LeBron James is the MVP ... right?

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LeBron James is the MVP ... right?

From Comcast SportsNet
MIAMI (AP) -- Whenever LeBron James gets asked about the NBA MVP award, he seems to answer carefully, as if to avoid any suggestion that he's campaigning for his third trophy. In fairness, James doesn't have to do much lobbying. Everyone else in the Miami Heat locker room takes care of that. And they say the James-for-MVP movement should be going strong. Not only did the Heat win a marquee game on Wednesday night -- they beat the Oklahoma City Thunder 98-93 -- but James won a head-to-head matchup against the player who is generally considered to be his top competition in the MVP race. He finished with 34 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds, while Kevin Durant had his 30-point night also marked by a career-worst nine turnovers. "Every night I go out on the court, I try to play like the MVP for our team," James told the reporters surrounding his locker after the game. "I've always said that. ... It doesn't matter to me. For us, we got better tonight as a team. And I was the MVP for our team and just trying to lead those guys, lead us to a victory. That's what it's all about." James might have been considered a lock for the MVP award a month ago, when he and the Heat were both rolling along. But just about everything after the All-Star break has been a grind for Miami, which gets Thursday off -- James said he would be looking for the city's best massage -- and plays host to Memphis on Friday. Scoring is down by nearly nine points a game. The Heat aren't shooting as well, teams are shooting a better percentage against them, and that's all happened while James has dealt with injury woes like a dislocated left ring finger, an achy elbow and the aftereffects of banging his head on the court in a hard fall against Phoenix last month. On Wednesday, James twisted his ankle falling over a videographer, winced and grabbed his back after some inadvertent contact with a referee, took what he thought was excessive contact twice while attempting dunks -- getting pulled down by Russell Westbrook from behind on one of those, a play James later described as "scary" and "dangerous" -- and gritted his teeth after his finger started bothering him again down the stretch. And even shooting 37 percent, Miami still won. "I think he's the best two-way player in this league," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "He does it in a night-in, night-out basis and he does it in a way where most teams would not ask a player to shoulder that type of responsibility. But the fact remains: He must play at an MVP level at both ends of the court for us. We've talked about him playing like a defensive player of the year, to defend all five positions, while at the same time playing four positions offensively." James' two biggest plays against the Thunder may be ones that don't show up in the box score. Oklahoma City had two possessions in the final 4 minutes where it had shots for a one-point lead. James snuffed out both. He ran Westbrook down and blocked a layup with 3:49 left -- ironically, it was at the same spot on the court where Westbrook grabbed him around the left shoulder and right side of his waist and sent him sprawling to the floor two quarters earlier -- to preserve a 92-91 Heat edge. Then with 1:30 remaining, the score then 94-93, Durant backed James down on the low post and tried a turnaround. James contested it well, so well that not only did Durant miss, but his shot bounced off the top of the backboard. Oklahoma City didn't score again, and James and the Heat were soon enjoying their payback win. On March 25, James was held to 17 and the Heat lost at Oklahoma City 103-87. "A great player," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said of James after Wednesday's game. "You're not going to hold down a great player often. He missed some shots the first time we played them and we made him take some tough ones. He was feeling good. His jump shot was falling and he was getting some buckets in transition." It's not a stretch to say that James wants his third MVP in four seasons, and in what probably is no surprise either, Durant acknowledged before the game that he would like to win the award. Durant thinks it's too early to have the conversation -- and when it is time, he indicated he'd be like James, saying he'd rather not tout his own merits. "I can't worry about that," Durant said when asked about his own MVP candidacy. "If you worry about that type of stuff, that's when you take your focus off the game, start doing stuff that you don't want to do on the floor. I can't worry about that. It's not in my control. All I can control is how hard I work, how hard I play, and whatever else falls in line after that, we'll see." The Heat say they saw plenty on Wednesday. "Two MVP candidates, you have to want that matchup," Heat forward Udonis Haslem said. "LeBron accepted the challenge and that's what we expect him to do as our leader and our MVP candidate. You have to step up to the plate and that's what he did."

No need for Cubs to overreact when best years should be in front of Kris Bryant and Addison Russell

No need for Cubs to overreact when best years should be in front of Kris Bryant and Addison Russell

There’s no need to overreact when the injuries pile up and the Cubs lose 6-of-7 games in June, because Kris Bryant and Addison Russell are still possibly years away from their best seasons in an organization loaded with young talent.
 
Bryant and Russell have been such integral parts since debuting in April 2015 that it's hard to remember they're still around three-to-five years away from their prime. They're also in a perfect situation to keep developing, not having to worry about carrying the weight of the franchise on their shoulders, the way Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro used to feel those responsibilities.
 
The pressure is spread out among a young core, a battle-tested group of veterans and a manager that loves the spotlight. All of that can help explain why each player has avoided the dreaded "sophomore slump" that sometimes plagues second-year players in the big leagues.
 
"Last year, I thought both of them fought through some really different moments their first year up," Joe Maddon said. "And that's what it's really all about. The sophomore slump, for me, is where the league adjusts to you, and then you adjust back to the league. That's the definition."
 
Bryant currently has an OPS that’s 19 points higher than his 2015 numbers, while Russell's OPS is 23 points higher entering play Monday, and both second-year players have seen major improvement in important areas.
 
Bryant led the league with 199 strikeouts last season, but has seen his strikeout percentage drop from 30.6 percent to 23 percent this season. He's on track for about 162 strikeouts in 2016.
 
Russell, meanwhile, has experienced just an incremental decrease in strikeout percentage (from 28.5 to 27.2 percent), but he has seen a nice jump in walk rate (from 8 percent in 2015 to 11.2 percent this season). Despite drawing only one free pass in his last eight games, Russell is on track for 68 walks, which would've ranked 12th in the National League overall last season and first among shortstops. 
 
"The guys that don't adjust back quickly enough really have an extended period of negative moments," Maddon said. "I think they learned a lot last year. They made a lot of adjustments. Both of them made swing adjustments last year. And that, I think, is permitting their success this year.
 
"Addison's propensity to get big hits is unbelievable, and now he's using the whole field. He's not chasing balls out of the strike zone. Those are the adjustments he had to learn how to do last year when he was going badly, and now he's doing them.
 
"They're both going to hit a bad stretch, there's no question. But I think they're better able to handle that based on their experience from last year."
 
Bryant has settled in as one of the premier offensive threats in the game by following up his 2015 campaign (26 homers, 99 RBI) with a pace for 39 homers and 112 RBI.
 
In spring training, he said he considered 2016 an extension of his rookie season, just with a three-month break off in between. But as the regular season hit, he took that sort of thinking to another gear.
 
"I feel a lot more focused this whole year," Bryant said. "I don't know why. I don't know if it's a whole other level or just extra determination or the fact that I know we have a good team and we really want to win.
 
"I just feel really good up there. I feel like I'm having some quality at-bats. I'm doing all I can to help. I'm in a good spot."
 
Russell, meanwhile, has developed a reputation as a clutch hitter, posting a .429 average, 1.237 OPS and 23 RBI in 54 plate appearances in high-leverage situations. 
 
He's taken his game to another level at the biggest moments, not something often said about a 22-year-old with only 210 big-league games under his belt.
 
"Just a slow heart beat," Maddon said. "If you talk to the kid any time, he's always 'suavecito.' There's nothing really hurried about him. He's just got a great way about him.
 
"Again, he's going to keep getting better. Everybody's liking it when he's doing good. I'm here to tell you: He's going to get better."
 
However, Russell also just went through one of those bad stretches at the end of May/beginning of June where he hit .161 with a .569 OPS through 18 games, striking out 23 times. He felt he had gotten too passive during that span.
 
When the St. Louis Cardinals swept the Cubs at Wrigley Field last week, Russell stared at strike three right down the middle during his first trip to the plate. He instantly made a mental adjustment to be more aggressive and responded with three straight hits to close out that first game.
 
"I've been feeling good," he said. "I've been seeing the ball well. Just taking an opportunity of swinging the bat at the right moment. I felt like early on in that game, watching two balls go by that I would normally do some damage with, I kind of took it hard and realized maybe I'm letting these pitches go too frequently. 
 
"I still feel more comfortable [overall this season]. It's just a daily grind, man. You're going to go through these funks. You're going to hit balls day-to-day that don't tend to fall. You normally don't want to change anything, so my approach is just to stay the same, and I want to take my walks as well."
 
The Cubs understand this is a long season filled with adversity, injuries and losing streaks. But if Bryant and Russell cannot be considered sophomores anymore, would their maturity and advanced approaches put them at a junior level?
 
"I think so. Favorite year in high school, by far," Maddon said. "You're totally free your junior year. SATs don't matter. PSATs are OK. I got my license, among other things. It was a really good time."

Cubs ace Jake Arrieta nominated for two ESPY Awards

Cubs ace Jake Arrieta nominated for two ESPY Awards

Jake Arrieta had a 2015 season for the ages, and was rewarded for it by winning the National League Cy Young Award, becoming the fifth player in Cubs history to accomplish that feat.

He's also been nominated for a pair of ESPY awards because of it: best breakthrough athlete and best MLB player.

After struggling to find his groove in four seasons with the Baltimore Orioles (20-25, 5.46 ERA), Arrieta turned it around in Chicago, particularly in 2015 when he erupted for a 22-6 record with a 1.77 ERA. 

The Cubs ace followed that up in 2016 by jumping out to a 9-0 start, and went nearly a calendar year without a loss.

He's also one of 26 pitchers in MLB history to have thrown more than one no-hitter, and did so 11 starts apart from each other.

The voting ends at 7 p.m. CT on July 13, when the ESPY Awards will take place. Cast your vote here.

Report: Pau Gasol tells Bulls he has declined option, becoming a free agent

Report: Pau Gasol tells Bulls he has declined option, becoming a free agent

It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone, but Pau Gasol is hitting the market.

Gasol told the Bulls that he has declined his option for the 2016-17 season and will become a free agent, according to ESPN's Marc Stein.

The 35-year-old signed a three-year, $22.3 million deal with the Bulls in the summer of 2014.

In two seasons with the Bulls, he averaged 17.6 points per game and 11.4 rebounds and made an All-Star appearance.