In what has possibly been the first March when the NBA has trumped college basketball, the hotly contested race for a Western Conference playoff spot has only been matched by the equally murky debate over this season’s most valuable player.
I’ve gone back and forth from one player to another throughout the months after the All-Star break, and with just over two weeks left in the season the choice isn’t any easier. The field, however, as I’ve concluded, has been whittled down to four contenders: Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, LeBron James and Chris Paul.
Now, KG has restored legitimacy to the Boston Celtics in less than a year—an almost unfathomable notion a couple seasons ago—completely transforming everyone on their roster. His intensity, particularly on defense (the main reason for the Celtics’ success), has been infectious even to teammates who aren’t especially known for their defensive prowess (i.e. Ray Allen and Paul Pierce). That’s why the Celtics continued to win when Garnett was sidelined with an abdominal injury. However, also during that stretch where KG was out of commission, his MVP campaign lost some steam while other contenders seriously picked up their games—like LeBron James.
Since the All-Star break, LBJ has put up Oscar Robertson type numbers. He has been so insane this year that spectators now expect him to post 30-8-8 every time out. If he doesn’t, it’s almost considered a mediocre game. That’s how amazing he has been. And that’s not even mentioning his defensive improvements, though still sporadic, and the fact that he’s been the best clutch player in the league this season. Despite his otherworldly statistics, however, I begrudgingly still can’t shake the .554 winning percentage (record of 41-33), in the lowly Eastern Conference no less. I realize his supporting cast sucks (even the new one after the trade) and LeBron having the Cavs playing this well is in itself a mammoth achievement, I can’t—with a clear conscience—give the MVP to a player whose team didn’t even win its own division. I didn’t think Kobe deserved it a couple years ago when he, while scoring a million points a game, had a horrendous Lakers team hovering around .500; same logic hear.
So, with KG’s injury-induced loss of steam in his argument and LeBron’s lack of team success, it’s a two man race between Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul, both of whom have been consistently excellent on winning squads.
The way it began, with his trade demands and largely negative attitude, who would’ve thought this would be Kobe’s best overall season? With his game-changing scoring ability and clutch play, Kobe is undeniably the game’s top talent and its most feared player—he has been for years. But he’s never combined those attributes with genuine leadership and a winning record until this season. You can say the Lakers are near the top of the Western Conference standings because their bench is improved so significantly and because of the Pau Gasol theft, but you have to largely credit Kobe for Los Angeles’ turnaround. You have to pay tribute to his growth as a leader and trust in his teammates, without which they and the newly acquired Gasol would not have matured and flourished as quickly as they have. That was why, for months, it was entrenched in my mind that this was Kobe’s year. I all but had him penned-in for the Maurice Podoloff Trophy.
But the more I thought about it, it became progressively more difficult denying Chris Paul.
His stats (21.5 points, a league-leading 11.4 assists and 2.7 steals) are exceedingly impressive yet still belie his true value as a player. That’s entering Tim Duncan territory when extraordinary numbers don’t fully encapsulate how impacting a player is. He routinely dominates the floor, regularly slicing up top defenses and at times scoring at will. When was the last time the NBA’s top assist man was also a top-20 scorer? From the looks of it, the last was Magic Johnson over twenty years ago in 1987 when he posted 23.9 points and 12.2 assists a night. Not bad company.
You’d be hard pressed to find a floor general who runs his offense better than CP3 (and yes, that includes Deron Williams and Steve Nash). You can also argue that Paul’s season has been better than Nash’s two previous MVP campaigns. He may not quite have Nash’s repertoire of passes and ambidextrousness, but his greater ability to create his own shots and those of his teammates has led to a better assist to turnover ratio (4.65 to 1 against Nash’s 3.03 to 1). It’s no coincidence that Tyson Chandler and David West are having career years. And let’s not forget that Paul is a defensive stalwart compared to Nash, particularly in the passing lanes.
In the end, in only his third year, Paul is the unquestioned leader of the (for now) top team in the West and is completely fearless on the court. His teammates feed off of him like KG, he’s posting crazy stats like LeBron, and he’s winning and leading like Kobe. In my book, there’s no other choice.
1. Chris Paul
2. Kobe Bryant
3. Kevin Garnett
4. LeBron James