Leading MVP candidates Kevin Durant and LeBron James go head-to-head tonight in a must-see matchup (ESPN2/ESPN3, 8 ET). Which player would our writers give top individual honors to if the season ended today? Let's take a look.
1. If the season ended today, who's fifth on your MVP ballot?
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: Chris Paul. Fifth choice here because he doesn't carry the Los Angeles Clippers from start to finish, but first choice to have the ball in the fourth quarter. How many players could have people wondering which is the best team in L.A.?
Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: Dwyane Wade. There's a moment in a superstar's career when he graduates from freakish to grandiose. Wade is still plenty freaky, but, as he crossed 30 years of age this season, he has added more refinement to his game. He is more patient on both sides of the ball, more judicious with his shot and more efficient with his energy. Still one of the most entertaining players to watch at full speed.
Zach Harper, Daily Dime Live: Kobe Bryant. At a certain point, being the best scorer on a misshapen team with one of the best records in the league is still extremely valuable. This isn't a deep team. It's barely shallow. Andrew Bynum has been immature. Pau Gasol has been in and out. Kobe has been there all season -- leading the Los Angeles Lakers to wins because he keeps pouring in points.
Rob Mahoney, The Two-Man Game: Kevin Love. Ricky Rubio did a spectacular job of getting the Minnesota Timberwolves over a particular hump, but his emergence disguised Love's brilliance as Minnesota's anchor. It takes a man of unique talents and ridiculous production to get such a profoundly weird Wolves team into playoff contention, but Love -- by way of stat-stuffed bulk alone -- managed to do just that.
Tom Sunnergren, Philadunkia: Dwight Howard. The trade drama he perpetuated was, at best, careless, but you can't talk about the least popular "Superman" since Brandon Routh without talking about this: There's nobody in the NBA at all like him. In arguably his worst season in five years, he's averaging 21 points and 14.5 rebounds on 58 percent shooting, and the Orlando Magic, although slumped at the moment, are looming, again, as a tough out this spring.
2. If the season ended today, who's fourth on your MVP ballot?
Adande: Tony Parker. Even with a Finals MVP trophy in his house, he's still the most underappreciated player of the past decade. Seeing what he has done after taking the No. 1 role on the San Antonio Spurs should change that.
Arnovitz: Dwight Howard. I know his numbers are slightly off and there's a perception he's not working as hard defensively, but is there any other explanation for why this team, which starts Hedo Turkoglu and Jason Richardson on the wings and Jameer Nelson at the point, is 10 games over .500?
Harper: Chris Paul. Think about the Clippers last season. They weren't good. We tried to trick ourselves into thinking they mattered anywhere other than the highlight reels, but, in reality, it was a really bad team. Paul came in, and now this team is the 4-seed in the West.
Mahoney: Dwight Howard. It's a bit frustrating that Howard could be higher on this list if his effort had been more consistent, but even a distracted Howard generates an advantage few players can match.
Sunnergren: Chris Paul. It hasn't been all sunshine and lollipops in Lob City -- is it ever with these newfangled super teams? -- but don't blame the point guard. While CP3 is dishing out the fewest dimes per game since his rookie season and has posted the lowest rebound rate of his career, his Clips have matched last season's victory total in 29 fewer games and are cresting at the right time. Credit where it's due.
3. If the season ended today, who's third on your MVP ballot?
Adande: Kobe Bryant. If the Lakers end up with home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, remember what Kobe did with a torn wrist ligament in January: 26 points in 38 minutes per game.
Arnovitz: Chris Paul. The Clippers, a team that won 39 percent of its games last season, momentarily fell to fifth in the West a couple of weeks ago, and all hell broke loose. That's because the addition of Paul unilaterally changed the franchise's fortune. A win Wednesday would bring the Clippers even in the loss column with the Lakers for the Pacific Division lead, and you can chalk it up to Paul's 26.7 PER and late-game heroics.
Harper: Kevin Love. Here's the thing about Love's MVP candidacy. He couldn't score in the clutch or put up these stats on a good team or play defense before this season. This season, he took all those criticisms away. He's been attempting to lead a team that has been riddled with injuries while putting up historic numbers. Forget Luis Scola; Love's been stomping the competition all year.
Mahoney: Dwyane Wade. It's almost comical how understated Wade's performance has been this season. In most circumstances, an elite shot creator putting up a career-high field goal percentage while flirting with 25-5-5-2-2 per-36-minute averages would demand the casual fan's attention, but Wade seems to live and play as a superstar in afterthought.
Sunnergren: Kevin Love. I really wanted it to be him. The way he has slung the Timberwolves over his increasingly toned shoulders in Rubio's absence and carried them to respectability has been a thing to behold -- as have his outrageous stat lines. But the curious thing about Love is this: He might have been better last season. His rebounding percentages, although still squarely in ridonk territory, are down this season, and his scoring surge is driven entirely by the fact that he's shooting more.
4. If the season ended today, who's second on your MVP ballot?
Adande: LeBron James. He doesn't need another regular-season MVP award. And lately, he's acting like it. Instead of his leading the Miami Heat on a world destruction tour, they look as if they are waiting for the playoffs. Maybe it's our fault for telling him that's all that matters.
Arnovitz: Kevin Durant. The narrative is on his side, just as it was for Derrick Rose last season. He is the best player on the league's most novel elite squad and has exuded leadership and improved his defense measurably. LeBron is having the better season statistically, but the smart money is on KD to take home the hardware.
Harper: Kevin Durant. This guy is ridiculous. It's hard to do what he does even if you're playing a video game set to the easiest difficulty level. He's still shooting 49 percent from 16-23 feet this season. His passing game is improved. His defense hasn't just been adequate but has been pretty good. Even if he doesn't win MVP, he has a legitimate claim to the most improved award, as well. (Same with Love.)
Mahoney: Kevin Durant. The MVP race has a way of turning amazing players into punching bags; to justify the reasoning behind a particular player's candidacy, one seemingly must exaggerate the faults of said player's chief award competition.
It's a silly turn to an otherwise fun debate, and even more silly in the case of Durant. KD is incredible and highly productive, and, if it weren't for a particularly transcendent contemporary, he would be the most deserving candidate around. It just didn't turn out that way, and in no way should that be seen as an indictment.
Sunnergren: Kevin Durant. I really wanted it to be him. But although he's the league's most effortless scorer, is having a crazy efficient season and passes the unofficial "best player on the best team" test with flying colors, the Oklahoma City Thunder might, counterintuitively, be too stacked for him to take the hardware. To wit: Where does a team with a core of Westbrook, Harden, Ibaka, Perkins and Sefolosha land in the mild, mild West? Maybe not too far from where the Thunder sit now.
5. If the season ended today, who's first on your MVP ballot?
Adande: Kevin Durant. It's not the scoring. We've seen that before. It's the passing and the rebounding and the defense. Most of all, it's the winning.
Arnovitz: LeBron James. He's put together one of the 15 or 20 best individual seasons in NBA history, yet nobody wants to hear about it until there's confetti falling in Miami.
Harper: LeBron James. Let's say you don't like math and, therefore, you hate things like PER. It's understandable; math is scary. LeBron is third in scoring, 13th in assists per game, 26th in rebounding, ninth in field goal percentage and fourth in steals per game, and he's been playing world-class defense that deserves a DPOY mention. He has earned the award. Criticize him when/if he fails in the playoffs.
Mahoney: LeBron James. I can understand why someone would feel compelled to put Durant in the top spot, but I'm going to keep this exceedingly simple: James is the best player in the league and having a season worthy of that standing. Feel free to compare the two stars' scoring averages or clutch résumés, but James' all-around brilliance -- including his phenomenal defensive contributions -- makes him an easy MVP choice.
Sunnergren: LeBron James. Pick your analytic poison: Despite falling off from his "maybe the greatest season ever" pace, LeBron leads the field in wins produced, win shares and PER -- the geek Triple Crown -- and has recorded the highest true shooting and total rebound percentages of his career. Although it's about as sexy as picking the Yankees in the World Series, it's also just true: LeBron is the best basketball player on the planet and, in a not terribly surprising development, is playing like it.
ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network
J.A. Adande and Kevin Arnovitz cover the NBA for ESPN.com. Zach Harper is the host of Daily Dime Live. Rob Mahoney and Tom Sunnergren write for the TrueHoop Network.