The race for the NBA's MVP award is set to begin.
Though the league officially recognizes just one MVP, every team has that player who is indispensable, invaluable and keeps the franchise's heart beating.
LeBron James has re-instilled a sense of dominance in Miami, while Kevin Love continues to lead Minnesota's resurrection. Chris Paul has propelled the Clippers toward title contention while Rajon Rondo has restored the Celtics' sense of purpose. And Deron Williams is now being leaned upon in Brooklyn as hard as Dirk Nowitzki is in Dallas.
But while each individual team's MVP candidate is easy to discern, where does each player stand when pitted against his fellow irreplaceable commodities? Who is the MVP of MVPs, the cream of the crop, the end-all for indispensability?
Let's find out.
2011-12 Per-Game Stats: 12.1 points, 3.5 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 0.3 blocks, 0.9 steals
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is the future of the Bobcats, but for now, Kemba Walker is second to none in Charlotte.
Walker was underwhelming during his rookie season, but the fact that he's prepared to assume more of a leadership role proves he's ready to turn the corner and vital to this team's current survival.
Though the Bobcats brought in Ramon Sessions over the offseason, expect Walker to be the primary playmaker much more than he was last season. His superior ball-handling abilities and scoring instincts make him one of the most difficult players to defend, and if he can inject more distribution into his offensive arsenal, this could easily be a breakout year for the point guard.
Even with Kidd-Gilchrist in the fold, there isn't much to be excited about in Charlotte. Walker's evolution as both a player and a leader, though, are two of the few exceptions.
2011-12 Per-Game Stats: 11.9 points, 3.2 rebounds, 5.7 assists, 0.1 blocks, 0.7 steals
It's not going to be pretty in Orlando this season, but someone is going to have to piece together the odds and ends the Magic have assembled.
That someone is Jameer Nelson.
While the point guard had a very disappointing 2011-12 campaign, his production during Orlando's brief postseason push (15.6 points, 6.7 assists) increased substantially. He also proved ready and willing to lead a Dwight Howard-less team, further evident by his decision to return to a near hopeless situation.
Though it's unlikely the Magic or Nelson make any significant noise this season, there's no doubt that as a proven playmaker, he's the one player Orlando absolutely needs at this stage—which is saying something.
2011-2012 Per-Game Stats: 11.6 points, 2.5 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 0.1 blocks, 1.3 steals
Goran Dragic isn't Steve Nash, but Phoenix needs him to emulate the veteran's impact as much as possible.
As Nash proved only last season, the Suns' docket is one that depends on the craftiness of its floor general, and that holds true now, especially with the additions of players like Michael Beasley and Luis Scola, and the likely extended absence of Channing Frye.
While Kendall Marshall is easily the most talented playmaker coming out of the draft, Dragic has more experience and appeared on the verge of stardom only last season. His court vision is impressive and he's a threat to score from all areas of the floor.
Simply put, in Phoenix, Dragic will be relied upon more than he ever was in Houston, and the impact he has on his new team will reflect as much as the 2012-13 campaign unfolds.
2011-2012 Per-Game Stats: 17.1 points, 2.7 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 0.1 blocks, 0.7 steals
Jeremy Lin may be the face of the Rockets, but Kevin Martin is the most crucial part of Houston's current dynamic.
Not only is Martin the team's most proven player, but at 29, he's the team's second-oldest player, and the best option to lead a Rockets roster in flux.
Make no mistake, Houston will lean on its young guns, hoping that players like Lin, Omer Asik, Jeremy Lamb, Royce White and Terrence Jones will emerge as fixtures of the future.
But in terms of the here and now, and any urgency this team has to perform, Martin, in all of his offensive glory, is Houston's most-valued commodity. He is someone who Jeremy Lamb can learn from, someone who can provide direction to a team in search of an identity, even if it's just for the year.
Most importantly, though, he's someone who's going to be leaned on more and perform at a higher level than anyone else in Houston, including Lin.
2011-2012 Per-Game Stats: 14.7 points, 3.4 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 0.3 blocks, 1.5 steals
Simultaneously, Stephen Curry is Golden State's most likely candidate for team MVP as well as the player most likely to send this squad back to the lottery.
The Warriors' ability to return to the postseason hinges on Curry's performance. If he can remain healthy, he has the ability to impact the game on both sides of the floor, in ways that Andrew Bogut simply cannot.
Not only is Curry one of the NBA's sharpest shooters, he's also a resourceful passer. He's great at navigating the floor and makes a living off imbalanced passes, rendering him even more difficult to defend.
So, while his ankle is of major concern, the Warriors can take solace in knowing he's finally cleared for action, and also in the fact that, as long as he's on the floor, there's hope for this team yet.
2011-2012 Per-Game Stats: 14.6 points, 4.7 rebounds, 6.7 assists, 0.3 blocks, 1.6 steals
After a busy offseason, the Raptors are the epitome of intrigue, no player more so than Kyle Lowry.
Lowry performed at a star-esque level for most of last season, and the hope in Toronto is that he can lead this team back into the playoffs.
While such an order will ultimately prove too tall to actualize immediately, there's no doubt how valuable the point guard is to any success the Raptors hope to incur.
The 26-year-old is not only adept at attacking the rim, but he has improved both his jump shot and playmaking abilities as well. He's also one of the most underrated passing lane defenders in the game.
So, while Lowry's arrival has spelled anything but good news for Jose Calderon, the Raptors are undeniably headed in the right direction for the first time in years.
And they will soon owe much of that reality to him.
2011-2012 Per-Game Stats: 18.9 points, 3.4 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 0.3 blocks, 1.5 steals
No, Brandon Jennings is anything but the embodiment of efficiency, but even with Monta Ellis, there is no hope for the Bucks to make the playoffs without him.
Fundamentally speaking, Jennings is as talented a scorer as there is in the NBA. He's adept at breaking down opposing defenses, can score at will when he attacks the basket and has a lightning-quick release, rendering him one of the most underrated spot-up shooters in the game.
Defensively, though, is where he's truly underestimated. His execution when fighting over or under screens leaves much to be desired, but he's got quick hands, both on and off the ball, allowing him to rack up steals and create additional scoring opportunities in transition.
Will the Bucks snag a playoff spot next spring?
Probably not, but by no fault of Jennings. In fact, he'll be the primary reason they're a part of the postseason conversation at all.
2011-2012 Per-Game Stats: 15.3 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 0.7 blocks, 1.1 steals
I can already here the cries of my ignorance.
However, the fact is Derrick Rose is not going to have as nearly as much of an impact on the Bulls as he normally would. Not only is his return uncertain, but his production once he does return is anything but guaranteed.
And that leaves Luol Deng to lead Chicago. Outside of Rose, he's the most talented two-way player on the roster, with the ability to create his own offense and lock down even the most fierce of perimeter players on defense.
No, Deng cannot have the type of impact a healthy Rose would, but no one can. And in his stead, Deng is not only the most capable, but the only other leader Chicago truly has.
2011-2012 Per-Game Stats: 21.0 points, 2.9 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 0.5 blocks, 1.6 steals
Though New Orleans didn't appear to be Eric Gordon's first choice this offseason, he's going to make the most of his current stay.
The combo-guard is a terrific scorer, who can take a defender off the dribble or spot up from behind the arc. He's also an excellent ball-handler and decent facilitator, which enables him to carry the burden of a point guard when called upon.
While Anthony Davis has suddenly headlined the impressive wrecking crew the Hornets are attempting to build, Gordon is clearly the team's most valuable asset. He's going to be the one this team turns to when it needs answers, the one it relies on to lead its cause.
And barring another unforeseen injury, Gordon should have no problem showing us how he has earned such a highly touted reputation in such a short time.
2011-2012 Per-Game Stats: 19.4 points, 9.6 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.7 blocks, 0.8 steals
On a Jazz team dominated by low-post presences, Al Jefferson stands out the most.
The 6'10" center is tremendously powerful, yet possesses impressive ball-handling skills, allowing him to score in a variety of ways on offense. He's also a rebounding hoarder, who is unlikely to get outworked or out-maneuvered on glass.
Defensively, Jefferson doesn't have the type of presence Derrick Favors or even Enes Kanter does, but he is a strong shot-blocker. His footwork and overall anticipation are in need of some refining, but the good far outweighs the bad, as he has quietly climbed the stars' ladder in the NBA.
So, make no mistake, despite Utah's three other options down low, this team would hardly be a playoff contender without Jefferson's forceful presence.
2011-2012 Per-Game Stats: 15.6 points, 9.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 0.7 blocks, 1.2 steals
Greg Monroe has come a long way over the past year.
On a Pistons team nearly void of hope last season, Monroe injected excitement into their lineup. His prolific finishes at the rim are crippling for opposing defenses, and his ability to pass out of double-teams is nothing short of spectacular.
Though Detroit is years away from playoff contention and now heavily invested in the potential bust that is Andre Drummond, the sheer presence of Monroe ensures that it's never too late to turn back; as long as Monroe is setting up shop down low, the Pistons will never be headed in the completely wrong direction.
He's that good, and subsequently, that important to this team both now, and much, much later.
2011-2012 Per-Game Stats: 18.9 points, 4.9 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 0.7 blocks, 1.0 steals
There's a case to be made here for Roy Hibbert, but not as strong a one as there is for Danny Granger.
The small forward is one of the best spot-up shooters in the game, and he has improved both his ability to create his own offense and recognize when to defer to one of his teammates.
Unbeknownst to some, though, Granger is also a talented defender. His lateral movements are sharp, allowing him to clog up passing lanes and prevent dribble penetration, and he's one of the few swingman who blocks shots on a consistent basis.
Overall, Granger is a more complete player than the inconsistent Hibbert. His multi-faceted skill set may not scream superstar, but without him, the Pacers would be a fringe playoff team at best.
And that's being kind.
2011-2012 Per-Game Stats: 16.4 points, 4.5 rebounds, 7.7 assists, 0.9 blocks, 1.3 steals
Underestimating John Wall is like sitting on a rocking chair—it gives you something to do, but it doesn't get you anywhere.
Wall is the furthest thing from a strong jump shooter, but his quickness and ability to get to the rim is surpassed by no one. More importantly, though, his playmaking abilities are severely underrated; he's managed to pile on the assists despite playing alongside a lackluster supporting cast at best.
And don't even get me started on his impact defensively. His hands are just as quick as his feet, and he's not afraid to contest shots or battle against bigs for rebounds.
Simply put, Wall is tough, much tougher than people give him credit for. And if you thought the Wizards were a joke last season, just think of how funny a punchline they would have been without him.
2011-2012 Per-Game Stats: 18.6 points, 3.9 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 0.4 blocks, 1.0 steals
Just how valuable is Kyrie Irving to the Cavaliers?
Let's put it this way, somehow, merely a few years after being spurned by LeBron James, and fresh off a disappointingly inactive offseason, Cleveland is still brimming with hope.
Because of Irving.
The point guard not only took great strides toward improving his willingness to involve his teammates last season, but he proved to be a reliable scorer and surprisingly instinctive rebounder as well.
Even more impressive, though, were the immediate results he yielded. In 18 fewer games last season, the Cavaliers won two more contests than they did during all of the 2010-11 campaign.
Not bad for a rookie attempting to fill the shoes of a player who was considered The Chosen One, huh?
Just think about the havoc Irving is going to wreak now that he's a full-year deep in his NBA career.
2011-2012 Per-Game Stats: 12.4 points, 6.2 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 0.5 blocks, 1.8 steals
Andre Iguodala has yet to make his on-court debut for the Nuggets, but he doesn't need to for us to know how indispensable he instantly became to the city of Denver.
Despite an impressive year that culminated in pushing the Lakers to the brink in the postseason, the Nuggets were clearly in need of a star. Not a budding young prospect, not a potential star, but a playoff-tested, NBA-approved star.
And that's what the Nuggets got in Iguodala. They also got one of the most versatile players in the league, who is a premier all-around defender, strong scorer and able to man the point at the drop of a dime.
Insert Iguodala alongside Denver's up-and-coming supporting cast and you have a recipe—with him as the main ingredient—for championship contention.
2011-2012 Per-Game Stats: 17.6 points, 11.0 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.2 blocks, 1.5 steals
DeMarcus Cousins, unlike the Kings themselves, is on the rise.
Though the center is known for his volatile antics, there is no denying his value to the city of Sacramento.
At 21, Cousins is already one of the most polished centers in the league. He's a crafty scorer in the low post who will feast off pick-and-rolls or create his own opportunities, a fierce rebounder, deft passer and impenetrable defender with great anticipation and knack for blocking shots in bunches.
No, Cousins' general attitude is not a desirable quality, but everything else about him screams cornerstone.
And as the 2012-13 crusade unfolds, the latter notion will have never held more true.
2011-2012 Per-Game Stats: 19.1 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 0.8 blocks, 1.5 steals
Rudy Gay doesn't receive nearly enough credit.
Sure, the Grizzlies embarked on a Cinderella story of epic proportions without him in 2011, and yes, Memphis imploded in 2012 with him, but that hardly tells the entire story.
How about the fact that the Grizzlies went from an eighth seed without him, to a fourth seed with him? How about the fact that he led the team in scoring by a 4.5 point margin? And how about the fact that he was often called upon to run the offense when Mike Conley was on the bench?
Truth be told, Gay is one of the best two-way forwards in the game. He's a strong defender who can lock down the perimeter or contest shots on the block, and he's the most versatile scorer the Grizzlies currently have.
If you take him out of the equation, perhaps Memphis makes the playoffs. However, insert him into the lineup and the Grizzlies instantly make the transition from underdog to dark-horse favorite.
That's saying something. A great deal, actually.
2011-2012 Per-Game Stats: 18.8 points, 9.6 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.8 blocks, 1.4 steals
Josh Smith is no stranger to butting heads, but he's also no stranger to in-game domination.
The freakishly athletic forward can exploit the opposition in all facets of the game. He's explosive at the rim, has greatly improved the mechanics on his jump shot, possesses a thirst for rebounds that rivals that of Dwight Howard, is a shot-blocking machine and a source of perpetual energy.
It's no wonder Atlanta essentially moved Joe Johnson in favor of him; Smith is a one-man, two-way wrecking crew.
Now the Hawks are his team. He's responsible for their well-being; boom or bust, he will be the one held accountable for how their 2012-13 campaign unfolds.
And you know what? That's great news for Atlanta.
2011-2012 Per-Game Stats: 21.7 points, 8.0 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 0.8 blocks, 0.9 steals
What you must keep in mind is that Portland was supposed to contend for a title last season, but wound up missing the playoffs completely, entering a full-fledged free-fall when injuries forced LaMarcus Aldridge to sit on the sidelines.
Had it not been for Aldridge, the Blazers never would have even toiled with the prospect of clinching a postseason berth.
But while Portland's expectations have been lowered substantially heading into the 2012-13 docket, Aldridge's impact ceiling has done anything but. The man is one of the most underrated players in the NBA, which should come as quite a surprise, considering his MVP-esque stat lines and commanding on-court leadership.
That apparently can't buy respect, as Aldridge continues to be overlooked by the common fan and even some renowned pundits.
Appreciated or not, though, Aldridge is the clear MVP of the Blazers, as even now he is a beacon of hope during this wildly uncertain time.
2011-2012 Per-Game Stats: 18.9 points, 12.1 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.9 blocks, 0.4 steals
Finally, Andrew Bynum has become the man. And before he's even stepped foot on the court in Philadelphia, the leadership role already looks good on him.
When the Sixers shipped Andre Iguodala off to Denver, they relinquished their most talented playmaker, only increasing the importance of someone like Bynum.
Though plenty of big men are in need of lead-in passes with every touch they get, Philadelphia can just dump the ball off to Bynum in the block, where he has proven quite capable of creating his own offense, even carrying that of the Lakers at times.
Factor in a Defensive Player of the Year-like mindset, and the Sixers have themselves a dominant young superstar who will prove to be the difference between feigning competency and contending for a title.
2011-2012 Per-Game Stats: 18.5 points, 2.8 rebounds, 7.7 assists, 0.1 blocks, 1.0 steals
Tony Parker has game. So much game, in fact, the Spurs wouldn't appear nearly as ageless as they do without him running the show.
The 30-year-old point guard may have a spotty jump shot, but he's great at navigating his way in and out of the paint, creating easy looks at the rim for himself and wide-open attempts for his teammates.
Defensively, Parker hardly receives enough credit. Sure, his ability to pick the occasional pocket has been revered to some extent, but watch closely, and you'll see an athlete completely committed to each movement he makes; everything Parker does defensively is calculated, courtesy of superior anticipation that allows him to defend even the quickest of first steps.
Sleeper candidate for the 2012-13 MVP award, anyone?
Because while both Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili are integral cogs in San Antonio's machine, Parker is more than that; he's vital to the Spurs' survival.
2011-2012 Per-Game Stats: 21.8 points, 6.8 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 0.5 blocks, 0.7 steals
Dirk Nowitzki is old, but that hasn't rendered him any less effective or valuable to the Mavericks.
While Dallas' deft offseason patchwork set the stage for the team to at least broach the realm of title contention, there's no hope, no championship window without Nowitzki.
The 34-year-old power forward has unlimited range and is the most crafty inside-out scoring presence the league has ever seen. He hurts opposing defenses in so many different ways, whether it's making that extra pass, attacking the basket or simply Jackie Chan-ing his way to a fade-away.
Everything the Mavericks were, everything they are, and everything they will become is because of Nowitzki.
He's not just their MVP, he's their end-all.
2011-2012 Per-Game Stats: 21.0 points, 3.3 rebounds, 8.7 assists, 0.4 blocks, 1.2 steals
The Nets head into Brooklyn with high expectations, which they would have no chance of actualizing without Deron Williams.
Not only is the especially strong point guard one of the league's best playmakers, but he's a dangerous scorer off the dribble who's known to draw fouls. His defensive stances are also admirable, as his quick hands and feet allow him to frustrate his opponents.
Easily the most important factoid about Williams, though, is his leadership. In Utah, he led a docket laden with odds and ends to relevancy, meaning he's just the floor general Brooklyn needs.
You see, as good as the Nets look on paper, there's no guarantee Joe Johnson remains a perimeter shooting savant, no guarantee Gerald Wallace remains involved and no guarantee Brook Lopez gets the rock where he feels most comfortable.
Except that there is a guarantee, in the form of Williams.
2011-2012 Per-Game Stats: 22.6 points, 6.3 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 0.5 blocks, 1.2 steals
Carmelo Anthony means a great deal to the Knicks, even more so than Tyson Chandler.
Though Chandler is invaluable to New York's success, specifically on defense, the addition of Marcus Camby has made his job easier, ever so slightly.
But not Anthony's. He's the one who will be held responsible for all the Knicks' accolades and failures, the one who will be the focal point of the offense and expected to ramp up his game defensively; he is the one this team invested everything—and continue to invest everything—in.
As far as end-alls go, there's no doubt Anthony is one. Even alongside the likes of Chandler and Amar'e Stoudemire, 'Melo is the one the team turns to for an answer.
After all, New York is going as far as one of the game's most overly criticized takes it.
2011-2012 Per-Game Stats: 28.1 points, 5.4 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 0.3 blocks, 1.2 steals
The arrivals of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash have rendered Kobe Bryant close to expendable to the Lakers, right?
Wrong. Even in a role of diminished importance, Bryant is still Los Angeles' most valuable commodity.
Because while Howard is tasked with surviving alongside Pau Gasol and Nash expected to lead this newly-formed quartet toward a title, Bryant remains Los Angeles' end-all.
Not only does Bryant have the power to both further and cripple the Lakers' dynamic through his willingness to make adjustments; without him, there is no chance for a championship.
That says it all—and rightfully so.
2011-2012 Per-Game Stats: 26.0 points, 13.3 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 0.5 blocks, 0.9 steals
Kevin Love has proved to be so much more than a one-trick pony.
Not only has the power forward developed limitless range, but his rebounding prowess continues to amaze, and he's even stepped up his interior defense.
And while there's a case to be made for Ricky Rubio's selection here, the fact is the Timberwolves would have imploded just as quickly had it been Love, not Rubio, who was watching from the sidelines.
Love single-handedly allowed Minnesota to regain a sense of relevancy, and did so before the arrival of Rubio, all before he was 23, in fact.
That's correct. One of the league's most valuable commodities hasn't even hit his prime yet, which is great news for the budding Timberwolves.
For the rest of the league, though? Not so much.
2011-2012 Per-Game Stats: 12.1 points, 4.9 rebounds, 11.6 assists, 0.1 blocks, 1.8 steals
Is he controversial? Yes. Is his jump shot broken? Yes. Has that prevented him from becoming the Celtics' most valuable commodity?
No, absolutely not.
Rondo is one of the league's most dynamic point guards. He carries himself and the ball in seamless fashion, navigates his way in and out of the paint without breaking a sweat and is the epitome of unselfish. His suffocating defense doesn't hurt his cause either.
Without Rondo, do we really believe Boston would still be considered a title contender?
Again, absolutely not. Because Rondo is the Celtics.
2011-2012 Per-Game Stats: 19.3 points, 3.5 rebounds, 9.0 assists, 0.1 blocks, 2.4 steals
Lob City without Chris Paul simply wouldn't be Lob City at all.
Almost single-handedly, Paul transformed the Clippers from one of the league's biggest laughing stocks to one of its most formidable contenders. Not bad for less than a year's work, is it?
While we revel in Blake Griffin's highlight dunks, let it be known he only has the opportunity to go airborne courtesy of Paul, whose penchant for breaking down defenses opens up an array of offensive doors for his teammates.
Los Angeles' point guard plays with substance; every shot, every pass, every step has a purpose.
And now, thanks to Paul, so do the Clippers.
2011-2012 Per-Game Stats: 27.8 points, 7.9 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.2 blocks, 1.4 steals
No one on the Thunder has anything on Kevin Durant, including Russell Westbrook.
Though Oklahoma City boasts one of the deepest rosters in the league, this is a team that is hardly a playoff entity without its small forward.
Durant cannot only score from anywhere on the floor, in any which way imaginable, but he's an athletic freak who crashes the boards hard despite his lanky frame. And now he's developed a defensive conscience.
And as undeniably talented as Durant is, he's still wildly underestimated. But the "he's too fragile" and "he doesn't play defense" arguments just won't cut it anymore, because he's disproved both of them, instead proving he's not only the second-most valuable player in the league, but the second-best one overall.
2011-2012 Per-Game Stats: 27.1 points, 7.9 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 0.8 blocks, 1.9 steals
There's nothing LeBron James can't do.
On a team lined with superstars and stacked to the high heavens in general, James has managed to distinguish himself in ways he never has before, even in Cleveland.
Remember back in 2010, when the Miami thrice first came into existence? Of course you do, because it changed everything, including the MVP conversation. Surely when three top-20 talents joined forces none of them would be in the running for such an honor. After all, it's about more than stats, it's about indispensability, right?
That's correct, and that's exactly what James is to the Heat—indispensable.
Would Miami appear near unbeatable every night without James? Do the Heat win the 2012 NBA championship sans LeBron? Could Chris Bosh or Dwyane Wade carry the immensely heavy, two-way burdens James has?
No, three times over.
James is his own breed of athlete. He can play every position, and play them well; he's dominant in every facet of the game, from scoring to facilitating to defense.
Again, there's nothing James can't do. But there's plenty the Heat couldn't do without him.