Early in the season, the race to the 2013 NBA MVP appeared certain to come down to the final few weeks.
LeBron James laid that theory to rest after tearing through February with unprecedented efficiency.
With the Miami Heat now riding a franchise-record 18-game winning streak, they have all but locked up the best record in the Eastern Conference, only furthering James' runaway MVP candidacy.
The award might look like a lock for James, but the Los Angeles Lakers' recent run has Kobe Bryant firmly back in the MVP conversation.
Amazingly, Bryant has only won one regular season MVP award over the span of his entire illustrious career. He'd have to keep the 40-point games flowing, but winning the MVP this year essentially could be a career recognition award and a mea culpa from voters for years past.
Bryant isn't the only MVP candidate rising as we approach the home stretch. To be on this list, a player either has to be the undisputed best player on his team, one of the league leaders in a major statistical category or on a team with one of the best records in the league.
What will it take for Bryant or another superstar to sneak up in the final few weeks of the season and snatch the MVP from James' grasp? Let's find out.
Note: Statistics and records are current through games played on March 10, except where otherwise noted. See last week's rankings here.
In alphabetical order:
Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs
With Tony Parker out for the next few weeks, Tim Duncan has taken it upon himself to go right back to being the leader of the San Antonio Spurs. He posted back-to-back games in early March with at least 15 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks despite playing roughly 30 minutes per game.
Duncan, a leading MVP candidate at the beginning of the season, never really had a chance at the award due to coach Gregg Popovich. There's no faulting Pop for keeping Duncan rested for the playoffs, but it's doing him no favors in the MVP race.
Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers
What were the odds in the preseason that Blake Griffin wouldn't be the Los Angeles Clipper with the nastiest dunk of the year? DeAndre Jordan may have one-upped Griffin's alley-oop game by annihilating poor Brandon Knight, but Griffin's the big man that keeps the Clippers' engine running.
Despite playing a career-low in minutes, Griffin has been a monster this season, as evidenced by his 23-point, 11-rebound, 11-assist effort in a 117-101 win over the Milwaukee Bucks on March 6. To put it plainly, Griffin has become a more well-rounded player, which only spells trouble for the NBA's other 29 teams.
Ty Lawson, Denver Nuggets
The Denver Nuggets have taken the destruction-by-committee approach all season, but Ty Lawson earns his first berth in these MVP rankings based on what he's been doing since the All-Star break.
After averaging a more-than-respectable 15.8 points per game pre-All-Star break, Lawson has jumped up to over 23 points per game since mid-February. Considering that the Nuggets are only a few games out of the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference, Lawson will have no shortage of chances to move up this list in the coming weeks.
Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls
Despite battling plantar fasciitis, Joakim Noah continues to deliver gutty performances for his wounded Chicago Bulls. The latest came on March 10 in a 90-81 loss against the Los Angeles Lakers, where Noah battled inside against Dwight Howard all game and finished with 18 points, 17 rebounds, three assists, three blocks and a steal.
Even if Derrick Rose doesn't return this season, Noah will help guide Chicago into the playoffs. The eighth-seeded Milwaukee Bucks only trail the fifth-seeded Bulls by a handful of games, however, raising the question of just how long the Bulls will last in the playoffs once they get there.
Tony Parker, San Antonio Spurs
Given that Tony Parker was a top-three MVP candidate all of two weeks ago, I'm not planning on fully dropping him off this list. The second he returns to the court, his status as a top-10 MVP candidate likely returns with him.
Parker's return to the lineup could occur sooner than expected, according to the San Antonio Express-News. He's already running on a treadmill just over a week after spraining his left ankle, which has the Spurs optimistic about a possible return in late March.
Just missed the cut: Al Horford, Atlanta Hawks; Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies
Dropped from rankings: Zach Randolph (injury)
Last week's ranking: Honorable Mention
The Golden State Warriors may be running cold since the start of February, but that's not Stephen Curry's fault.
The dynamic point guard followed up his 54-point explosion at Madison Square Garden on February 27 with three straight games in which he finished with at least 25 points and six assists.
Through the Dubs' first six games in March, Curry averaged 22.3 points, 8.7 assists and 3.5 rebounds per game, but he shot only 39.4 percent from the field in that span. His three-point shooting efficiency, normally the gem of his resume, also dipped down to 35.2 percent in those first six March games.
To put that in perspective, Curry finished February shooting 47.9 percent from the field and 48.4 percent from three-point range. (Yes, he shot better from deep than he did overall, and yes, that's insane.)
For Curry to make a late-season charge up these MVP rankings, he'll need to right the Warriors' ship and put some distance between Golden State and the final few Western Conference playoff contenders. If the Dubs fall below the No. 6 seed, Curry's chances of finishing as a top-five MVP candidate go kaput.
Odds of winning MVP: 0.25 percent
Last week's ranking: 10
Paul George hasn't necessarily done anything since last week's rankings to justify moving up this week; it's more by virtue of Tony Parker falling out of the top 10 due to injury.
Danny Granger's return to the Indiana Pacers lineup in late February could have derailed George's faint MVP chances, but Granger is already back on the sideline nursing a sore left knee.
With Granger out again, the Pacers once again need to rely on George to be their primary wing scorer. Since the start of March, however, George has been somewhat struggling with his shot, finishing only 38.7 percent from the field in the Pacers' first five games of the month.
He's still a do-it-all forward that appears to be a breakout star in the making, but that type of paltry shooting efficiency is enough to derail even the strongest MVP candidate.
The Pacers are virtually neck-and-neck with the New York Knicks for the No. 2 spot in the Eastern Conference, with Miami having all but locked up the East's best record already. George will need to rediscover his shooting stroke and guide the Pacers past the Knicks in the standings to have any chance of finishing within the top five in the MVP race.
Odds of winning MVP: 0.25 percent
Last week's ranking: 6
The Knicks went 2-1 so far without him, including a 95-94 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder in which he would have proven mighty valuable as a late-game option instead of J.R. Smith, who bricked two long-range jumpers.
Anthony started the season looking like one of the leading MVP candidates, but cooled off even before this latest injury. After shooting nearly 47 percent from the field in November and December, he shot only 42 percent in January and fell to 40.6 percent in February.
Melo still ranks as the No. 2 scorer in the league (averaging 27.9 points per game) behind only Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder (28.4 PPG), but he's averaging nearly four more shot attempts per game than Durant to get there.
Due to the knee injury and the Knicks' general malaise in 2013, Anthony has fallen to 12th in the league in PER (23), and he is just outside the top 20 in win shares with 6.7, according to Basketball Reference. That's the resume of a fringe MVP candidate, at best.
Odds of winning MVP: 0.5 percent
Last week's ranking: 9
Kevin Durant may be the Oklahoma City Thunder superstar drawing most of the MVP consideration, but Russell Westbrook deserves a mention in the MVP race too.
After struggling with his shooting efficiency early in the season, Westbrook finished February shooting 50.3 percent. That marked the first time in Westbrook's young career that he shot at least 50 percent over an entire month.
He hasn't cooled off much in March, shooting 46.9 percent through the Thunder's first seven games of the month. His assist totals, however, have fallen, dropping from over eight per game in November and December to 5.4 per game in March.
Still, it's tough to complain about a player averaging 25.1 points, 5.4 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 1.7 steals in only 35.1 minutes per game, which is exactly what Westbrook's been doing in March.
Durant, as always, will be Westbrook's primary obstacle in the MVP race. When your teammate is widely considered one of the league's top MVP candidates, it's tough for you to be taken seriously in the race as well, a phenomenon that Dwyane Wade has become well accustomed to over the past few seasons.
Odds of winning MVP: 1 percent
Last week's ranking: 5
Before the year started, James Harden faced questions such as, "Is he really worth a max contract? Can he carry a franchise on his shoulders?"
The Houston Rockets have only one response: a resounding yes.
Harden's shooting efficiency has dipped since the beginning of March, with him only knocking down 39.2 percent of his shots in Houston's first five games of the month, but he's still finding other ways to contribute. He averaged 26.2 points, 8.6 assists, 5.2 rebounds and 2.0 steals per game in those five games and took 12.4 shots from the charity stripe each game, too.
The Bearded One continues to lead the NBA in free-throw attempts (10.1), as he's quickly emerged as one of the league's most unstoppable players in the open court. He ranks third in the league in win shares (10.6) and ninth in PER (23.7), according to Basketball Reference.
Harden has guided the Rockets to the seventh-best record in the Western Conference, a half-game ahead of the eighth-seeded Los Angeles Lakers. The fifth-seeded Denver Nuggets are out of reach with an 8.5-game lead over Houston, but the sixth seed is up for grabs with the Golden State Warriors only 1.5 games ahead.
Odds of winning MVP: 1.5 percent
Last week's ranking: 8
Dwyane Wade takes the biggest leap of any player in this week's MVP rankings due to the Miami Heat's collective excellence and his recent superlative play.
LeBron James isn't the only Heat player working at maximum efficiency lately. Wade shot 58.3 percent from the field through Miami's first six games in March and has dropped at least 20 points in each of Miami's past nine games dating back to Feb. 23, too.
On the season, Wade is shooting a career-high 52.3 percent from the field and is one-tenth of an assist per game away from averaging at least 20 points, five rebounds and five assists per game this season. James, Kobe Bryant and Russell Westbrook are the only three players in the 20-5-5 club at the moment.
After a rocky start to the year, Wade has now moved up to fourth in the league in PER (24.6), according to Basketball Reference. He's also tied with David West for 11th in the league in terms of win shares (8.1) despite only averaging 34.7 minutes per game.
The Miami Heat's franchise-record 18-game winning streak helped Wade jump up a few spots in this week's MVP list, but he deserves plenty of credit, too.
Had Wade not bounced back to his typical WoW self, Miami's win streak likely would have ended long ago.
Odds of winning MVP: 2 percent
Last week's ranking: 3
If Chris Paul decides to leave the Los Angeles Clippers this summer, it will be a crime against basketball.
On March 10, Paul was on the giving end of one of the year's top highlights, feeding DeAndre Jordan for an alley-oop jam over Brandon Knight that nearly broke Twitter.
Paul finished with a tidy 20 points and 14 assists (and nary a turnover) in 31 minutes that night, blowing out the Detroit Pistons by over 30 points. It's been that kind of a season for Paul and the Clippers, who are enjoying quite possibly the finest season in franchise history.
Paul's certainly doing his part, averaging 16.4 points, 9.6 assists and a league-high 2.4 steals per game while playing about 33 minutes a night. The Clippers' depth, if anything, is Paul's greatest detriment in the MVP voting, as Eric Bledsoe has proven himself worthy of at least 15-20 minutes of burn a night.
CP3 ranks third in the league in PER (26.2) behind only LeBron James and Kevin Durant, and ranks fourth in win shares (10.5) behind James, Durant and James Harden, according to Basketball Reference.
The Clippers' tenuous hold on the third-best record in the Western Conference caused Paul to slip one spot this week, but he and the Clips still have plenty of opportunities to bounce back.
Odds of winning MVP: 2 percent
Last week's ranking: 4
Somehow, some way, Kobe Bryant willed the Los Angeles Lakers back into the thick of the Western Conference playoff race since the All-Star break.
As of the morning of March 11, the Lakers held a half-game lead over the Utah Jazz for the No. 8 seed in the West. While the Lakers have been gutting out wins in recent weeks, the Jazz have been finding new and even more painful ways to lose close games.
Without Bryant, the Lakers would once again be rudderless. A jammed elbow caused Bryant to temporarily leave the court against Oklahoma City Thunder on March 5, but the Mamba returned a short time later and finished with 30 points on the night.
In the Lakers' next two games, Bryant finished with 42 points, 12 assists and seven rebounds in a 108-102 win over the New Orleans Hornets, then encored with 41 points, 12 assists and six rebounds in a 118-116 overtime win against the Toronto Raptors.
Who was the last NBA player to finish with at least 40 points and 12 assists in two straight games? Michael Jordan back in 1989, according to Kevin Ding of the Orange County Register.
Given the Lakers' recent success, Bryant has now moved up into a tie with Blake Griffin for fifth in the league in win shares (9.3), and he's tied with Russell Westbrook for 10th in PER (23.6), according to Basketball Reference. As long as Bryant keeps the Lakers firmly in the playoffs, he'll be the NBA's most prominent late-season MVP riser.
Odds of winning MVP: 2.5 percent
Last week's ranking: 2
Had 2013 NBA MVP ballots been due at the end of January, Kevin Durant could possibly have stolen the award from LeBron James.
After James' historical wake of destruction throughout February, Durant and the rest of the league have some work to do.
Since the final few days of February, Durant has been struggling with his shot more than usual. Through the Oklahoma City Thunder's first six games in March, Durant shot only 42.6 percent from the field overall and finished only one game shooting 50 percent or better from the field.
That mini-slump has Durant teetering dangerously close to losing his grip on the 50/40/90 Club. He's now shooting 47.3 percent from the field, 37.2 percent from three-point range and 88.3 percent from the free-throw line this season.
Durant still holds the league lead in scoring (28.4 points per game), meaning that he's fewer than 20 games away from becoming the first player in NBA history to shoot 50/40/90 and lead all scorers.
He's behind only James in PER (28.5) and is tied with James in terms of win shares (15.1), according to Basketball Reference, although it's worth noting that Durant has played in two more games than the reigning MVP.
Unless K.D. starts dropping triple-doubles left and right, all he can do in this MVP race is hope for a prolonged Miami Heat slump in the next few days. Unfortunately for Durant, that seems about as likely as Dennis Rodman being named U.S. ambassador to North Korea.
Odds of winning MVP: 15 percent
Last week's ranking: 1
With the Miami Heat currently riding a franchise-record 18-game win streak, the MVP award is all but locked up for LeBron James.
After finishing February with nearly 30 points per game on 64 percent shooting, James' numbers have dipped a bit in March. Through Miami's first six games of the month, James is only averaging around 22 points per game on 50 percent shooting.
You know you're a runaway favorite for MVP when 22 points per game on 50 percent shooting can be seen as a downgrade.
James turned in his lowest scoring night of the season against the Indiana Pacers on March 10, finishing with only 13 points on 5-of-10 shooting. It was no matter for Miami, as Mario Chalmers detonated for 26 and the Heat blew the Pacers out of the water, 105-91.
Despite playing in two fewer games than Kevin Durant, James is tied with K.D. for the league lead in win shares (15.1), and has more than a two-and-a-half-point advantage over Durant and the rest of the league in terms of PER (31.1), according to Basketball-Reference.
Minnesota Timberwolves star Kevin Love may have said it best in a recent interview with Grantland's Zach Lowe. When asked about his placement on Lowe's imaginary MVP ballot, Love responded, "Everybody is playing for second at this point."
It's pretty clear who Love thinks will be first. Even if James never replicates his incredible tear through February again, he'll still be the MVP frontrunner for the next few years due to his performance on both sides of the ball.
Odds of winning MVP: 75 percent