CLEVELAND (AP) - Kicking back near the rear of a charter bus, a sleepy LeBron James pulled up his sweatshirt's hood and contemplated a cat nap on a rainy afternoon in New Orleans.
As Cleveland's superstar was about to doze off before departing for a community service event during a busy All-Star weekend, Jason Kidd came aboard and hustled down the aisle as if he were leading a three-on-one fastbreak.
``My point guard,'' James hollered to Kidd, his U.S. Olympic teammate who at the time was in a tug-of-war trade between New Jersey and Dallas.
Moments later, Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki arrived.
``MVP,'' James crowed toward the NBA's reigning top player, who slid his 7-foot frame into a tiny seat a few rows away.
Finally, Steve Nash joined the group.
``MVP-P,'' James said, playfully acknowledging Nash's back-to-back most valuable player awards with a second P.
Suddenly surrounded by some of the NBA's elite, James wondered if he was out of his league.
``Hmmm,'' he said. ``I must be on the wrong bus.''
More like driving it.
In an NBA season defined by big trades, Boston's rebirth, New York's prolonged plunge as well as a scramble for supremacy in the wild, wild Western Conference, James has become an almost unstoppable force. He's on a short list of front-running MVP candidates along with Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul and Kevin Garnett.
James, though, seems to be regarded by most media voters - ballots are due on April 17 - as no higher than the third choice. Bryant and Paul have led their teams to better records and are locked in an Obama-Clinton-like race to the wire. Garnett has orchestrated the Celtics' impressive turnaround.
But it's hard to imagine any of them being as ``valuable'' to their team as James has been to the Cavaliers.
Humbled and motivated by getting swept against San Antonio in last year's finals, James has taken his game to a higher level in his fifth pro season. Since November, he has silenced critics, the ones who wondered if he could consistently make 15-foot jumpers, the ones who argued that he couldn't finish games, and the ones who doubted his leadership and focus over an entire season.
He has grown into a player for the ages.
``I wish he would stop it,'' Celtics coach Doc Rivers said with a smile.
A 6-foot-8, 250-plus-pounder who plays anywhere he wants to on the floor, James was leading the league in scoring at 30.3 points per game through Friday, and was averaging career-highs in rebounds (7.9), assists (7.2) and field-goal percentage (.484).
He's also the league's top fourth-quarter scorer, averaging 8.7 points for the defending Eastern Conference champions.
``The guy's the MVP of the league,'' Cleveland coach Mike Brown said. ``I know I'm biased. But there isn't a player who does everything like he does. He doesn't just score. He doesn't just get people easy shots. He doesn't just rebound. He defends.''
If a player's stature is measured in historical context, then consider these nuggets: James is on the verge of becoming the third player to average 30 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists, joining Oscar Robertson and Michael Jordan. Only five players - James, Robertson, Jordan, John Havlicek and Larry Bird - have averaged at least 27 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists, and James will be doing it for the second time.
And, a few weeks ago, he became the leading scorer in Cavaliers' history.
``At 23,'' Brown said, shaking his head.
Tim Duncan had something he wanted to say to James.
After San Antonio completed its swift four-game sweep in the finals, the Spurs' big man approached James in a crowded corridor inside Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena. As the two superstars embraced, Duncan told James, ``the league will be yours soon.''
James took the words to heart.
Following a brief break from hoops, he went right back to the gym, spending hours working on his jumper, post-up game and defense - an area where he has made the biggest improvement. James even cut short a family vacation by a few days just so he could get back to work with Cavaliers assistant Chris Jent, who has helped him improve his outside shooting.
Those nearest James said tasting the finals only made him hungrier.
``It's one thing to see photos of the pyramids in Egypt and another thing to visit them,'' said Maverick Carter, James' close friend and business partner. ``He doesn't want to go once. We wants to be there every year. He wants to win multiple championships.''
Until recently, James had said little about the affect of being dominated by the Spurs.
``It made me a better player,'' he said. ``If we would have won the finals last year or played in a long series, I don't think I would have worked out as hard as I did. I probably would have thought I was on top of the world. It's made me a better player. I went into the gym two and three times a day.
``I don't like to lose, but losing in the finals made me the player I am this season.''
And what a season it has been in Cleveland.
Since training camp, when forwards Sasha Pavlovic and Anderson Varejao held out in contract disputes, the Cavaliers have been in constant transition. Brown has been unable to settle on a rotation because of an assortment of injuries.
At the Feb. 21 trading deadline, general manager Danny Ferry dealt two starters - Larry Hughes and Drew Gooden - and half of his active roster to acquire Delonte West, Wally Szczerbiak, Joe Smith and Ben Wallace.
Perhaps more than any single argument, the six-players-for-four deal best supports James' MVP case. He has maintained his excellence despite playing with a revamped supporting cast. It would be hard to imagine Bryant thriving as well if the Los Angeles Lakers hadn't traded for Pau Gasol or retooled so dramatically.
And as brilliant as Paul has been with the Hornets, the point guard has All-Star forward David West and Peja Stojakovic at his disposal, two players arguably better than anyone in Cleveland's lineup not named James.
James' value to the Cavaliers is never more evident than when he's not playing or at 100 percent. He has missed six games with injuries, and Cleveland is 0-6 without him.
``He does more for his team than maybe anybody,'' Detroit coach Flip Saunders said. ``He has probably the greatest impact as far as taking a player off of his team.''
Yet despite his once-in-a-generation stats, James, who has been dealing with back spasms of late, appears to be running a distant third in the MVP race behind Paul and Bryant, who has never won the award and may get the nod from voters who have denied him for 12 years.
``If Kobe hasn't won it,'' James said. ``I got no chance.''
Stretched out in his trailer before filming a commercial a few weeks back, James was at ease.
The Cavaliers had already locked up a playoff spot for the third straight year, and their leader wasn't worried about winning any trophy other than the big one he and his teammates sniffed last spring. He understands the MVP may have to wait, and that's OK.
``With the injuries and the trade and the late start with some of the guys being out, I've just tried to get my team to keep its focus and stay above water,'' he said. ``I just try to be my team's MVP. If it's not the MVP of the league, I just try to be the Cleveland Cavaliers' MVP every night I go out there.''
For the commercial, which will debut during the playoffs, James plays a well-dressed lawyer trying to win an injury case. If he had taken a different career path, Cleveland's biggest sports star feels he could have been formidable counselor.
``I can be very intimidating when I put my game face on,'' he said. ``But as far as persuading a jury, that's difficult.''
And it might be too late for James to convince MVP voters of his case. But how would he begin his opening argument?
``Ladies and gentlemen of the jury,'' he said, cracking up. ``Please find it in your heart to give me your vote.''

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