The NBA, above all other sports, is dominated by the individuality of its players. And as much as the league desires to project the sport as being a "team game," it is the names on the backs of the jerseys that really drive its popularity—as evidenced by the New York Knicks, and quite possibly the entire league, being saved this season by none other than Jeremy Lin.
With the All-Star Break behind us and games picking back up at a frantic pace due to the shortened season, it is time to begin forecasting who will take home the individual hardware, with none more important than the league MVP.
Here are the top three candidates as the second half of the season gets underway.
With Tim Duncan taking more of a backseat in the latter part of his career, and Manu Ginobili seemingly always injured, Tony Parker has carried the San Antonio Spurs on his back this season.
While leading the Spurs to a 24-10 record, Parker is averaging 19.4 points and a career-high 8.1 assists per game. Looking deeper, Parker is also hitting his free throws at a career-high .810% clip while staying on the court 34.3 MPG, the second-highest total of his career.
While the production of his more notable teammates is on the decline, Parker has become the key component during a potential last hurrah for this Spurs group.
Is there one player in the NBA more vital to his overall team's success? Sure, the Minnesota Timberwolves don't feature the gaudy record of say Kevin Durant's Oklahoma City Thunder, but I would offer the suggestion that without Kevin Love, the Timberwolves might look more like the New Jersey Nets.
Although Love doesn't carry the typical traits of a big man with respect to blocked shots or field-goal percentage, he is second in the league in rebounding at 13.8 per game and fourth in scoring at 24.5 points.
After starting the season 4-8, the Timberwolves are now sitting at 18-17, just a half-game out of the playoff picture. But for Love's name to stick in the MVP discussion, the Timberwolves will have to keep inching their way up the Western Conference standings.
Big shock here, right? Since entering the league in 2003, LeBron James has been the talk of the NBA, highlighted by "The Decision" that brought him to Miami to team up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on the Heat.
With names like that donning Heat jerseys, it could be hard for some to label one player more valuable than the others with the supporting cast that James has. But a closer inspection of this season’s performance reveals that James is in fact the leader of the league's hottest team, one that shares the NBA’s best record with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Not relied on to shoulder the bulk of the scoring load—reflected in him only attempting 18.1 shots per game (career low)—James is putting up career highs with .547 FG%, 8.1 rebounds and .413 3FG%.
Other numbers supporting his case include 27.4 points (3rd in the league), .773 FT% (career high), 6.8 assists and playing lock-down defense, averaging 1.8 steals.
Although we are accustomed to the statistically dominant James, he seems to be settled into the more efficient facilitator role that the Heat need him to play—not to mention that he has led the Heat to an 8-1 record without sidekick Dwyane Wade.