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Published September 13, 2015
There has never been a unanimous MVP in the history of the NBA. Not Wilt Chamberlain, not Bill Russell, not Shaquille O'Neal, not Michael Jordan.
LeBron James might soon change that.
At least, the Miami Heat believe he should.
After finally winning that first NBA title last June, James was better than ever in his first year as a champion. He led the league in field goals, despite being seventh in shots attempted. He established career-bests in shooting percentage, 3-point percentage, rebounds per game and double-doubles — and did it all while taking fewer shots per game than at any point in his 10-year career.
So those are just a few of the many reasons why the Heat are overwhelming favorites to win it all once again in these playoffs, which open this weekend. Miami will meet Milwaukee in a first-round series starting Sunday night.
"Numbers aren't why I play this game of basketball," James said. "Numbers have never been why I play the game. That's not how I was taught to play the game."
James has said he plays for only one thing — titles.
"He came off one of the more historical MVP seasons with a championship. Most people, the human condition would have been to relax and say, 'OK, that's the pinnacle,'" Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "But instead, he wanted to push and find another barrier. And that's why we don't want to, he doesn't want to, put a ceiling on how far he can go. ... He's a player that could conceivably continue to get better."
James shot 56.5 percent this season and made 103 3-pointers — no one in league history has ever shot so well and made so many shots in a season from beyond the arc. In the metric known as PAR, that being an acronym for points, assists and rebounds per game, James led the league by for the fifth time in six seasons. He led the league in field goals, but was only seventh in shots attempted. He could have missed 348 more shots and still finished with a better shooting percentage than scoring champion Carmelo Anthony.
"It's a historic regular season," said Heat forward Shane Battier, who believes James should be the unanimous MVP. "We may never see numbers like this and performance like this — on both ends — like we saw this year."
James' final numbers: 26.8 points, 8 rebounds, 7.3 assists and 1.7 steals per game. Since the league began charting steals four decades ago, only Jordan and Larry Bird have put up similar numbers in a season.
"I've been playing this game for a long, long time," Heat forward Udonis Haslem said. "I've seen a lot of players. I've played in Europe, played in a lot of different places and hands-down he's the best basketball player I've ever seen. I don't think there's anything he can't do on the basketball court."
The Heat were 61-15 with James in the lineup this season, going 21-10 when he took 19 shots or more, and 40-5 — a significantly better record — when he took no more than 18 attempts. When he had at least eight assists, they were darn close to unbeatable, going 28-3 in those contests.
And he nearly put up a perfect shooting game along the way this season, going 13 for 14 in a win over Charlotte. The one miss was a layup, and it appeared he was fouled.
"Greatness always looks for something to get better," said Doug Collins, who coached Philadelphia this season. "I had the great fortune of being around Michael Jordan and he always came back a better player. ... And that's what LeBron has done, the way he's shooting the ball, over 40 percent from 3, 56 percent from the field. You get him in the open court, you can't stop him. Not only that, but he's the best defensive player in the league at his position."
James said many times that last season was his best season, for plenty of obvious reasons. He got engaged, won an Olympic gold medal, a third NBA MVP award and of course helped the Heat win a championship — his first, after years and years of trying to break through.
After a year like that, he took about three weeks off. And other than a slight hamstring strain that slowed him down the stretch of the regular season, he's been no worse for that wear.
If he isn't the MVP the league announces the voting in a few weeks, it'll be probably the biggest upset in the history of sports. It would be James' fourth in five years, and plenty of people around him insist that the one year in that span where he didn't win — the year it went to Derrick Rose — that was voters thumbing their nose at both the his decision to join the Heat and the manner in which that move was announced.
"The other day I was sitting there with him, a week or two ago and it dawned on me, 'Do you know you're about to get four MVPs in five years?' And he's like, 'Man, I'm just a kid from Akron,'" Heat guard Dwyane Wade said. "He could have gotten five in five. Five in five years. This is crazy. He can do whatever he wants on the court. Certain people have certain things they can't do. He can do everything. Can he be the greatest of all time? He could be."
James was not with the Heat for their season-finale, tending instead to a personal matter. He is expected to be there Friday when the Heat convene for their first postseason practice, and Spoelstra said there is no cause for alarm about James' postseason availability.
All his numbers this season would be for naught if the year doesn't end with another champagne bath.
"You think he's peaked, that he's the best basketball player in the world and he comes back better," Haslem said. "Scary to see what he could possibly be next year."