With apologies to Chris Paul and Kevin Garnett, this year's NBA MVP race is boiling down to two candidates: Kobe Bryant and Lebron James.
Let's be clear, Lebron is a beast. He is a once-in-a-lifetime player. Lebron is an athletic freak.
His combination of speed, strength, and agility are unmatched in the game of basketball.
He's the best finisher in the game using his runningback upperbody strength to take any amount of contact and still make the shot. And one. Gotcha.
The kid is only 23, but looks like a man amongst boys. Nobody even comes close to his statistical production.
To put it into perspective, there are only two players in the history of the game to average 30 points per game, 7.5 assists and 8 rebounds while keeping a player efficiency rating of at least 30.
Lebron this season and Michael Jordan in 1988-'89.
Think about that, at age 23, Lebron is about to have a season that only he and the greatest player ever could accomplish.
Call Dr. J, cause that right there is sick.
So he's gotta be the MVP right?
In fact, Kobe is clearly the MVP of the league right now.
Despite Lebron's all-world talent and his obvious statistical dominance, he's still only the second-best player in the NBA.
Kobe is the best.
But forget the "who's better?" debate. Save that for the message boards and the talking heads.
MVP has never been about the best player in the league. If it were, Steve Nash wouldn't have two and Dirk Nowitzki wouldn't have one. MVP is about leading an elite team.
Take a look at Lebron's Cavs. They are 32-24, good for a .571 win record. Not bad, but not great either. Over the course of an 82-game season, that translates to 47 wins.
Remember that only other guy who had a season like Lebron is having this year? Jordan.
Yeah, that guy averaged 32 points, 8 rebounds, 8 assists, and 3 steals on 54 percent shooting and 85 percent from the line in 1988-'89.
As impressive as Lebron is this year, his numbers don't even come close to Jordan's '88-'89 season. That year the Bulls won 47 games, and Jordan didn't get MVP.
Didn't get MVP with stats that impressive? I told you, it is all about wins.
A guy named Magic Johnson captured MVP that season leading his Lakers to a .695 win percentage good for 57 wins. As sheer coincidence would have it, there is another Los Angeles Laker leading his team to a .695 win record this season...
You have to respect what Lebron did carrying his merry band of scrubs before Cavs management got a clue and traded for some respectable teammates.
Still, that doesn't make you a MVP.
Kobe led a team with Smush Parker running the point to the playoffs for two consecutive years in the West. And don't forget, the starting center was Kwa-MAY Brown!
Kobe had to be Superman to get his team into the playoffs.
Score 81, 62 in 3 quarters? Check. Avergage 40 for a month? Check. He was dropping 50 so often that when he got 40, it was like an off night. Like, "Damn, Kobe, they must've had Bruce Bowen on you tonight. You only got 44."
In the last 25 years, only two players have gotten MVP playing on a team with less than 55 wins. Michael Jordan, who led the league in over nine different categories, while also winning defensive player of the year, got the MVP in '88 with 50 wins, and Nash got it while "only" winning 54 games two seasons ago.
Now, Lebron's game is tight, but it isn't as tight as Jordan in '88.
That means the King needs to get to 54 wins to really have an argument. It doesn't help that his team would be in 10th place in the West.
That's right. If he played in the West, his team wouldn't even make the playoffs.
This is huge. I mean, think about it.
If a player in the West has to at least make the playoffs to be a legit MVP candidate, then why would a player who plays in an easier conference be an MVP candidate when they wouldn't make the playoffs in the other conference?
Look, I'm not saying that Lebron has to play on a team that would be elite in both conferences, but at least be on a team that would be in the top eight.
In the last 25 years, every single MVP played on a team that would've made the playoffs in both conferences.
Lebron understands. When asked about his MVP chances, he responded, "I know I don't have a shot if Kobe's never won it."
So why Kobe?
Well, because he changed the mindset of a mediocre team to one that has championship aspirations.
The guy was tired of simply getting into the playoffs. He doesn't play for the playoffs, he plays for championships.
Give credit to Andrew Bynum, Jordan Farmar, and Sasha Vujacic for coming ready to play this season, but give Kobe credit for being relentless and unsatisfied with anything less than a championship-caliber ball club.
And I'm not talking about Kobe's trade demands or his ametur video calling out AB17.
I'm talking about the only thing he said when he was introduced at training camp: "Hi, I'm Kobe Bryant, and I want to win a championship now."
I'm talking about trimming his usage rate and shot attempts to allow others to showcase their skills. I'm talking about his DPOY-worthy defense this year. I'm talking about leadership, baby!
Kobe's energy, drive, and killer instict have been infectious on this Laker ball club and they're good. Damn good.
The transformation has been amazing.
The Lakers have gone from the seventh best offense and the 24th best defense last year to the second best offense and the fifth best defense this year.
The improvement has shown in the results as the Lakers currently sit atop the Western Conference in what is perhaps the most competitive season ever.
Then, there is the Pau Gasol factor.
Pau was a steal, but consider this: when they are on the floor together, Pau has the highest true shooting percentage of his career. When Kobe is not on the floor, he shoots the worst true shooting percentage of his career.
Of course, 10 games is a small sample, but it shows how playing with Kobe can elevate your game so seamlessly, even in a new and unfamiliar system.
Yeah, yeah. But what about Kobe's statistics?
Kobe stats are fine.
Look, only the very best players can put up 28/6/5, but I agree his stats don't look as good as his 35/5/4 in '05-'06. I'll give you that.
But would you believe me if I told you that Kobe is playing the best ball of his career?
I'm not lying.
The man is better than he was in '02 when he averaged 30/7/6.
He's better than he was in '05-'06 when he dropped 81.
He's better than he was last year when he had four straight 50-point games.
Hear me out.
First, his defense has been incredible.
Let's be honest, Kobe didn't deserve his defensive team selection last year, but this year? I won't bore you with the stats, but the Lakers are Spurs-good on defense when Kobe is on the floor.
When he's off the floor?
They are bad. Really bad. Like New York Knick bad.
Second, Kobe's playing less minutes.
He's been so good, that he's gotten his team into the habit of destroying opposing teams early.
Just to put things into perspective, adjusted for minutes, Kobe and Lebron's statistical production looks relatively similar with Lebron and Kobe both averaging over 35 ppg, and Kobe getting about 1.5 less rebounds and two less assists per 48 minutes.
For MVP purposes, I have to take Kobe's stats and his 22 games above .500 over Lebron's stats and eight games above .500.
Like I said, it's all about the wins.
Finally, not only is Kobe the most skilled player in the game, he is also the most durable.
Listen, I don't fault Lebron or Garnett for sitting out games with injuries. Health is the most important asset in an athlete's world.
Still, a player who plays is always more valuable than a player who sits.
Yeah, I know Lebron sat and his team lost every game he sat.
But does anyone truly believe that the Lakers would win many ballgames in the competitive Western Conference if Kobe sat out? Truth be told, if Lebron and the Cavs lost every single game from here to the end of the season, they would be 32-50.
That's good for a .390 win record and good for 11th in the East if things stay as they are (Bulls .393).
If the Lakers lost just the same amount of games that the Cavs have lost without Lebron (seven), they'd go from the best record in the West to out of the playoffs completely. That's how tight the West is.
So you can see why Kobe has played with a bum shoulder, strained groin, the flu, and a finger that literally is falling off his hand.
In short, he's a warrior. The guy wants to win every single game no matter the emotional or physical toll it takes on his body.
He is passionate about his profession, and though he's made plenty of mistakes, no one can deny that he shows up to work every single day with one mission on his mind: to win a championship.
Well, Kobe is already a champion. It is now time to recognize his value.