2012 NBA MVP Race: Ranking the Top 5 Candidates

Anthony Ramsey@@A_RamseyLTSBContributor IIIMarch 28, 2012

2012 NBA MVP Race: Ranking the Top 5 Candidates

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    With the abbreviated NBA season reaching its third trimester, playoff scenarios are taking shape and players are making their most legitimate cases for the 2012 NBA MVP award.

    While the total body of work will definitely play a role in the selection, how a team and candidate finishes the season can sway voters in one way or the other (e.g., Derrick Rose carrying the Bulls to a 24-4 record after the All-Star break all but locked up the 2011 MVP for him.)

    Here is a detailed look at the top five MVP candidates as we approach the final month of the regular season, including a case for (and against) each candidate.

5. Kevin Love, Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Kevin Love has followed up a breakout 2010-2011 campaign with an even more impressive 2011-2012 season. Love has been a virtual lock for 20-plus points (averaging 26.3 ppg) and 10-plus boards (13.8 rpg) a night while throwing in a couple threes as a 6'10" power forward for good measure. Love also has 19 games with over 20 points and 15 rebounds, including three 30/20 games. 

    This season, Love may have replaced Dirk Nowitzki as the most versatile power forward in the game, if not the best overall. Although Love shoots a guard-like 45 percent from the field, his ability to stretch the defense and knock down 38 percent of his three-point attempts (87-of-230) and a spectacular 81.6 percent from the charity stripe is much higher than the typical PF.

    Love has increased his production of late after rookie sensation Ricky Rubio's season was cut short due to a knee injury. Since Rubio went down March 9th, Love has averaged 29.7 ppg and 14.2 rpg, including a 51-point, 14-rebound, seven-three-pointer game against Oklahoma City March 23rd.

    The Timberwolves struggling to a 3-9 record without Rubio will most likely hurt Love's MVP resume, but he definitely deserves some recognition for the great season he is putting together.

4. Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers

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    Let's put Kobe's recent benching aside for a second and look at the total body of work Bryant has assembled in his 16th NBA season. Bryant is leading the Association is scoring (28.3), is among the league leaders in minutes (38.6 per game), was leading the Lakers in assists before Ramon Sessions was brought in (4.7) and is contributing over five boards a night.

    Not only has Bryant been a stat-stuffer, he has done all of this while playing every game despite a torn wrist ligament early in the season and a broken nose after the All-Star break.

    Two points that will put a dent in Bryant's case for MVP consideration are that Kobe's shooting has left much to be desired at times this year and he has gotten All-Star-caliber assistance from Andrew Bynum. But there is no denying how valuable Bryant's contributions have been to the Lakers' 30-19 record and third-place standing in the West in what was supposed to be a "down year" for L.A.

3. Tony Parker, San Antonio Spurs

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    There are two things we can take from the Spurs' 33-14 record: 1) Greg Popovich is one hell of a coach and 2) that the Spurs are now clearly Tony Parker's team. No team has done more with less than the San Antonio Spurs.

    While Manu Ginobili has missed half the season with injuries and with Tim Duncan receiving DNDs because he's "old," Parker is enjoying the best all-around season of his career. Parker leads the Spurs in scoring (19.5) and is seventh in the NBA in assists (8.0).

    Parker probably has the lowest profile of any candidate on this list, but he gets the job done for the Spurs just as well. In the 32 Spurs wins he has contributed to, Parker has averaged 20.8 ppg and 8.9 apg on 49 percent shooting compared to 16/6.8/42 percent in 12 losses. So as Parker goes, so go the Spurs.

    Parker has even turned it up in the last couple months, averaging 22.2 ppg in Feb. and March, including going for 30-plus points seven times.

    The Spurs have added a couple pieces to help them in their hunt for a title, but Tony Parker is clearly the most valuable piece that drives Popovich's system.

2. LeBron James, Miami Heat

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    Before the last couple weeks, LeBron James had all but sewn up the MVP award and was putting together one of the greatest all-around seasons in modern NBA history.

    Prior to the All-Star break, LBJ was averaging 27.4 ppg, 8.1 rpg and 6.8 apg while shooting 54 percent from the field and 41 percent from three. In the 14 games since, James' numbers have dipped slightly to 25.4 ppg, 5.9 assists and 50 percent shooting, with the Heat slumping to a 8-6 record, including a trio of two-game losing streaks.

    Rumor has it that LeBron has a dislocated finger on his left hand, but when it comes to an MVP race, nagging injuries are no excuse. There is no question that James is still putting together a spectacular 2011-2012 campaign, but the Heat's struggles in the second half coupled with LeBron's dip in production have allowed other MVP candidates to close the gap, and that may cost James his third MVP award in the last four seasons.

    Which takes us to the top candidate...

1. Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    No player in the NBA has played at a high level as consistently as Kevin Durant. He has averaged at least 26 points and eight rebounds in every month this season, and he ranks second in the NBA in scoring (27.8 ppg) and has had the Thunder atop the Western Conference standings since the first week of the season.

    The most amazing thing about Durant's game is that he is putting up exceptional scoring numbers and shoots over 50 percent from the floor primarily as a jump shooter. Eighty-one percent of Durant's shot attempts are jumpers, with only 50 percent of them coming via an assist.

    For Durant to be able to knock down over 50 percent of his jump shots while playing alongside gunner Russell Westbrook, who is a shooting guard masked as a point guard, is truly amazing.

    Not only is Durant scoring at his usual high rate, he is also averaging career highs in assists (3.5), rebounds (8.1), blocks (1.1) and steals (1.5). Durant has also produced some of his biggest games this season against top competition, having scored 30-plus points against playoff-caliber teams 10 times so far.

    MVP caliber, indeed.

Honorable Mentions

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    There are a few other players who, given their contributions to their teams, should at least get consideration for a couple votes:

    Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers: The Clippers have slumped since losing Chauncey Billups for the season, but it's of no fault to Paul, who is averaging 19.5 ppg and 8.6 apg.

    Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat: D. Wade may get overshadowed at times by the constant attention given to LeBron, but "Flash" is putting together a solid all-around season in his own right, putting up 22.9 ppg, 4.8 apg, 4.9 rpg and shooting 50 percent from the field.

    Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder: Westbrook may indeed be a gunner, but his shot selection has improved this season as his role in OKC has shifted a bit from setting up his teammates to being more of a scorer in a mold similar to D. Wade. Westbrook is averaging 24.2 ppg, 5.5 apg and 4.5 rpg, but he still needs to work on cutting down on his turnover rate and deferring to Durant when needed.

    Dwight Howard, Orlando Magic: Now that the trade deadline has come and gone with Dwight still in Orlando, the attention can shift from "will he stay" to "wow, the Magic have actually won a lot of games." D. Howard is anchoring the middle for the Magic with 21.1 ppg, 2.2 blocks and a league-leading 14.7 rpg, but his 49 percent from the charity stripe leaves much to be desired.