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Handicapping the NBA’s Heated MVP Race

Kobe and Lebron are two are pretty good basketball players

LeBron James, Kobe Bryant Photo Credit: Icon SMI

For an award that ultimately means very little in the big picture, the annual debate about who’s most deserving of being crowned the NBA’s Most Valuable Player is a heated one (as you can see here, even though that wasn’t written to expressly question Nash’s two MVP awards). It doesn’t help that the criteria for evaluating a given player’s worthiness is rather murky; in fact, there simply isn’t any concrete formula to settle it other than adding up the 125 votes cast by various writers and broadcasters.

Since we don’t get one of those official votes (yet…), ETB thought we’d jump into the fray and spell out each of our top ten candidates for the award, as of the first week in March. And here they are, for you, from us, and boasting incredibly fancy footwork.

Brian’s Top Ten

1. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers – If the vote does indeed come down to LeBron or Kobe, the discussion will inevitably touch on the fact that Kobe is frequently facing better competition in the much more competitive Western Conference. It’s true, and certainly a consideration, but James has been nothing short of incredible this year, and if you put his Cavs in the West, it wouldn’t be any different. In fact, his disgusting stats — 30.6 points, 8.1 boards, 7.6 assists, 2 steals, 1 block, 48% FG — might be even better since we’ve all seen how much he embraces matchups against the league’s best. (Stats)

2. Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers – It’s “more with less” as far as Kobe goes this season: more wins and more team success with less raw statistical production. Compared to last season, he’s shooting less and scoring less on a per-game basis, but he’s closing in on his highest per-game steals average of his career (currently at 2/per). His man defense is underrated yet very, very effective, he’s getting his teammates more involved — not to mention trusting them more than he has in a long time — and has many league observers coining his Lakers as one of the top three contenders for the title. (Stats)

3. Chris Paul, New Orleans Hornets – For whatever reason I wasn’t a big Paul believer coming into this season, but I’ve had no choice but to do a complete about-face and take back any doubts I may have harbored about the league’s best young point guard. Actually, check that: he’s the best PG in the NBA this season, period. The Hornets have more talent than they’re given credit for, so that remarkable 41-19 record isn’t all that surprising, but it’s still quite an accomplishment given the talent of their Western peers. And Paul deserves the lion’s share of credit for making this a team that’ll be tough to deal with come mid-April. (Stats)

4. Dwight Howard, Orlando Magic – It’s been one big coming-out party for Super Dwight all season. He leads the league in double-doubles, has his team eyeing a Southeast Division crown, and of course played a leading role in All-Star Weekend’s most entertaining slam-dunk contest in quite some time. Once he develops a few more go-to moves in the post beyond the power dunk, he’s going to be unstoppable. Howard’s points, rebounds, blocks, and steals are all up. (Stats)

5. Kevin Garnett, Boston Celtics – If it wasn’t for the presence of All-Star teammates Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, KG would likely be a few spots higher on this list. But the fact remains that he’s made the biggest impact of Boston’s Big Three and is the best player on what’s been the NBA’s best team in the regular season. His intensity, defensive prowess on the blocks, and ability to elevate the game of those around him have been invaluable in helping turn this franchise around in the span of just a few summer months. The fire that always burns in his belly may have never been hotter than it is this year. (Stats)

The second half of Brian’s MVP picks, as well as Andrew’s top ten MVP candidates, after the jump…

6. Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs – After a slow start to the season, the Spurs have quietly moved to the top of the Western Conference standings, and seem poised for yet another title run. Their rock in the middle, Mr. Consistency, has had a typically Duncan season: 20 points, 11.6 boards, 3.2 assists, 1.9 blocks, 50%+ FG. He’s been doing that for over a decade, and it feels like he could do it for another one. (Stats)

7. Chauncey Billups, Detroit Pistons – He’s not as flashy as other PGs, but you better believe he’s one of the most efficient, effective floor generals in the league. Mr. Big Shot’s stellar 3.64 assist-to-turnover ratio, a stat that’s not given as much weight as it deserves, is third behind just Toronto’s Jose Calderon and Chris Paul amongst starting points, while his 91% FT is good for second overall. Billups makes the team with the second best record in the NBA go; without him, it’d be a different story. (Stats)

8. Deron Williams, Utah Jazz – I think most people, including my esteemed ETB colleague, would take Carlos Boozer over Williams as far as who from the Jazz would be deserving of the honor. Boozer’s certainly having yet another fantastic campaign, but for all the criticism he attracts for whatever reason, the third-year PG has been something else over the season’s second half, when the Jazz started turning it up and climbing up the Western standings. Averaging 19 points and 10 assists on the season, he’s actually averaged double digits in assists over all three months of 2008. (Stats)

9. Baron Davis, Golden State Warriors – It’s no secret that we’re big fans of Oaktown’s Great Bearded Wonder here at ETB. His celebrity, overall game, and impact on the court since arriving in Golden State has made his days with the Hornets seem like a distant memory… and he was pretty good then too. Currently 8th in the Western Conference, it’ll be a shame if NBA fans are deprived of at least one playoff series with Baron & Co.; their 37-23 record would have them seeded 3rd in the Eastern Conference. Knock on wood, Davis is on track to play all 82 regular season games for the first time since 2001/02. (Stats)

10. Tracy McGrady, Houston Rockets – As I write this, the Rockets are riding high on an improbable 16-game winning streak, one that included Yao succumbing to a foot stress fracture and announcing he’s done for the season. That means this is now McGrady’s team, for better or worse, and he’ll be the catalyst to any extended success that includes the postseason, a part of the season in which he’s never succeeded. But as the best player left standing on one of the West’s best teams, he at least deserves this low mention. (Stats)

Andrew’s Top Ten

1. Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers – All of the “Team X would be garbage if player Y was removed” arguments don’t interest me much. I’m simply interested in which player has contributed the most to his team’s success this season, heading into any game which player is most capable of willing his team to victory and which player is most integral in giving his team a legitimate chance to win a title. That player is Kobe Bean Bryant. He’s the best player on the planet, his team is my favorite to win the title right now and even before the blockbuster Pau Gasol acquisition Kobe had his team atop the ultra-competitive Western Conference at one point. He’s had better statistical seasons to be sure, and when he was paired with Shaq the Lake Show was the best team in the NBA, but at no point in his career has Kobe been more responsible for the present and potential future success of his team.

2. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers LeBron James’ performance this season has been transcendent, and he may soon overtake Kobe for honors of Best Basketball Player on the Planet, but a few minor details stand between The King and his first MVP crown. The first his chance of winning a title. The NBA is about winning rings, and as good as LeBron is, I don’t think Cleveland has a chance to do it this year despite his presence. The second is his team’s record. While he doesn’t have the supporting cast of some of these players here, a 35-26 record in the lowly East is not good enough. That whole argument sounds silly though when the guy puts up such silly stats and dominates late-game situations like he does. It’s really splitting hairs between these top two.

3. Chris Paul, New Orleans Hornets I wanted to put Paul at the top of this list, if only to emphasize what an incredible season he’s having and how improbable the Hornets’ record is in the ridiculously tough Western Conference. New Orleans is just 1.5 games out of the top spot in the West despite a pedestrian roster relative to the other elite powers in the NBA. This isn’t one of the All Star teams in Boston, Detroit, San Antonio, Dallas or Los Angeles. But Paul takes the players he does have around him and makes them all much, much better – he’s second in the NBA in assists with 10.9 per game. On the other side of the ball, there isn’t a finer defensive point guard in the league, and his 2.7 steals per lead the league. He’s as complete as anybody in the NBA and the finest young point we’ve seen in years.

Dwight Howard and Kevin Garnett4. Kevin Garnett, Boston Celtics Da Kid is no longer The Man in Boston, it’s an oligarchy now and he’s one of the Big Three. It’s not his fault, I know. And in any of the previous three seasons what he’s done for this franchise would easily be enough to catapult him to the top of this list. Unfortunately this year’s race is tighter. And it’s hard to give him all the credit with the arrival of Ray Allen and the presence of Paul Pierce because both are absolutely integral to this team’s title chances as well. We also need to consider the nagging hernia injury that cost him nine games and has slowed him of of late.

5. Dwight Howard, Orlando Magic It’s no coincidence that the Orlando Magic are second in the NBA in three-pointers made, that they have three of the top 24 players in threes made (Including Rashard Lewis, second in the league with 172) and that Hedo Turkoglu is having by far the best season of his career. Dwight Howard draws a lot of attention. He’s been such a beast that he’s getting double teamed on nearly every play, and his teammates reap the benefits. Dwight is also leading the league in rebounding, among the leaders in FG% and blocks and improving greatly on the defensive end. He’s the best pure center in the NBA.

6. Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs Father Tim Duncan just keeps on keepin’ on, and if his numbers are a little depressed from his “prime” years, it’s only because the Spurs wisely limit his minutes in the regular season. He’s a master of post and post-season play, as polished as any player in the NBA on the block and thrives in the half-court sets that become so prominent in the playoffs.

7. Chauncey Billups, Detroit Pistons If there’s a dark horse to win the NBA Championship this season it’s the Detroit Pistons, and Chauncey is the inexorable engine that makes them go. Detroit is quietly having (another) stellar season, and Chauncey is putting up even better numbers than usual. There are a lot of better athletes on this list, more gifted basketball players, but if I need somebody to take a crunch-time three, he’s my man.

8. Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks After a slow start to the season Dirk Diggler has come on strong, but I question just how valuable a player can be who shrinks in pressure situations, isn’t a stellar defender and plays for a team I don’t give much of a chance at a title. Dirk has to be one of the hardest players in the NBA to guard, but keep in mind what a bad taste last season’s MVP award left in your mouth – and he hasn’t been quite as good this year.

9. Steve Nash, Phoenix Suns Some of you may be surprised to see me include Nash on this list after I spent a whole column detailing why he was overrated. I’m not a hater, I promise. I actually used to be a big Steve Nash fan. But after a few years of close observation of his play and his team’s play, some glaring inadequacies begin to emerge. Namely that he gets abused on the defensive end and his style of play does not translate to the NBA playoffs when teams are rested, have time to prepare, come to play every night and the games slow down to a half-court pace. So while Nash is perhaps the best offensive player in the league, his overall value doesn’t stack up against the eight guys above him here.

10. Paul Pierce, Boston Celtics I’m not sure Paul Pierce gets enough credit for just how good of an individual player he’s been in the past, and how seamlessly and selflessly he’s adapted to the team concept for a squad that has had the best record in the NBA all season. And despite his willingness to defer to the newcomers, Pierce is putting up an impressive 20.4 points, 4.7 assists, 5.4 boards and 1.3 steals while hitting 45% of his FGs, 84% of his FTs and 39% of his threes. That’s a very strong, efficient line. He’s also been remarkably consistent on the offensive end while bringing some of the best defense of his career on a nightly basis.

Tags: NBA MVP, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul


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