Real NBA MVP Race Is for Runner-Up Now

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Real NBA MVP Race Is for Runner-Up Now
Richard Rowe-USA TODAY Sports

Even as Miami Heat megastar LeBron James walks away with the 2012-13 NBA MVP award, he hasn't completely sapped the drama out of the race.

It's just become a battle for second place, an honor lost on Ricky Bobby perhaps, but not on a number of eligible candidates steamrolled by the 6'8", 250-pound locomotive by the name of James.

James has dazzled the NBA faithful with a performance befitting his King's crown.

The reigning MVP has lengthened his lead in the all-encompassing player efficiency rating standings. His 31.53 PER (via ESPN.com) is the only such mark to double the average 15.0 rating, more than two points higher than second place (Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant, 28.68) and five points ahead of third place (Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul 26.09).

He's the only player in the league's top-25 scorers—fourth, 27 points per game—shooting above 55 percent (56.3 to be exact). And the only player among the top-50 rebounders—24th, 8.2 per game—averaging at least five assists per game (7.2).

James' versatility was on full display during the Heat's 14th straight win on March 3.

With James already clearing shelf space for his fourth MVP award in the past five seasons, the focus is (or should be) on who will share the podium.

Durant's the front-runner for runner-up. That rolls right off the tongue, doesn't it?. 

He's guided the Thunder to the third-best record in the NBA (43-16). He ranks in Oklahoma City's top two in points (first, 28.6), rebounds (tied for first, 7.8), assists (second, 4.6), steals (second, 1.5) and blocks (tied for second, 1.2).

Perhaps spurred by his intense offseason workouts with James—dubbed "Hell Week," according to ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst—Durant has retooled his approach to the defensive end. He's used his length, 6'9", and elite basketball instincts to cause the same kind of havoc on that side of the floor that he has been on the opposite end during his run of three straight scoring titles.

Durant's defense has given the Thunder more fast-break opportunities, and he's been one of the biggest beneficiaries.

Durant doesn't have quite the stranglehold on second that James has on first place. Not with Paul, New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony, Houston Rockets guard James Harden and San Antonio Spurs guard Tony Parker providing their own impressive resumes.

If the value aspect of the award actually overcame the importance of statistics in terms of voting, Paul might well be the front-runner.

With Paul in the lineup, the Clippers hold a 37-13 record (.740 winning percentage). Without their floor general on the floor, coach Vinny Del Negro's team has limped to a forgettable 6-6 mark.

His style of play keeps him from posting the type of gaudy numbers that his competitors do. His 16.4 PPG are nothing to scoff at, but they're not going to turn many heads with four of the league's top-five scorers in the same discussion.

He seems to enter games with a determination to involve his teammates, with an uncanny knack of understanding when his team needs him to score. As the clock ticks down, Paul embraces a cold-blooded scorer's mentality.

Paul knows where he's most effective and how to work his way to those spots on the floor.

Anthony surged to an early-season MVP lead on the strength of his team's scorching 18-5 surge to start the season. Like Durant, New York's talented scorer (28.2 PPG) revamped his defensive effort, commanding award-worthy attention in the process.

As the Knicks have cooled considerably of late (5-6 in their last 11), so too have Anthony's MVP claims. And his runner-up possibilities could be set for a free fall after the Knicks star left with a knee injury in the first half of their March 4 matchup with the Cleveland Cavaliers and did not return, via Jared Zwerling of ESPNNewYork.com.

The Knicks can ill afford a lengthy absence from Anthony.

Harden's first season in Houston has seen him compile numbers that are impossible to ignore: 26.2 points, 4.8 rebounds and 5.7 assists per game. He's grasped the spotlight that never came his way during his three seasons in Oklahoma City. And in the process, he's threatened to follow up his 2012 Sixth Man of the Year Award with the 2013 Most Improved Player Award.

His biggest hurdle to overcome, though, will be the comparative levels of team success. While James, Durant, Anthony, Paul and Parker all play for their respective conference's top three seeds, Harden's Rockets are mired in a dog fight for one of the final playoff seeds out West.

Of course, that could just as easily work in his favor. Considering he's poured in better than 10 points per game more than any of his teammates, it's hard to envision Houston having even postseason pipe dreams without him.

After losing twice to his former team, Harden's career-high 46 points carried the Rockets past the Thunder on Feb. 20.

As for Parker, he had quietlyas if there's any other way that the Spurs operategenerated strong MVP consideration this season before suffering a Grade 2 left ankle sprain that could sideline the San Antonio star for the next four weeks, according to Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today.

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Even if he misses the majority of the remaining season, his accomplishments will keep him in the discussion. Despite injuries to many key teammates, including Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard, Parker has carried the Spurs to the league's best record (47-14).

He's averaged 21 points on 53.3 percent shooting from the field to go along with an impressive 7.6 assists to just 2.5 turnovers per game.

A race for MVP runner-up may not be how these players envisioned closing out their strong seasons, but it's still a great credit to their achievements.

It's the "King's" world, and we're all just living in it. And these five players have been living larger than most.

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