The NBA's true MVP contenders have started to put some space between themselves and the rest of the pack a quarter of the way into the 2012-13 season.
It's no surprise to see LeBron James of the Miami Heat and Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder battling at the top, especially after each player took home his respective conference's Player of the Month award for November.
Some of the other names in the top six, however, may be a shock. That is, unless you expected to see a player who's never finished higher than sixth in the MVP race before or a 36-year-old who's continuing to defy time. (A "timeless clock," as Chris Bosh would say.)
While the contenders have begun separating from the pretenders, there's still time for an MVP candidate to rise from obscurity and join the elite candidates.
He'll just have a brutal time overcoming the other top superstars in the MVP race. But besides that...it's totally doable!
Note: Statistics and records are current through games played on Dec. 10. Last week's MVP rankings are here.
Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Don't look now, but over the Golden State Warriors' eight games from Nov. 24 through Dec. 10, Stephen Curry scored at least 20 points in all of them. In four of those eight games, he chipped in double-digit assist totals.
After a rough shooting start in November (43 percent from the field), Curry has been shooting 47.2 percent from the field, 51.2 percent from three-point range and 88.5 percent from the charity stripe in December. If he keeps those averages up and the Warriors keep up their winning ways, he'll rocket up this list in no time.
O.J. Mayo, Dallas Mavericks
Over the first week and a half in December, O.J. Mayo essentially transformed into a mini-James Harden, averaging 24 points, 5.8 rebounds and 4.6 assists over five games.
His league-high 53 shooting average from three-point range (on 5.9 attempts per game) all but screams "unsustainable," but the longer he keeps this up, the harder it becomes to believe it's an anomaly.
Rajon Rondo, Boston Celtics
After serving his two-game suspension for fighting with Kris Humphries of the Brooklyn Nets, Rajon Rondo returned to the Boston Celtics on Dec. 5 and started dishing assists like he never left.
The only game in 2012-13 in which he's played and hasn't posted double-digit assist totals? The game where he fought Humphries and got ejected after only playing 18 minutes.
Tony Parker, San Antonio Spurs
Tony Parker posted the first triple-double of his career on Dec. 10, believe it or not, in a 134-126 win over the Houston Rockets.
As the floor general for the team with the league's best record through the first quarter of the season, Parker gets almost automatic MVP consideration. His per-game averages of 18.9 points on 51.3 percent shooting(!), 7.6 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 1.6 steals only help his case.
Anderson Varejao, Cleveland Cavaliers
Can a single play make a player MVP-worthy? If so, I submit Anderson Varejao's pump fake that shook Dwight Howard out of his shoes, freeing Varejao to posterize Jordan Hill like there was no tomorrow.
The fact that Varejao is posting a career-high PER of 22.6 along with per-game averages of 14.5 points and a league-leading 15.2 rebounds only bolsters that case, despite the Cleveland Cavaliers' putrid 4-17 record heading into Dec. 11.
Just missed the cut: Al Horford, Atlanta Hawks
Dropped from rankings: Damian Lillard (honorable mention last week)
Last week's ranking: 10
As long as James Harden keeps on performing as well as he did through the first quarter of 2012-13, I'm going to keep harping on one point every time he appears here.
To anyone who didn't think Harden was worth a five-year, $80 million maximum contract extension (here's looking at you, Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis), how do you feel about that theory these days?
In his first 19 games as the Houston Rockets' No. 1 offensive option, Harden averaged 24.7 points, 5.6 assists, 4.4 rebounds and 1.7 steals.
His shooting percentages—42.9 percent from the field, 34.5 percent from deep—stand to improve, as each are well below his career averages. That should come in time.
His turnovers (4.1 per game), while understandable for now, can't continue at such a high rate if he's to be considered a legitimate MVP candidate. As he grows more comfortable with Jeremy Lin and vice versa, his giveaways should decrease somewhat, too.
Last week's ranking: 7
With Andrew Bynum continuing to remain out indefinitely, the Philadelphia 76ers have essentially been sinking or swimming with the play of Evan Turner and Jrue Holiday.
Luckily for Philadelphia, Holiday appears to have finally made the leap that many NBA analysts expected from him in 2011-12.
Through 21 games, Holiday has averaged career highs in points (18), assists (8.9) and minutes (38.4) per game. When the 76ers traded Andre Iguodala for Bynum in the 2012 offseason, the team was effectively handing control of the offense to Holiday, for better or worse.
Holiday hit a rough patch in the first week of December, but he's still making the four-year, $41 million extension he signed after the Sixers' opening game of the season look like a steal.
If Bynum ever does come back and helps boost the Sixers into the Eastern Conference elite, Holiday could have a realistic shot at being a dark-horse sleeper pick for MVP.
Until then, the Sixers hovering around .500 won't get it done for him.
Last week's ranking: 9
The Los Angeles Clippers' half-court offense hasn't been a strength in the first quarter of 2012-13, but Chris Paul has made the team's fast-break offense into one of the most dangerous in the league.
The Clips rank second behind the Dallas Mavericks in terms of fast-break points with 17.6 per game, according to TeamRankings.com.
Paul's done his part by averaging 9.3 assists per game, second in the league behind only Rajon Rondo, and he's contributing a league-leading 2.6 steals per game, too.
Despite playing a career-low 33.4 minutes per game, Paul remains the unquestioned leader of the Clippers. He's the team's tone-setter, while Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan add the exclamation points with vicious dunks.
In short, Paul has re-seized the throne as the NBA's top point guard with Derrick Rose sidelined by a torn ACL.
By guiding the team to a 14-6 record as of Dec. 10, Paul and the Clippers are shockingly the Los Angeles team reigning supreme after the first quarter of 2012-13.
Last week's ranking: 6
Russell Westbrook, despite all the criticism about not being a "true" point guard, is averaging a career-high 8.5 assists per game through 21 games for Oklahoma City in 2012-13.
Take that, haters.
Westbrook had a case of the turnovers at the end of November and beginning of December, giving the ball away 18 times in three games against the Utah Jazz, New Orleans Hornets and Brooklyn Nets.
In the Oklahoma City Thunder's two games since, against the Los Angeles Lakers and Indiana Pacers, Westbrook put up a total of 54 points, 14 assists, eight rebounds and only four turnovers.
Despite having the third-highest usage rate in the league, Westbrook is posting a career-low turnover rate of only 10.3, according to ESPN.com's John Hollinger (subscription required).
If Westbrook's assist numbers stay in the career-high range while he keeps his turnovers in check, the other facets of his game will keep him in the thick of the MVP conversation deep into the 2012-13 season.
Last week's ranking: 5
Tim Duncan is living proof of the existence of the fountain of youth, right?
Despite having 15 years of NBA experience under his belt, the 36-year-old is averaging 17.7 points, 9.9 rebounds and 2.4 blocks in just over 30 minutes per game for the 18-4 San Antonio Spurs.
After a 27-point, 15-rebound explosion against the Memphis Grizzlies on Dec. 1, Duncan cooled down somewhat over the next week and a half.
With that said, he still posted double-doubles in four of the Spurs' five most recent games and already has 12 double-doubles on the season. Even though it's a player as timeless as Duncan, that's simply incredible.
The true ding against Duncan's MVP candidacy in 2013? Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.
Pop will continue to keep Duncan hovering around the 30-minutes-per-game mark throughout the rest of the season, making it difficult for Duncan to remain a true MVP contender.
Last week's ranking: 8
The Memphis Grizzlies are not so quietly off to one of the best starts in the 2012-13 season, largely thanks to a fully healthy Zach Randolph.
Z-Bo tore his MCL in January and never quite made it back to being 100 percent healthy in the 2011-12 season. He returned in March, but the Grizzlies still got bounced from the 2012 playoffs early.
Through 18 games this season, the Z-Bo of 2010-11 has returned, as Randolph is averaging 17.6 points on 49.8 percent shooting from the field and 12.9 boards per game.
He ranks second in the league to only Anderson Varejao of the Cleveland Cavaliers in terms of total rebounds per game and offensive rebounds per game. He's also posted double-doubles in 15 of the Grizzlies' 18 games to date.
Against the Phoenix Suns on Dec. 4, Randolph went on a late-game rampage, dropping 38 points and 22 rebounds in an overtime 108-98 win. In the past 10 years, only Randolph and Dwight Howard have a game with at least 38 points and 22 rebounds, according to Basketball Reference.
He's been a brute force offensively, especially on the glass, and continues to do the dirty work on the defensive glass, too. As long as the Grizzlies maintain their elite record, there's no reason Randolph shouldn't be meriting legitimate MVP consideration.
Last week's ranking: 3
It's only becoming more and more difficult to keep Kobe Bryant in the top five of the 2013 MVP rankings as the Los Angeles Lakers continue their plunge below .500.
That's no fault of Bryant's, who's leading the league in scoring with 28.6 points per game on 48.2 percent shooting from the field and 39.8 percent from three-point range—both percentages career highs.
He's also chipping in five rebounds, 4.9 assists and 1.7 steals per game for the Lakers, who fell to 9-12 overall after losing to the Utah Jazz on Dec. 9.
With Steve Nash having been sidelined by a fractured fibula since the second game of the season and Dwight Howard bricking away game after game at the free-throw line, Bryant's been just about the only thing preventing the Lakers into entering a complete and total tailspin.
Bryant's 3.8 turnovers per game would be a major ding against his MVP candidacy, but the return of Nash (whenever it may be) should help alleviate some of the offensive pressure off Bryant's shoulders.
If he continues leading the league in scoring while shooting a career high from the field and/or three-point range, Bryant will be right in the thick of the MVP race in April despite being in his 17th NBA season.
Last week's ranking: 4
In Year 10 of his NBA career, Carmelo Anthony finally appears ready to become the all-around player that critics have been clamoring for since 2003.
Anthony looks like he hasn't skipped a beat since winning a gold medal with Team USA at the 2012 Olympics. He thrived as an off-ball sharpshooter in London and has only kept letting it fly with the New York Knicks, averaging a career-high 5.6 attempts from three-point range per game through 18 games.
He also happens to be hitting a career-high 2.4 of those attempts per game, shooting a career-high 43 percent average from downtown.
Despite having the highest usage rate in the league, Anthony is only averaging 3.2 turnovers per game. As a result of his shooting efficiency and relative lack of turnovers, he's posting a career-high PER of 24.05, according to HoopData.
By virtue of being 6'8" small forwards drafted in the top five of the 2003 NBA draft, not to mention their high school history against one another, Anthony and LeBron James have always been held up to each other's standards.
Anthony will never match James' passing acumen, but it's clear that he's putting in the work in the passing game and on defense that he occasionally ignored before 2012-13. You know, the same attributes that helped James win the 2012 NBA championship with the Miami Heat.
As a result of Anthony's new-found dedication, the Knicks look better than even the most optimistic of fans could expect (especially given Amar'e Stoudemire's injury), and Anthony looks like a true MVP candidate.
Last week's ranking: 2
The Miami Heat may have lost back-to-back games on Dec. 4 against the Washington Wizards and Dec. 6 against the New York Knicks, but it's tough to fault LeBron James for either loss.
James finished one assist shy from back-to-back triple-doubles, putting up 26 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists against the Wizards and following up with 31 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists against the Knicks.
Through 19 games, he's shooting a career-high 54.3 percent from the field and 44.1 percent from three-point range, averaging 25.2 points, 8.8 rebounds, 6.8 assists, 1.4 steals and 0.8 blocks per game.
In short: James remains a walking triple-double waiting to happen.
It doesn't hurt his MVP candidacy that he's the most unique defender in the NBA, able to guard every position from point guards through centers with few exceptions.
Watch the way James takes over Miami's close games on both ends of the court and it's difficult to imagine a player being more valuable to his team.
One potential ding on James' resume, as highlighted by ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst, is free-throws shooting. He's averaging a career-low 66.4 percent shooting from the charity stripe while only drawing 5.8 free-throw attempts per game, the lowest since his rookie season.
No one's comparing James' struggles at the free-throw line to Dwight Howard's, but it's still somewhat of a concern for a team that's likely to find itself in some close games come playoffs time.
Last week's ranking: 1
Kevin Durant is only growing more comfortable with the extra offensive responsibilities he took upon himself once James Harden was traded a few days before the start of the season.
That's the rest of the league's worst nightmare.
Through 21 games, Durant helped guide the Oklahoma City Thunder to a 17-4 record with per-game averages of 27 points, 8.5 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.4 blocks. All but his points-per-game averages would be career highs if he can maintain them through the next 62 games.
He trails only Kobe Bryant for the NBA lead in points per game, making a fourth straight scoring title an entirely realistic prospect for the Thunder superstar.
Perhaps more importantly, however, are his percentages; he's shooting 50.6 percent from the field, 44 percent from three-point range and 89.5 percent from the charity stripe. That's dangerously close to the 50-40-90 club, which is virtually unfathomable for a player who generates as much on-court attention from opponents as Durant.
As noted by Matt Moore of CBSSports.com, no player in NBA history has led the league in scoring while shooting 50-40-90.
If Durant manages to do so, LeBron James may need to start averaging close to a triple-double to stop K.D. from winning MVP, no matter what LBJ can do defensively.
Also of note: The Thunder are 24.5 points better per 100 possessions with Durant on the court instead of on the bench, according to 82games.com. He trails only Thaddeus Young of the Philadelphia 76ers (plus-25.2) in that regard.