LeBron James and Kevin Durant are still the frontrunners for the MVP award.
Only a handful of guys have a shot at the NBA MVP award, though their respective paths will vary by circumstance.
In this league more than any other, the Most Valuable Players hold a rarified place in history.
Other sports have given their prizes to flukes and one-season wonders. Every NBA winner before 1999-00 is already in the Hall of Fame. After that, from Shaquille O'Neal to LeBron James, everyone is a superstar and a lock for Springfield as well; only Derrick Rose's health threatens to break the streak.
James has won each of the last two and four of the last five awards, but as the competition toughens around him, there is no guarantee he'll get another in 2013-14. He's the prohibitive favorite, but don't discount the contenders.
After the dysfunctional apocalypse that struck the Los Angeles Lakers in 2012-13, this season looks to be even more of a downer for Kobe Bryant and company.
That said, Kobe has a legitimate shot at the MVP if he can turn this around.
If he completes his superhuman Achilles recovery as expected, the Black Mamba still has the ability to average 30-plus points per game.
Winning the West is out of the question next season, but if L.A. comfortably makes the postseason, Bryant will receive a ton of credit.
Besides, this team won't evoke the Smush Parker era if Pau Gasol and Steve Nash can stay healthy and effective. That's a lot of hope and expectation being placed on the physical conditioning of thirty-somethings, but Kobe has to be in the award conversation with a scoring title and 50 wins.
The Lakers' redemption story has a lot to do with this.
Carmelo Anthony had a chance to do the same thing with the New York Knicks last season, only to finish behind an otherworldly James season. That's why he's not on this list and why Bryant still is.
Kevin Durant cannot catch a break.
He'll always be the guy for the Oklahoma City Thunder, which is why he's here and Russell Westbrook is not. For better or for worse, Durant has the label of leader in OKC, developing every facet of his game, while Westbrook plays the role of his live-wire, if at times maddening, sidekick.
But when Westbrook got hurt during the 2013 playoffs, Durant was left alone while the Thunder fizzled around him. Given the full responsibility of carrying his team—albeit a woefully inadequate one—at the highest level, he seemed to come up short.
Considering the MVP is a voter's award and at least partially based on reputation, 50-40-90 won't cut it for Durant this time. That's a very impressive accomplishment, but he needs to beat his rivals, not just numerical benchmarks, to assert his greatness.
So chalk Durant up for a scoring title, too, but add nine rebounds and six assists per game. In order to beat LeBron at his own game, those are the stats he'll need.
Now that Dwight Howard is on the Houston Rockets, James Harden's MVP hopes are greatly diminished. The team is greatly improved, but Harden is not effective enough outside of his scoring to overshadow his new center.
Even in a down year, Howard put up 17.1 points and 12.4 rebounds per game, leading the league in the latter. With a healthier back and a situation that better supports his style of play, he can challenge his career highs in both stat categories.
In the abstract, it doesn't seem so implausible or even so impressive; Howard has been the undisputed best center for so long that the people who watch him are inured to him.
But we're talking about a 23 and 14 season here. That's incredible production when you put it like that, and winning MVP is not out of the question.
That has a lot to do with the Rockets' pace.
In their frenetic offense, Howard will be able to score and rebound in greater volume than ever before. Advanced stats advocates will adjust to poke holes in Howard's case, but they only hold so much sway in MVP conversations.
LeBron James can't win his individual awards alone anymore; the Miami Heat have to win the East.
After back-to-back titles, that doesn't sound like much of a question, but do you remember that the Heat were the second seed when they won their first title? Rose's Chicago Bulls went 50-16 in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, beating the Heat by four games.
We all know what happened next: Rose tore his ACL, while LeBron revolutionized the power forward position and launched small-ball mania.
For James, putting up 27 points, eight rebounds and seven assists per game with machine-like efficiency and all-world defense is now a formality.
Barring an unforeseeably transcendent season from one of his challengers, the two-time defending MVP doesn't need to improve his numbers.
However, if Miami falls from the Eastern Conference perch, the naysayers will have the opportunity to give another player his due after so many years of LeBron dominance.
Rose will have a shot at the award if the Bulls win, while the Western Conference stars have better odds if, say, the Indiana Pacers come out on top. It won't necessarily be LeBron's fault if that happens, but he will bear the burden.
It's easy to overlook Tony Parker.
The San Antonio Spurs have been Tim Duncan's team for as long as Parker has been there.
Even though the point guard has clearly been the best player in San Antonio for years now, talking about him in a larger context feels like highlighting the wrong Spur.
Parker will surely belong in the MVP race if the Spurs win the stacked Western Conference. That said, he'll need to outdo what was already a career year in 2012-13 and get some help to take home the hardware.
An efficient 20.3 points and 7.6 assists per game are very good, but not great numbers. Since he becomes more central to the Spurs' offense with every passing year, it is possible for him to up his production in both areas, setting new career highs with about 23 points and nine assists.
He'll still need LeBron's Heat to slip in the East and the other point guards to come up short.
Even a great Parker won't be as impressive on paper as the Jameses and Durants of the league, but if he's the best at his position on the best team in the West, he's got a shot.
The irrelevance of Chris Paul's New Orleans Hornets has shrouded his individual accomplishments with that franchise.
In 2008-09, he put up 22.8 points and led the league with 11.0 assists and 2.8 steals per game while shooting 50 percent from the field. Following the season, he was named to the All-NBA second team.
Part of the reason Paul was able to explode on the stat sheet was because of a weak supporting cast in New Orleans. The Los Angeles Clippers are a true championship contender, so the point guard doesn't have to do all the work anymore.
But that won't cut it in terms of MVP consideration.
Paul's ability on the court is clear, but he hasn't topped 20 points per game or been the assists leader for five seasons now. He'll have to do both of those things to get all the respect he deserves.
Derrick Rose hasn't played a minute of NBA basketball since the spring of 2012, but we still can't take him out of this conversation.
First and foremost, he has to be completely healthy. Not just healthy enough to play, but 100 percent himself. No one is good enough to challenge LeBron at less than full strength, which is a lot to ask of a guy coming off a torn ACL. On the other hand, that's why he took a year and a half off.
When Rose won his own MVP award back in 2010-11, he averaged 25.0 points and 7.7 assists on the best team in the East.
We already established he'll have to take the Bulls back to the top of the conference, but he'll also have to dish out more assists; James has topped that figure from the forward position.
The scoring certainly makes Rose stand out from the other great point guards, but that won't be enough.
Just like Parker, Rose will have to raise his career best in assists to at least nine per game. Fortunately, Chicago has a better offensive roster now than it did when he won three seasons ago, so that improvement is possible.
So all he has to do is exceed the production that once made him the best player in the league and unseat the two-time defending champs, all as part of a return from major knee surgery.
It's a ridiculously tall task, but that's what it will take to win the MVP in 2013-14.