Will we see this sight again?
2009: LeBron James.
2010: LeBron James.
2011: Derrick Rose.
2012: LeBron James.
2013: LeBron James.
Will the reign of dominance continue in 2014, allowing LeBron James to win his third MVP in a row, or is it time for someone else to hold up the Maurice Podoloff Trophy shown above?
Winning the NBA's MVP award is no easy feat. Doing so almost guarantees entry into the Hall of Fame, as the only non-active MVP winners outside the Hall are Shaquille O'Neal and Allen Iverson, two players who can book their stays as soon as they're eligible.
It's an accomplishment that requires team success, individual greatness, compelling storylines and a clean bill of health. Lose any of those criteria, and you may as well pass the baton to someone else.
Plenty of NBA superstars will be keeping their eyes on the prize throughout the 2013-14 season, but dethroning James will be rather difficult.
The list of players deserving honorable mention could go on and on, so we're going to keep it to exactly that: a list.
- Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
- Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies
- Paul George, Indiana Pacers
- Dwight Howard, Houston Rockets
- Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
- Kevin Love, Minnesota Timberwolves
- John Wall, Washington Wizards
- Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat
- Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
- Deron Williams, Brooklyn Nets
Team: Boston Celtics
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 13.7 points, 5.6 rebounds, 11.1 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.2 blocks, 18.1 PER
Even if Rajon Rondo doesn't return until December (h/t to Bleacher Report's Dan Favale), he's still going to put up monster numbers when he does manage to step onto the court with a clean bill of health.
In the past, Rondo was one key member of a solid Boston Celtics team, a squad that prominently featured both Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. But now, the talented point guard is the C's, as he's going to be tasked with just about carrying the franchise.
While Jeff Green, Jared Sullinger, Avery Bradley and Kelly Olynyk have varying levels of potential, it's quite clear that the team will still rise and fall with Rondo. He's going to have to become more of a scorer than ever before and prove to the world that his gaudy assist totals weren't just a product of playing alongside talented offensive players.
Can he do it?
Absolutely, but his MVP candidacy is hindered by the reality that Boston is looking at an 82-game season and nothing more.
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 27.3 points, 5.6 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.3 blocks, 23.0 PER
Kobe Bryant's ability to win MVP for the second time in his impressive career is severely hampered by two unfortunate realities.
First, his Achilles isn't in working order yet. While his rehabilitation process has been remarkably quick, it's still an injury that takes a while to recover from, and there's a chance that Kobe could be limited at the start of the season.
It's tough to win MVP when you're working at a disadvantage and not playing a full schedule. And make no mistake about it: Everyone is at a disadvantage while trying to catch up to the reigning champion.
Even if Kobe is able to perform at 100 percent during the Lakers' opening game, the second concern is still valid.
L.A. isn't going to be very good during the 2013-14 season. In fact, I have it finishing 11th in the Western Conference, and it's incredibly difficult to win MVP without making the playoffs.
The last MVP to hold up the trophy without even winning the division was Karl Malone, whose 1998-99 Utah Jazz finished tied with the San Antonio Spurs but lost the tiebreaker based on head-to-head record. Before that, it was Michael Jordan during the 1987-88 campaign.
Team: Cleveland Cavaliers
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 22.5 points, 3.7 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.4 blocks, 21.4 PER
Kyrie Irving has to play better defense in order to have any shot at the MVP. For all his offensive prowess, he was a sieve on the less glamorous end of the court, and it's tough for a one-way player to earn the league's top individual award.
According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), Irving allowed 0.85 points per possession during the 2012-13 season. He navigated screens quite well—a surprising trait for a young guard—but struggled immensely in every other situation and was incredibly vulnerable to bigger guards posting him up.
If he can improve his defense, Irving will become a true superstar. He's already that good on offense, fully capable of carrying the upgraded Cleveland Cavaliers to the postseason if he stays healthy.
But that last sentence is a testament to why Irving isn't a top-five candidate. There are too many concerns about both him staying healthy and the Cavs advancing to the playoffs.
Team: Houston Rockets
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 25.9 points, 4.9 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.5 blocks, 23.0 PER
The "needing to improve on defense" argument applies to James Harden, just as it did to Kyrie Irving on the previous slide.
However, Harden's Houston Rockets are going to be much better than the Cleveland Cavaliers, hence the better spot in the MVP handicapping. While I don't expect the Rockets to compete for the top seed in the gauntlet that is the Western Conference, they won't be that far off the pace.
The bearded 2-guard is an elite offensive player. In fact, he may very well be the best scorer in the NBA during the 2013-14 season, better even than Kevin Durant if Dwight Howard can divert enough defensive pressure.
But D12's presence is also holding back the shooting guard. It's harder to win MVP when the second fiddle on your team is a candidate as well.
Team: San Antonio Spurs
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 20.3 points, 3.0 rebounds, 7.6 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.1 blocks, 23.0 PER
If Tony Parker hadn't sprained his ankle and been knocked out of action, he would have hung in the race for No. 2 in the MVP voting during the 2012-13 season. He might have had an outside shot at stealing the award from LeBron, but probably not much more than that.
So, why the decline this year?
It's all based on the strength of the Western Conference. The elite teams took another step up (Houston adding Dwight Howard, Golden State acquiring the services of Andre Iguodala and the Clippers adding more talent), and that's going to make it harder for the San Antonio Spurs to stand out.
Parker is going to have another phenomenal season. He's a true master of Gregg Popovich's system, and he's only increasing his offensive abilities as he gains more experience.
But MVP isn't just about being the best player unless you're that far ahead of the rest of the league. And since Parker is—arguably—the second-best player at his position, that's a tough claim to make.
Team: Chicago Bulls
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: N/A
Can you tell I'm confident that Derrick Rose will be back at full strength for the start of the season, or at least very close to it?
The Chicago Bulls are going to seriously rival the Miami Heat's supremacy in the Eastern Conference, and Rose will be a central figure. Obviously.
Still only 24 years old, Rose is one of just three players in the top 10 that already has an MVP trophy on his shelf. Kobe Bryant and LeBron James are the other two, and last time I checked, that's not bad company.
Actually winning another trophy while coming off a missed season would be ridiculously impressive—and perhaps just about impossible—but it's by no means unrealistic to think that the point guard could actually garner a bit of legitimate award hype.
When Rose is healthy, he's one of the most dynamic players in the game, especially if he's used his extended absence to improve his jumper, thereby making it even easier for him to blaze by defenders in the half-court set.
Team: New York Knicks
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 28.7 points, 6.9 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.5 blocks, 24.8 PER
If the New York Knicks were to remain near the top of the Eastern Conference throughout the season, a lion's share of the credit would be owed to Carmelo Anthony.
MVP doesn't actually mean "Most Valuable Player" anymore, or else the award would be thought of in a much different light. We don't exclusively look at who meant the most to their team, but also take into account who simply had the best, most impressive season.
But in the strictest sense of the award's name, it would be a two-way race for first between 'Melo and Kevin Durant with LeBron James coming in a distant third. While the Heat would still be a playoff team without LeBron (barely), the Knicks would be squarely in the Andrew Wiggins sweepstakes unless Tyson Chandler and Amar'e Stoudemire found the Fountain of Youth.
'Melo means that much to the Knicks.
That said, we aren't working with that definition because it's not the most commonly accepted one anymore. And since Anthony isn't as well-rounded as the three remaining players, winning a second scoring title won't get him any closer to holding up the Maurice Podoloff Trophy.
Team: Oklahoma City Thunder
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 28.1 points, 7.9 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.4 steals, 1.3 blocks, 28.3 PER
It might seem strange to have Kevin Durant at No. 3 instead of the consensus runner-up spot, but groupthink usually isn't healthy.
The playoffs proved just how valuable Russell Westbrook is to the Oklahoma City Thunder, and with that fresh in the minds of voters, it's going to be even more difficult for Durant to ascend to the No. 1 spot, or even keep his stranglehold on No. 2, for that matter.
Durant is the league's premier pure scorer, and he's improving rather dramatically as both a defender and a facilitator. However, he's hindered by his team, which seems like a weird thing to say about the Oklahoma City Thunder, right?
Well, the Thunder also have Russell Westbrook—which, as discussed earlier, works against Durant—and aren't going to finish at the top of the Western Conference.
Team: Los Angeles Clippers
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 16.9 points, 3.7 rebounds, 9.7 assists, 2.4 steals, 0.1 blocks, 26.4 PER
The reason the Thunder won't be winning the West? That would be the Los Angeles Clippers, who had an absolutely perfect offseason that should allow them to make the jump from No. 4 to No. 1, a gap of only four games last season.
Acquiring J.J. Redick, Jared Dudley, Doc Rivers, Darren Collison and everyone else will do wonders for an already strong unit, but everything still runs through Chris Paul.
CP3 is quite clearly the best point guard in basketball, uniquely capable of thriving as a shut-down defender, facilitator or primary scorer. While he isn't better than Durant as an individual, he's in a better position to succeed as an MVP candidate because the "Clippers taking down the Thunder" storyline will give him the headline factor in the voting.
I realize that this is a bold prediction, but it's by no means an unrealistic one.
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 26.8 points, 8.0 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.9 blocks, 31.6 PER
There are only two things that can keep LeBron James from winning his third consecutive MVP and his fifth in six seasons: voter fatigue and injuries.
While I'd never actually predict an injury, LeBron can't be as invincible as he seems. While it would be terrible for the NBA, there's always a possibility that he could go down for an extended period of time. And as for voter fatigue, a small chance exists that everyone could get tired of his storyline.
Are either of those likely? No, probably not. But they're possible.
As it stands, though, LeBron is the clear-cut favorite. If you went to Vegas with the intent of betting on either LeBron or the field to win MVP, smart money would be on the former.
The Miami Heat's best player is just that much better than the rest of the league. He's far enough ahead that having Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on his team doesn't really matter, so long as the Heat remain in the East's upper echelon.
Last year, James produced one of the greatest seasons in basketball history. In fact, given his two-way dominance, it's quite possible that it was the greatest season.
And he's still getting better.