether or not it fits the conventional model of HEROISM. If players are candidates, and LeBron is the incumbent running on his record, I endorse the Tea Party of 2011-12 narratives, DeMarcus Fucking Cousins.
Eric Freeman: The anti-hero for our times. A man thought to be toxic to any team, but who turned out to have been coached by a jerk who was in Rush Limbaugh's wedding. As soon as Paul Westphal was fired, Cousins started playing like a budding star. No one watched him, because he played for the Kings, and yet if he weren't thought to be a coach-killer—again, based on one coach whom Spencer Hawes didn't like either—he'd be thought of as on the cusp of becoming one of the best big men in the league. I guess the question is how we can possibly convince anyone that Cousins is worth a vote. Isn't that like how people never vote for fringe political candidates because they can't win?
Bethlehem Shoals: It's like how people think the Presidency is more important than state races. The biggest stories are the blandest ones. There's something almost silly about hoping for cliched narratives to unseat LeBron's bland excellence. It's one kind of optimization vs. another, results vs. promises. Cousins is the Great American Novel of NBA big men.
Eric Freeman: Well, isn't the narrative the only thing that keeps the MVP alive? If it just becomes an award for the best player — which many people take it to be — then there's no need to argue over it; the best player is usually statistically apparent. The narrative issue makes it about personal preference, to some degree, except with some amount of likability. It's how something as boring as The Artist can win Best Picture. Except, once the argument becomes about some narrative or less tangible value, it's possible to say any player deserves it. Why is Cousins such a crazy choice if he moves our souls? He's real to us, dammit.
Bethlehem Shoals: Right, NBA "best" narratives have the same problems as the criteria that govern "Best Picture." Let's change the award to make it more true to what we already know it to be.
Eric Freeman: I would rather just have a set of NBA Superlatives at the end of every season. Steve Novak is Most Likely to Watch Gladiator Before a Big Game.
Bethlehem Shoals: You are turning awards into a bad joke. I want to still recognize Cousins as some kind of superlative.
Eric Freeman: I thought it was a good joke, but I see your point.
Bethlehem Shoals: The only people who make up joke awards are secretly hidebound traditionalists at heart. Everyone who is angry is actually very scared.
Eric Freeman: Stop accusing me of being small-minded. I agree with you on Cousins. But how do you introduce someone like Cousins into that hidebound tradition without consenting that he might be a ridiculous choice. Otherwise everyone will laugh at the suggestion. The unpopular candidate never wins a popularity contest. He can only get some attention for his ideas and maybe find a job at an ideologically driven news network.
Bethlehem Shoals: I cannot wait to see NBA Intervention, a new offseason reality show where "troubled" stars are saved and mentored by players who resemble them. Zach Randolph will tell Cousins to clean up his condo. Gerald Green will get chained to a shark. Monta Ellis will get a fake ID for himself. This year's All-Rookie team will huff a little together and then retire to a co-op.
Eric Freeman: Are you saying Cousins can only be saved if he pretends that he's worse than he really is? So he can win a playoff series at some point and become a real fringe MVP candidate? Are careers defined that early? That's so sad. No one grows up wanting to be a reclamation project, especially he hasn't even done anything especially bad. Or maybe his coming addition to the Team USA Select Team is the start.
Bethlehem Shoals: Or maybe it's the beginning of the end of what could have been a beautiful shift in thinking.
Eric Freeman: I think you're right. That way he conforms to the established narrative, and the best we can do is some Joss Whedon situation where the conventions are simultaneously poked at and carried out. I'd prefer something like Godard where the conventions are blown apart and occasionally someone gets shot.
Bethlehem Shoals: Instead of a career about careers, a career about itself.
Illustration by Emily O'Leary.