Golden State's Stephen Curry, Houston's James Harden and Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook have emerged as this season's MVP candidates. And of course, you can never count out Cleveland's LeBron James. Who will take home the award?
1. Who is your leading candidate for MVP?
Tom Haberstroh: Steph Curry. He's dangerously close to a 50-40-90 season (shooting percentages for field goals, 3-pointers and free throws) while leading the league in steals per game, 3-point makes and real plus-minus by a mile (8.6). And did I mention he's an elite distributor? I get that Harden is leading by a smidge in WAR, which rewards minutes played, but that's because Curry is so good, he's smoking his victory cigar by the end of the third quarter.
Marc Stein: I'd have to say James Harden has the slight edge on a growing field. What he's done to keep the Rockets where they are without Dwight Howard is the slightest of separators at this stage. Dwight, after all, has missed 29 of Houston's 61 games.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss: Stephen Curry. The possible MVPs are in such a dead heat that whichever candidate you see most qualifies as the best. Sadly, I've fallen into this homerism trap, as I see what Curry does for the Warriors on a nightly (bi-nightly?) basis. Anyway, Curry's unique ability to draw two defenders above the arc creates massive space for the offense. Also, he's a very good defender, contrary to popular belief (third in defensive plus-minus at his position). There's a reason the Warriors have outscored opponents by 646 when he plays and been outscored by 51 when he sits.
Royce Young: Stephen Curry. He's the best player on the best team, which traditionally places you as the front-runner. Curry's MVP case has cooled a bit and he lacks the overarching narrative because his team has simply been great all season. But it's getting to the point where Curry needs his Heisman moment, so to speak. And soon.
Ohm Youngmisuk: Nothing can slow Russell Westbrook down right now, not even a dent in his face. He's putting up the kind of numbers that only guys like Jordan, Bird and Oscar would deliver. Four straight triple-doubles -- and these aren't the triple-doubles of the Jason Kidd variety, which were impressive enough. The dude has put up 40 or more points in six of his past 16 games -- including the All-Star Game. The knock against Westbrook's MVP candidacy is OKC's record and the number of games he's missed due to injuries. If Russ can keep this insane pace up, Kevin Durant can tell his teammate: "You're the real MVP."
2. Who is your second-leading candidate?
Haberstroh: James Harden. We're splitting chin hairs now. No player has a louder "carrying his team" narrative than Harden, and with good reason. He leads the NBA in minutes and WAR, and the Rockets have the fifth-best record despite losing Dwight Howard for half the season and no Chandler Parsons. A #wellactually for the "carrying" crew: Curry's Warriors suffer more when he's on the bench (16.1 points worse per 100 possessions) than Harden's Rockets when the Beard sits (11.3 worse).
Stein: Steph Curry. As entertaining to watch as any player in this league right now, which gets bonus points on my scorecard. Best feet in the league after all that early career panic about his ankles. Best player on the West's best team makes his case strong.
Strauss: James Harden. A deserving MVP choice, as he's dragged Houston's offense to competence by the scruff of his beard. The only reason to have anything against his case is the Rockets organization's incessant pushing of it. General manager Daryl Morey and company publicly seem more invested in Harden's MVP campaign than actually winning a title.
Young: Russell Westbrook. There really shouldn't be debate that in the games he has played, Westbrook has been the best player in the NBA this season. The debate is how much games missed should matter. Westbrook has missed 15 total. The most ever missed by an MVP is 24 by Bill Walton in 1977-78. Westbrook has 21 games left, and with his month of February, he has kicked the door open to state his case.
Youngmisuk: Curry is so much fun to watch. Even when he's tired and off, Curry still can light up an arena, as he did the other night in the fourth quarter at Barclays Center against the Nets. He scored 18 of his 26 points looking as if he were willing in 3s, with the crowd reacting as if it were on pins and needles and Michael Jordan was in the house. Curry is the best player on the league's top team and that deserves heavy, heavy consideration, especially if the Warriors keep winning.
3. Who is your third-leading candidate?
Haberstroh: Russell Westbrook. He's putting together the most offensively dominant season ever (no, really). He accounts for a league-leading 45.7 points per game via his own shot or his assists. As much as I want to rank him No. 1 on this list, I can't ignore that he's played about 700 fewer minutes than Harden and 400 fewer than Curry. The MVP is for 2014-15, not just 2015. But I'm guessing Westbrook will be happy with ruling the world instead.
Stein: Russ Westbrook. To dig OKC out of its early-season hole, with the numbers he's putting up while Kevin Durant misses all these games -- he's the one who's really making this race interesting. We haven't seen an MVP from a team with fewer than 50 wins since Moses Malone in Houston back in 1982 . . . but Angry Russ is trying his hardest to make us change "the rules."
Strauss: Anthony Davis. It's not his fault the Pelicans underwhelm. Westbrook has been amazing, but considering the closeness of the teams' records, it's odd that Russ has so much more MVP cachet than Davis, who has the statistical edge.
Young: James Harden. No team is campaigning harder for their guy than the Rockets, and Harden is making it pretty easy for them. He has the numbers, he has the record, he has the influence, and with Dwight Howard sidelined for the past month, the narrative is building. Only problem Harden has? Westbrook and Curry have been a little more ridiculous.
Youngmisuk: LeBron James is stepping up his game and has the Cavs steadily rising toward peak level as the playoffs approach. I still have LeBron in that conversation of league's best player and I always thought Jordan should've won more MVPs because he was the best player in the game and won enough as well. James has risen to the occasion against other MVP candidates in duels against James Harden and Curry recently. You know LeBron is going to keep putting up MVP numbers in this final month of regular-season games; if the Cavs keep winning, LeBron deserves serious MVP consideration.
4. Who is an underrated candidate?
Haberstroh: Anthony Davis. It's a testament to how crazy this season has been that Davis (31.7) is challenging Wilt Chamberlain for the highest PER of all time (31.8) and it's merely a footnote. Injuries have docked his candidacy, but it shouldn't matter that his team may not make the playoffs. Without him, they're one of the worst teams in the NBA. That's value.
Stein: Haven't mentioned LeBron James yet. Anthony Davis or Marc Gasol better fits the description of underrated -- amazing how little hoopla surrounds what The Brow is doing -- but LeBron is an outsider in this race at the minute. Which speaks to how crazy it is.
Strauss: I'm going with Davis, who leads all players in aggregate stats like win shares and PER. Forget that stats soup for a second, though, and just behold the spectacle of the best lob finisher becoming one of the best midrange sharpshooters. The future is bright.
Young: Chris Paul. What do we want in MVPs? Guys who answer the bell, who step up when a team is in need. When Blake Griffin went out Feb. 8 with a staph infection, the general consensus was the Clippers would fall. Instead, they've gone 7-4, with Paul averaging 22.5 points on 51.6 percent shooting, with 12.5 assists and 4.7 rebounds.
Youngmisuk: Harden just keeps putting up numbers, averaging 26.9 points. And he has 10 or more assists in four of his past five games, all with Dwight Howard on the mend. Houston is going to push hard for The Beard to win MVP, especially if he becomes the second player in Rockets history to win the scoring title.
5. Is this the best MVP race you've seen?
Haberstroh: Probably. Not to be a prisoner of the moment, but we have just so many players performing at a high level this season. For example, there are eight players with a PER over 25 this season, tied for the most in any season. In 2000-01, there were two. The 2005-06 MVP race with Steve Nash, LeBron, Dirk Nowitzki, Kobe Bryant, Chauncey Billups, Dwyane Wade and Allen Iverson all vying for top honors was special, too. But this one might take the cake.
Stein: Not ready to go there yet. It's certainly up there in terms of depth and uncertainty -- because I really don't think there's a clear-cut favorite among the voting body at large -- but Nash versus Shaquille O'Neal in 2005 still inspires emotional debate even if you bring it up in a bar (or locker room) now. So I'm going to try to resist the natural urge to say that what we're experiencing in the moment is the greatest thing. Sorry.
Strauss: Yes, emphatically. It's so much fun, despite and maybe even because of the vitriol flying from multiple fan bases. We should be so lucky to have an MVP race like this every year. Hopefully it's the new normal.
Young: Best? I don't think I'd go that far. But this might be the most fascinating, with how wide-open it is so late in the season. I can't remember a time when as many as six players still had cases to make with 20 games to go. This race is rewriting our way of thinking about MVP races. We might be forced to, you know, wait until all 82 games are played before making a decision.
Youngmisuk: I don't think it's the best, but it certainly will be a fun final month to watch all these guys go at it. Can Westbrook keep up the insane video-game pace? Will LeBron kick it into another gear here? Can Steph keep the Warriors at the top? Even watching Anthony Davis' crazy numbers makes you wish he had stayed healthy so he could be more of a factor in the MVP race. It's going to be a really entertaining MVP race, but not quite the best one ever.