Who's ready to join the elite?

How many seats are there at the MVP table? Which of today's NBA stars could join the likes of LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul in the discussion for 2013-14?

Israel Gutierrez and J.A. Adande discuss a few contenders who could vault themselves into the conversation this season.

Israel: J.A., you know we're always looking for the next big thing. Right now, we're in the middle of a great era for the NBA, with LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul placing themselves in an "all-time" conversation of some sort. Yet we can't stop talking about next year's draft class and the wave of talent coming in to replace LeBron & Co. But let's take it back a notch and figure whether there's anyone currently in the NBA ready to climb into that category. We just saw Paul George drop 43 in Portland, but he was upstaged by Damian Lillard's fourth quarter for the winning Blazers, who happen to be tied with San Antonio atop the Western Conference. So who do we believe in? Is George capable of living in LeBron-and-KD land? Is Lillard on the way to CP3-ville? Anyone else ready to join the elite of the elite?

J.A.: There is a reason that's such an important question. Since 1979-80 (the year Magic, Bird and the 3-point line all entered the NBA and began the modern era), only four teams won championships without a current or former MVP on the roster: the Celtics in 1981, and the three Pistons champions in 1989, 1990 and 2004. In other words, 30 of the past 34 champions had a player who had been certified as the best in the league at least once in his career. We can take the Pacers and Trail Blazers a lot more seriously if we consider George and Lillard true MVP candidates. I think George has it in him; I'm just not sure he can make it happen this season.

Israel: It's funny. Having talked to George late last season, he predicted just about every step of his ascent when he was a rookie. And right now, this is where he thinks he is: "I feel like I'm competing with Carmelo [Anthony], KD [Kevin Durant] and LeBron [James]," George told CSNNW.com. "I'm not taking nothing away from [Nicolas] Batum or other small forwards in this league, but I feel like those guys are my competition, and they're who I'm going for."

To me, that says he's ready to join their company. Because so far, he has been producing like it. He's already in the early MVP discussion, so it's not out of the realm of possibility.

J.A.: It's not about what George told you last season or what he told CSNNW.com this week. It's about what he told Pacers coach Frank Vogel in his exit interview after the Eastern Conference finals. He told Vogel he was going to become the go-to guy before Vogel even had a chance to offer any suggestions. This season you can see it in the confidence George has when he pulls up for a momentum-shifting or game-saving 3-pointer. But George is still evolving. He's only 23. Durant is two years older and he has yet to figure out how to be better than LeBron. Can we really expect George to leap past both of them this year?


But George is still evolving. He's only 23. Durant is two years older and he has yet to figure out how to be better than LeBron.

"- J.A. Adande

Israel: Pass them? No. Join them? He already took the Eastern Conference LeBron of the month award (OK, it's player of the month, but you get where I'm going). I would say he needs an entire season like this to be truly anointed, but is there any indication he can't keep this up? I say he's in the club. Anyone else, though?

J.A.: You could argue that the award was a reward for Indiana's 15-1 record in November. After all, LeBron had virtually the same amount of points and rebounds as George, with much better shooting and assist numbers. If Indiana finishes ahead of Miami after 82 games I could see George getting the MVP over LeBron. If. Despite Indiana's great start, the Heat are only a game behind in the loss column. The benefits of that awesome November for the Pacers could be undone with one rough road trip. The real issue is whether George can outplay LeBron in a playoff series. He'll need to for the Pacers to reach the NBA Finals.

Here in the West, Kevin Durant was the player of the month despite Portland's surprising start. And even if the Trail Blazers can maintain this winning percentage, it might be tough to campaign for Lillard for MVP because the Blazers are less Lillard-dependent than last season. They've got Mo Williams to relieve him (not to mention Robin Lopez helping out LaMarcus Aldridge in the frontcourt). Lillard is better than he was as a rookie, he just isn't as singularly responsible for Portland's success. That's good for the Trail Blazers, bad for his MVP chances.


Well, let's be honest. Lillard isn't close to joining this conversation.

"- Israel Gutierrez

Israel: Well, let's be honest. Lillard isn't close to joining this conversation. If the Blazers remain near the top of the West for the entire season, and Lillard significantly improves his shooting percentage (.396), then he can hop in the conversation. But for all we know, he could have a Damon Stoudamire-type of career. We'll see. But I'll give you a couple of names out West that could soon be invited to the private party: Stephen Curry and Kevin Love. Both have a dominant element to their games, Curry with his shooting and Love with his rebounding. But both also have well-rounded games that make defending them a nightmare. Curry has proven to be such a difference-maker that his salary ($9.9 million this season) looks like an absolute bargain. And he's becoming excellent at making others better around him (his assist percentage is at 42.7 percent, up from 31.1 last season). Not to mention his tricky handle and knack for picking up steals defensively. Love is difficult to assess when it comes to the elite level because, frankly, his teammates haven't been very good since Love elevated to All-Star status, and the good teammates haven't stayed healthy. This season might be the best chance to really gauge Love's impact on a high level because it appears his team can remain in playoff contention throughout the year. They're not there yet, but they're close.

J.A.: Curry and Love will need to do more than "remain in playoff contention" to qualify for the MVP. I consider the MVP the player who did the most to get his team an elite level, not to a No. 7 seed. The Warriors and Timberwolves have yet to separate themselves from the pack in the very competitive West. And looking forward, those two potential superstars will have to stay healthier than they've been so far in their careers. Speaking of health, Dwight Howard's back looks much better ... but his MVP chances don't. He isn't dominant enough offensively, and for all his defensive and rebounding prowess, the MVP remains an offensive award. It's also a subjective one, and it will take a while for voters to get past his departures from the Lakers and Magic. Not to mention the fact that the Rockets might have a better MVP candidate in James Harden.

If you think about it, for all the great players in the league, there's no need to bring any more chairs over for the NBA MVP discussion. A table for four will suffice, and Paul George is the only newcomer worthy of the final seat.

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