Now that the 2012-13 regular season has come to a close, only two questions remain in the MVP race.
Can LeBron James win the 2013 MVP unanimously? And in what order will the other top MVP candidates finish?
If James somehow doesn't win his fourth MVP in five years, it'll be nothing short of grand larceny. He's the best player in the league, plays for the team with the best record and helped lead the Miami Heat to the second-longest winning streak in NBA history (27 games).
In short, the King's MVP resume is impeccable. His incredible season rendered Kevin Durant's 50/40/90 shooting percentages virtually irrelevant in the race to the top of the MVP standings.
Durant holds the inside track to the MVP runner-up spot, but late-season charges from Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant could mix up the final standings. Chris Paul, who guided the Los Angeles Clippers to the undisputed best season in franchise history, should also end up somewhere in the top five when it's all said and done.
To be considered a top MVP candidate here, a player must either be the best player on his team, one of the league leaders in a major statistical category or on one of the teams with the best records in the league.
With 82 games now in the books, how do the final MVP standings shake out? Here's one man's best guess.
In alphabetical order:
Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
It feels criminal to not have the player who broke Ray Allen's record for three-pointers made in a single season as a top-10 MVP candidate. Apologies in advance, Stephen Curry.
After being snubbed for a spot on the 2013 All-Star team, Curry responded by averaging 26.0 points, 7.4 assists and 4.0 rebounds per game after the All-Star break. He finished the season shooting better from three-point range (45.3 percent) than he did from the field (45.1 percent), laying claim to the title of best long-range shooter in the NBA today.
Had Curry been slightly better on defense, I'd see no way around including him as a top-10 MVP candidate this season. As it is, he's right on the brink, but he faces stiff competition from a number of other top backcourt options.
Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies
In 2013-14, don't be surprised if Marc Gasol ends up being a top-10 MVP candidate.
Once the Memphis Grizzlies traded Rudy Gay in February, Gasol stepped up his game considerably. Throughout March, he averaged 17.2 points, 7.1 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game while shooting 57 percent from the field.
He's one of the leading candidates for Defensive Player of the Year and could very well be the best-passing big man in the league. Had he been a bit more consistent offensively earlier in the season, he'd almost certainly finish among the top 10 MVP candidates.
Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers
Blake Griffin sent a message this season to those who think that he's nothing more than a flashy dunker.
Despite playing a career-low 32.5 minutes per game, Griffin still chipped per-game averages of 18.0 points, 8.3 rebounds and 3.7 assists. Alongside Chris Paul, he helped orchestrate the greatest season in franchise history for the Los Angeles Clippers.
He finished 10th in the league in win shares (10.6) and 12th in PER (22.4) this season, putting him right on the edge of being a top-10 MVP candidate. He may not finish with many MVP votes this year, but he absolutely deserves a spot on one of the three All-NBA teams.
Brook Lopez, Brooklyn Nets
Had you predicted before the start of the 2012-13 season that Brook Lopez would finish the year ranked fifth in PER, you'd be facing a daily dose of mockery.
Lo and behold, 82 games later, that's exactly what happened. Lopez finished with the highest PER (24.7) of any big man in the league, 0.3 points ahead of the resurgent Tim Duncan.
His defensive effort wasn't always stellar, but he made considerable strides on both ends of the court. Suddenly, the four-year, $61 million contract the Brooklyn Nets bestowed upon him before the start of the season doesn't look nearly as ridiculous.
Deron Williams, Brooklyn Nets
Speaking of presumably overpaid Nets players, how about the second half of Deron Williams' season?
After spending the first few months of 2012-13 looking like the biggest $100 million bust in New York since Amar'e Stoudemire, Williams rocketed out of the All-Star break like an entirely new man. As noted by ESPN.com's Tom Haberstroh (subscription required), Williams went from having a PER of 17.2 before the All-Star break to posting a 25.2 PER from mid-February onward.
Despite his sensational post-All-Star break play, he can't merit a top-10 MVP finish this season based on his rocky first few months. If Williams can maintain this late-season excellence next season, however, he'll be right back in the thick of the 2014 MVP race.
Just missed the cut: Al Horford, Atlanta Hawks; Paul George, Indiana Pacers
Dropped from rankings: N/A
Last week's ranking: 8
Dwyane Wade entered the 2012-13 season hearing questions about whether he had permanently lost a step.
He finished the season as one of the key cogs for the undisputed best team in the league.
It took Wade a few weeks to get his sea legs under him after undergoing offseason knee surgery, but he began rocking and rolling like his usual self by mid-December. Once the calendar flipped to February and the Miami Heat started working on the second-best winning streak in league history, the questions about Wade's demise looked downright silly.
Wade ended the season with per-game averages of 21.2 points, 5.1 assists and 5.0 rebounds, one of only four players in the league to reach those marks this year. He also managed to shoot a career-high 52.1 percent from the field, making a conscious effort to stop taking so many low-percentage shots, as he explained to USA Today.
MVP voters shouldn't look past Wade's slow start to the season, nor should they forget that he sat out for seven of Miami's final 10 games of the season. Throughout February and March, however, there were few players in the league as dominant as Wade, which earns him the 10th and final spot on this MVP ballot.
Odds of winning MVP: 0.05 percent
Last week's ranking: 10
James Harden appeared to be on a one-man mission this season to prove all of his doubters wrong.
Consider that mission accomplished.
After being traded to the Houston Rockets a few days before the start of the 2012-13 season and signing a five-year max contract, the range of possibilities for Harden varied wildly. While he struggled with his shot at the beginning of the year, adjusting to being a team's offensive focal point, he only grew more comfortable with that role as the season progressed.
The Beard became the embodiment of the Rockets' analytics-based offense, favoring hard drives to the basket, numerous trips to the free-throw line and a bevy of three-point shots more than anything else. He finished the season as the only player to average at least 10 free-throw attempts per game (10.2, actually) and ranked sixth in three-point field-goal attempts per game (6.6), too.
Harden ended the year ranked fourth in the NBA in win shares (12.8), behind three of the league's top MVP candidates (LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul). His knack for shoddy transition defense prevents him from being a top-five MVP candidate, but there's no way the Houston Rockets would have qualified for the playoffs in 2012-13 sans Harden.
Odds of winning MVP: 0.05 percent
Last week's ranking: 5
Had the 2012-13 season ended on March 1, Tony Parker would likely have finished as a top-three MVP candidate.
Throughout February, Parker averaged 26.1 points 8.3 assists, 4.0 rebounds and 1.1 steals in 35.1 minutes per game while shooting 54.0 percent from the field. Heading into March, the San Antonio Spurs held a two-game lead over the Oklahoma City Thunder for the best record in the Western Conference, largely due to Parker's phenomenal play over the past month.
Parker's top-three MVP case began to unravel from there, as he sprained his left ankle on March 1 against the Sacramento Kings and missed the Spurs' next eight games. Even after returning in late March, he couldn't seem to dodge the injury bug, missing four of the Spurs' final 10 games of the season.
Those injuries ended up taking a toll on his MVP candidacy. At the end of February, T.P. ranked fourth in the league in PER (24.6) and fifth in win shares (8.8), but he finished the season tied for ninth with Kobe Bryant in PER (23.0) and tied for 15th with Serge Ibaka in win shares (9.4).
When healthy, Parker looked like one of the league's best players in 2012-13. The 16 games he missed due to injury should prevent him from claiming a spot in the top five of the final MVP standings, though.
Odds of winning MVP: 0.1 percent
Last week's ranking: 9
To anyone who still thinks Russell Westbrook is a pox upon the Oklahoma City Thunder, take a close look at his 2012-13 season.
Only four players finished the year averaging at least 20 points, five rebounds and five assists per game. One of them was Westbrook. The other three? LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade.
Westbrook's trademark aggressiveness on offense admittedly gets him into trouble at times, causing him to jack a few ill-advised shots per game. That mentality also makes him a nightmare for opponents to defend, as there's no telling what he'll do on each trip down the court.
His excellence in 2012-13 was somewhat lost in Kevin Durant's 50/40/90 shooting season, but he deserves considerable credit for helping guide the Oklahoma City Thunder to the best record in the Western Conference. Without James Harden's ball-handling ability in the backcourt, Westbrook finished with a career-high usage rate of 32.8, yet he tied a career-low in turnovers (3.3).
Anyone who finishes fifth in the league in win shares (11.6) and eighth in PER (23.9) merits legitimate fringe MVP consideration. He'll get dinged in the MVP voting for taking more shots over the course of the season than Durant, who finished second in the league scoring race, but he absolutely deserves a spot as a top-10 MVP finisher this season.
Odds of winning MVP: 0.15 percent
Last week's ranking: 7
What Tim Duncan did this season at the age of 36 is simply unfathomable.
There's no way that a 36-year-old man should be able to post a career-high blocks-per-36-minutes average, but Duncan did exactly that in 2012-13. After averaging 1.9 swats per 36 minutes in 2011-12, Duncan finished with 3.2 rejections every 36 minutes this season.
The Big Fundamental was simply sensational in his limited playing time, averaging 17.8 points, 9.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 2.7 blocks in only 30.1 minutes per game. He finished sixth in the league with a PER of 24.4, the best of any center not named Brook Lopez.
He also helped keep the San Antonio Spurs near the top of the Western Conference despite injuries wreaking havoc on Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker after the All-Star break. Duncan played a season-high 32.3 minutes per game in March, posting eye-popping per-game averages of 20.8 points, 11.6 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 2.8 blocks.
Duncan did this season what Juan Ponce de León never could: He found the mythical Fountain of Youth and took advantage of its power. Had he appeared in a few more games (he missed 13 in total) or averaged a few more minutes per game, Duncan would be a surefire top-five MVP candidate this year.
Odds of winning MVP: 0.15 percent
Last week's ranking: 6
I'll be the first to admit that Kobe Bryant moves into my top five MVP candidates partially due to the season-ending Achilles tear he suffered against the Golden State Warriors on April 12.
If anything, though, his top-five status is recognition of just how much he carried the Los Angeles Lakers in 2012-13.
Without Bryant dragging them every inch of the way, the Lakers wouldn't have won more than 30-35 games this season. If one player deserves credit for the Lakers' better-late-than-never playoff berth, it's the Black Mamba.
Before tearing his Achilles, Kobe was doing his best LeBron James impression, averaging 30.5 points, 7.5 assists, 7.0 rebounds, 2.2 steals and 1.2 blocks per game in April. He finished fourth in scoring with 27.3 points per game and was one of only four players in the NBA to average at least 20 points, five rebounds and five assists per night this season.
Bryant's defensive effort this season admittedly ranged from bad to worse most nights, but that's no different than many of the other top guards in the MVP race (here's looking at you, James Harden).
I can't fault anyone for putting Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook or Dwyane Wade as the fifth-place finisher on their MVP ballot, but I'm willing to ignore Bryant's defensive lapses due to him quite literally willing the Lakers into the playoffs.
Odds of winning MVP: 0.25 percent
Last week's ranking: 4
No MVP candidate will benefit more from voters' tendency to favor late-season performances than Carmelo Anthony, who just finished laying waste to April.
During the eight regular-season games he played in April, Anthony averaged an eye-popping 36.9 points and 9.9 rebounds per game while shooting 53.8 percent from the floor, 46.7 percent from three-point range and 83.6 percent from the free-throw line.
Had he posted averages like those all season, LeBron James' status as presumptive MVP favorite would be in grave danger.
That late-season explosion helped Anthony surge up the PER leaderboard too. He finished the season ranked fourth in the league with a PER of 24.8, behind only LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul.
What's keeping the 2013 scoring leader from being a top-three MVP candidate? How about the fact that he only shot 42 percent from the field in January, sank to 40.6 percent in February, then dipped to 40.3 percent in March?
As much as it's impossible to ignore what Anthony accomplished in April, his first three months of 2013 shouldn't be forgotten in the MVP race either. He's a bona fide top-five MVP candidate, but should be held out of the top three based on his mid-season inconsistency.
Odds of winning MVP: 0.25 percent
Last week's ranking: 3
Chris Paul will likely finish behind Carmelo Anthony in the actual MVP voting based on Anthony's explosive final month of the season, but that doesn't necessarily make it the right choice.
Paul helped lead the Los Angeles Clippers to the greatest season in franchise history. The team clinched its first 50-win season and its first Pacific Division title ever, both of which in no small part due to CP3's all-around brilliance.
With Paul at the helm of the Clippers' offense, Lob City was in full effect this season in Los Angeles. He finished with 9.7 assists per game, which ranked second in the league behind Rajon Rondo (who tore his ACL in January), and ended the season with 678 total dimes, second in the league to only Greivis Vasquez.
CP3's excellence wasn't just limited to the passing game, as he led the league with 2.41 steals per game, too. It's the fifth time in the past six seasons that Paul ended the season as the league leader in steals per game.
Advanced analytics only help solidify Paul's top-three MVP status. He finished the year ranking third in PER (26.4) and in win shares (13.9), trailing only LeBron James and Kevin Durant in both measures.
He'll likely get dinged for playing a career-low 33.4 minutes per game, but anyone who watched the Paul-less Clippers in January knows that his teammates ran around like chickens with their heads cut off when he wasn't on the court. Anthony had a phenomenal season in his own right, but CP3 deserves the nod over Melo as the third-place finisher in the MVP race.
Odds of winning MVP: 0.5 percent
Last week's ranking: 2
I can't help but feel sorry for Kevin Durant.
He just finished the most impressive season of his five-year career, becoming only the eighth player in NBA history to shoot at least 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from three-point range and 90 percent from the free-throw line.
And yet, he's still no match for LeBron James in the MVP race.
Until Carmelo Anthony stole the scoring lead from Durant on April 7, K.D. was poised to become the first player in NBA history to ever lead the league in scoring while posting 50/40/90 shooting percentages. That first-ever claim could have given voters a semi-reasonable case to place Durant ahead of James on their MVP ballots.
Instead, Durant's list of second-place finishes only grew longer this season. He finished second to Anthony in per-game scoring and finished second to James in both win shares (18.9) and PER (28.3).
Durant deserves recognition from MVP voters for what he did this season. After losing a vital cog (James Harden) to a trade only days before the start of the season, Durant expanded his offensive repertoire and helped guide the Oklahoma City Thunder to the best record in the Western Conference.
Unfortunately, James' majestic play since February overshadows what Durant accomplished. He's the favorite to finish as the MVP runner-up, and could even steal a first-place vote or two, but he's not going to surpass LeBron.
Odds of winning MVP: 1.5 percent
Last week's ranking: 1
For the first three months of the 2012-13 season, the MVP race was shaping up to be a closely-contested, neck-and-neck battle between LeBron James and Kevin Durant.
Then, February happened. LeBron became the first player in NBA history to score at least 30 points in six straight games while shooting 60 percent from the field or better, which helped ignite the second-longest winning streak (27 games) in league history.
Just like that, the suspense in the MVP race was over. James' dominance in February—a month where he posted per-game averages of 29.7 points, 7.8 assists and 7.5 rebounds while shooting 64.1 percent overall—effectively ended the debate as to who would be named MVP this season.
At this point, the only question is whether James becomes the first player in NBA history to win the MVP award unanimously. Will all 123 voters recognize his dominance over the field, or will one or two decide to be contrarian with their vote for the sake of being contrarian?
James should be at the top of every MVP voter's ballot. There's no argument against him. No player in NBA history had ever posted season averages of at least 26 points, eight rebounds and seven assists per game while shooting at least 55 percent from the field until James did this year.
He led the Miami Heat to the best record in the league, posted the most efficient shooting season of his career and has been so exceptional defensively that he has an outside shot at being named the Defensive Player of the Year.
No player posted a more complete, dominant season in 2012-13 than LeBron James. Whoever leaves him off the top of their 2013 MVP ballot clearly missed out on one of the greatest single-season performances in NBA history.
Odds of winning MVP: 97 percent