CLEVELAND: Just 22 regular-season games remain for the Cavaliers.

There are four new players just six games into their Cleveland careers to integrate, along with injured Kevin Love. The Cavs’ path to the postseason may have as many potholes as the ones pockmarking Interstate 480 that LeBron James joked about Tuesday.

Time and circumstances don’t seem to favor James in his MVP pursuit of Houston Rockets point guard James Harden.

In the minds of national media voters, James personally sabotaged his candidacy with his six-week lethargy before the Feb. 8 trade deadline. He will get no pass for the fact he was sending the Cavs front office a message that the roster and locker room chemistry was not championship-caliber, even if general manager Koby Altman responded by blowing it all up with three deals that sent out six.

No one outside of Northeast Ohio will disregard that, even if James’ ennui — i.e. his averages of 23.5 points, 7.3 rebounds and 7.4 assists in 14 January games — still far surpasses that of mere NBA mortals.

But what James has done since the trade deadline, or actually since its eve, proves how valuable James is to the Cavs.

He’s not only posted MVP-caliber numbers, but demonstrated the leadership needed to get the Cavs back on track.

For the first time since he left for the Miami Heat in the summer of 2010, he’s not part of a Big Three. He’s now the lead singer for Batman and the Robins, a play off an observation by new point guard George Hill, and there’s not an obvious choice for a duet partner until Love returns.

Before the Feb. 7 home game against the Timberwolves, James ended his self-imposed on-court boycott and refocused. He told himself he was the Cavs’ leader and had to be “mentally sharp and mentally strong throughout anything.”

“We hadn’t made the trades then and in the Minnesota game, I just started to change my mindset,” James said after a Feb. 22 home loss to Washington.

Since then, James has put his MVP candidacy back on track.

Starting with the Timberwolves game, he’s averaged 29.3 points, 10.8 rebounds and 11.4 assists in eight games and has recorded triple-doubles in four. He’s shot 55.6 percent from the field and 40.5 percent from 3-point range. His plus/minus is plus-35 and the Cavs are 6-2 in that span.

In Tuesday’s home victory over the Brooklyn Nets, James wrapped up a triple-double average in February, the first time in his 15-year career he’s achieved that feat in a calendar month.

He became just the fourth player to do it (with at least five games played), joining Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain and Russell Westbrook, according to ESPN Stats & Info, and was the oldest at 33 years, 59 days.

James also turned in his 12th triple-double of the season, one away from his season-high of 13 in 2016-17.

“He gets better with time,” Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said of James. “He’s had a great month. He’s really done a good job of carrying the team. We were going through a tough stretch and he stepped up. He really put this team on his back and his shoulders and especially with these new guys, he’s showing them the way. I think he’s showing those guys a lot of confidence and giving those guys a lot of confidence by talking to them.”

The tough stretch to which Lue referred started on Christmas at Golden State. Between then and a Feb. 6 loss at Orlando (the game before Minnesota), the Cavs went 6-13. An early playoff exit seemed more likely than a fourth consecutive trip to the NBA Finals.

What James has done since, including a 4-2 stretch with the four new players, has put the Cavs back in championship consideration and should put him back in the MVP conversation.

Voters will look at Harden’s stats — 31.4 points (first in the league), 5.2 rebounds (tied for 82nd), 8.9 assists (third), 23 double-doubles (tied for 16th), 44.9 shooting from the field (78th) — along with the league’s best record (47-13) in the tougher Western Conference and consider it a slam dunk. Basketball-reference.com’s MVP award tracker, based on a model built on previous voting results, gives Harden a 66.8 percent chance of winning the award, while James is fifth at 4 percent.

Statistically James is hot on Harden’s heels — 26.7 points (fifth), 8.4 rebounds (tied for 15th), 9 assists (second), 35 double-doubles (tied for sixth), 54.5 percent from the field (13th) — but will be dragged down by the Cavs’ 36-24 record that has them third in the East, a half-game ahead of the Washington Wizards.

At some point James seemingly made a conscious choice to risk a chance for his fifth MVP and first since 2013 to pursue what would be his fourth NBA title.

When voters fill out their ballots, they may not consider James’ influence on three new 25-year-olds — Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr. and Rodney Hood — who have infused new life into James and the Cavs, and what James did — and didn’t do — to bring them to Cleveland.

The black and white numbers point to Harden, even though James’ efforts since may point to gold.

Marla Ridenour can be reached at mridenour@thebeaconjournal.com. Read the Cavs blog at www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.