The Top 10 NBA MVP Candidates, Vol. 6

It was an exciting first half to the NBA season. Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, and the reining MVP LeBron James all saw time on the top of the ladder. Going into the second half of the season, those guys are the four favorites for MVP, but you can’t count out Tony Parker and James Harden.

The Spurs are heading into the All-Star break with the best record in the league, and while Tim Duncan is receiving most of the praise, Tony Parker is driving the car. Parker accepted all leadership duties for the Spurs and is playing at a higher level than he’s played at all season.

The bottom half of the West will be interesting to watch in the second half of the season. With a group of teams fighting to clinch playoff berths, Houston is the team I believe will make the biggest improvement in the remaining games. James Harden has been playing at a high level all season long and with the Rockets missing the playoffs completely last season, Harden has them in position for contention. With the numbers he’s putting up, it’s hard not to give him a chance at winning the MVP award.

Out East, there haven’t been many surprises this season, but the one guy who has flown under the MVP radar is Paul George for the Pacers. George is filling the void left by Danny Granger‘s injury and has the Pacers sitting in the third spot in the East. Depending on what they can do moving forward, Paul George is worthy of some consideration.

With that, here is our top 10 for volume six of the MVP Ladder.

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10. DAVID LEE – Last week: 18.0 ppg, 7.7 apg, 14.2 rpg
Vol. 5 rank: 8
There isn’t much separating David Lee and Zach Randolph in the MVP race. Randolph was able to get off to a great start, leading the NBA in double-doubles through the majority of the first half of the season. However, Lee has now surpassed him in double-doubles and while Randolph has struggled these past few weeks, Lee has stayed the course all season long.

Consistency is a key factor on the MVP Ladder and it doesn’t get much more consistent than David Lee. He and Zach Randolph share similar roles on their respective teams, however with Rudy Gay gone to Toronto, Randolph is now the top scoring option for Memphis. It will be interesting to see how the trade affects Randolph individually, as well as the Western Conference standings. Currently, Lee’s Warriors are only half a game behind Randolph’s Grizzlies. With a head-to-head battle scheduled tonight — the Warriors are coming off of their two worst games of the year — a win would allow them to pass Memphis for the fifth spot in the West right before the midseason mark.

9. STEPHEN CURRY – Last week: 23.0 ppg, 6.5 apg, 1.5 rpg
Vol. 5 rank: 7
After sitting out against Cleveland and Dallas last week with an ankle injury, Curry returned against Phoenix on Saturday and scored 29 points on 11-for-20 shooting. Most notably, he shot 6-for-10 from long range and dished out eight assists. But then he turned it right around and stunk it up in his next two. First in that blowout loss against Houston, Curry shot 3-for-12 and finished with only seven points. Then against Oklahoma City, he posted a double-double with 14 points and 11 assists, but shot a dismal 5-for-20 from the field.

Now isn’t the time for Curry to start playing inconsistently. The Warriors are in a tight race in the Western Conference, and while they currently sit in the sixth spot, Houston (who just blew them out by 30) and Portland aren’t far behind. With a showdown at Memphis coming up, it’s a critical time for the Warriors. It’s very important for them to pick it up to make sure all their hard work this season doesn’t go up in flames. They’ve done so much to get themselves where they are. Now they have to do what they can to cement themselves as one of the top five teams in the West.

8. KOBE BRYANT – Last week: 17.4 ppg, 9.4 apg, 7.4 rpg
Vol. 5 rank: 9
The Lakers have won six of their last eight games and Kobe Bryant finally started approaching the game the way many have suggested. While many of us believe the “Magic Kobe” game plan is the formula for success for the Lakers, it’s hard to believe Kobe can keep that up for the rest of the season. Now with Dwight Howard fighting injuries, and Pau Gasol out 6-to-8 weeks, don’t be surprised to see Kobe go back to putting up 25-plus night after night.

To his own fault, Kobe has a bit of a power hunger problem. Rightfully so, he’s earned it for the most part. But there’s no doubting that he gets carried away with it sometimes. For example, his most recent comments on Dwight Howard:

“We don’t have time for (Howard’s shoulder) to heal. We need some urgency. (Dwight) has never been in a position where someone is driving him as hard as I am, as hard as this organization is. It’s win a championship or everything is a complete failure. That’s just how we (the Lakers) do it. And that’s foreign to him.”

While there isn’t anything wrong with those comments at face value, there’s a very power hungry undertone. Dwight Howard wanted to play with Kobe, not for Kobe. It’s a critical time for the Lakers and I don’t blame Kobe for trying to get him to play through injury. But the way he does it is so condescending. It’s as if he doesn’t care for Howard’s long-term health or the Lakers long-term future.

In his recent interview with Stephen A. Smith, Dwight Howard expressed his patience when it comes to winning a championship with the Lakers. He’s clearly in no rush. He sees winning a championship as a process, while Kobe is pressing to win another before he retires. But with the way he’s belittled Dwight Howard this season, who would expect Howard to play prematurely and risk getting hurt just to try to win Kobe an extra ring on his way out? When he was asked about Kobe’s comments at shootaround recently, Howard repeatedly responded with a stale-faced “that’s his opinion.”

Kobe’s proved he can be a great leader, but it’s obvious he’s been abusing those leadership duties this year. Now with no Gasol and Dwight Howard looking like a shell of his former self, “Magic Kobe” is out the door and regular Kobe will be coming back. Unless he can string together a group of 40-point games and single-handedly get the Lakers in the playoff race, Kobe’s MVP chances will go down the drain. If there were ever a time for him to go crazy and score 50 every night, it’s right now.

7. JAMES HARDEN – Last week: 22.3 ppg, 6.0 ppg, 6.3 rpg
Vol. 5 rank: 10
James Harden has one of the more slept-on MVP campaigns. Winning the award is a long shot but he still has some life. The MVP award is all about which player makes the biggest impact on their team and Harden is right up there with the best of them. He’s averaging almost 26/6/5 and has the Rockets in playoff contention. Last week, he had his first triple-double against the Bobcats, and a monster game against Miami on Wednesday with 36 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists.

The Rockets are an interesting team to keep an eye on going into the second half of the year. They’re currently in the eighth spot and with Golden State and Memphis both looking shaky lately, they have a chance to move up and stamp themselves as a playoff team. That blowout (and almost record-setting) win against Golden State can serve as proof that the Rockets are for real out West. If they can build some momentum and finish in the top four or five, James Harden’s name must come up when talking MVP.

6. RUSSELL WESTBROOK – Last week: 22.0 ppg, 8.0 apg, 6.6 rpg
Vol. 5 rank: 5
It’s no secret that Russell Westbrook’s fiery attitude makes him an easy target for criticism, but he doesn’t care. Most players don’t have an ounce of the passion Russell Westbrook has, so it’s hard to fault him for having too much of it sometimes. Overall, last week was a solid one for Westbrook. The Thunder are currently a game and a half behind the Spurs for first place in the West, and Westbrook continuously delivers for them. Although Kyrie Irving got the best of him in a five-point loss to the Cavaliers on Saturday, Westbrook put the clamps on Stephen Curry on Wednesday, holding him to 14 points on 5-for-20 shooting, leading the Thunder to a big win.

5. TONY PARKER – Last week: 20.5 ppg, 9.5 apg, 3.0 rpg
Vol. 5 rank: N/A
It’s a shame that Tony Parker’s season in San Antonio has gone unnoticed. In his 11th season in the league, Parker is still averaging 20 points, almost eight assists and three rebounds for the Spurs, who currently have the NBA’s best record. Everybody knows the Spurs will always be among the top teams, but who knew they would have the league’s best record halfway through the season? Even if they choose to put it on cruise control approaching playoff time like usual, they still exceeded expectations.

The Spurs won their last 11 games, and Tony Parker is playing his best basketball of the season. Through their last 10, Tony Parker has averaged 23.5 points, 9.6 assists and 3.2 boards a night. While many (including myself) argued that Stephen Curry should’ve made the All-Star team over Tony Parker, it’s mainly out of the desire to see a new face. Tony Parker is more than deserving of his All-Star selection and it’s about time he got some love on the MVP Ladder as well.

4. CARMELO ANTHONY – Last week: 24.0 ppg, 4.2 apg, 5.7 rpg
Vol. 5 rank: 4
Don’t be surprised to see Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks kick it up into high gear in these upcoming weeks, especially now that they’re finally healthy with the returns of Iman Shumpert and Amar’e Stoudemire. It’s important for the Knicks to keep winning in an Eastern Conference that’s been tight all season long. Indiana, Chicago and Brooklyn are all within three games of the Knicks, and after losing to all three of those teams last month, they have some lost ground to make up for.

Last Sunday, Carmelo Anthony had one of his best games of the season. He scored 42 points on 15-for-28 shooting, but most importantly he shot 9-for-12 from three-point range. There’s no denying ‘Melo is one of the best scorers in the game but he’s still been unable to pick up those assists numbers (2.8 per game). That’s way too low for somebody who gets double-teamed as much as ‘Melo does.

3. CHRIS PAUL – Last week: N/A
Vol. 5 rank: 3
Chris Paul is set to suit up for the Clippers tonight against Miami for the first time since January 21. Before his injury, Chris Paul had the Clippers flying high. They saw some time at the top of the Western Conference. But since his injury, the Clippers are 6-6. Not exactly the way they planned on carrying over the success from December, a month in which the Clippers didn’t lose an entire game.

Even though it must have been hard for Paul to watch his team lose a grip on the great rhythm he’d built, his MVP stock has gotten even higher sitting out. It’s clear to see that Paul is just as important to the Clippers as any other MVP candidate is to their team. It will be interesting to see if he can get the Clippers back where they were in the standings before his injury. If he can take them back to the top, he’ll be right there in the discussion when the time comes to select the 2013 NBA MVP.

2. KEVIN DURANT – Last week: 31.3 ppg, 4.3 apg, 9.3 rpg
Vol. 5 rank: 2
Coming fresh off one of the best months of his career, Kevin Durant is still playing at a high level. In the month of January, he averaged 31.6 points, 5.2 assists and 6.3 rebounds a game. Those numbers should serve as a new standard for KD, who has enhanced his all-around game this year and has been working hard to become a great playmaker as opposed to just a great scorer.

For Kevin Durant to finally break that barrier and get his first MVP, it will take better assist numbers, because the guy he has to take the award from stuffs the stat sheet in every department, including scoring. There’s no question that Durant is more deserving of an MVP award this season than he’s ever been in the past, but you could say the same for LeBron James.

1. LeBRON JAMES – Last week: 29.0 ppg, 6.0 apg, 9.7 rpg
Vol. 5 rank: 1
It’s LeBron’s award to lose going into the second half of the season. Although Kevin Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder have a better record, LeBron’s Heat are in first place out East. LeBron is averaging 26.8 points, 7.0 assists and 8.2 rebounds a game through the first half of the season. At this point, all he has to do to win his fourth MVP is not give voters any reason to take it away from him. So far this season, he hasn’t given them one thing to gripe about.

It’s not often that the MVP award comes down to a race in the standings, but this year it looks like it will. If the Heat and Thunder both finish in first place in their respective conferences, it will be team wins that separates the winner from the runner up. Although LeBron has better all-around numbers, Kevin Durant is on pace for yet another scoring title. While LeBron is the favorite right now, if the Thunder finish with the best record in the NBA this year there isn’t much left to ask of Kevin Durant.

Who is the most surprising MVP candidate?

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