Many years, the NBA's Most Valuable Player is a slam dunk.
This year, the race for the Maurice Podoloff Trophy is as wide open as any season in recent memory.
If you think "valuable" is the operative word, Boston's Kevin Garnett is your man. Backers of New Orleans' Chris Paul point to his gaudy scoring and assist totals as well as the Hornets' impressive turnaround. The Lakers' Kobe Bryant may be the frontrunner as he's carried his club to surprising heights with arguably his two best teammates, Andrew Bynum and mid-season addition Pau Gasol, missing significant time. Sometimes overlooked is LeBron James, who puts up the numbers night after night while being facing constant double teams due to his mediocre supporting cast.
Here is a closer look at the candidates.
Kevin Garnett, Boston
It's impossible to overstate KG's impact since he was acquired in the offseason blockbuster from Minnesota for budding star Al Jefferson and several role players.
After winning 24 games in 2006-07, they've smashed the league record for improvement in one season, sold out every home game, and brought back a sector of fans who haven't watched the NBA since the Celtics were good in the early '90s.
Fueled by his passion, winning attitude, determination and dominance, the Celtics equalled last year's win total on Dec. 27. Sure, Ray Allen has helped. But take Garnett off the Celtics and Allen and Paul Pierce are lottery bound. And Boston's league-best record can't be disputed because it plays in the Eastern Conference. The 64-16 Celtics are even more dominant against the big, bad West (39-11, .780 winning percentage in the East, 25-5, .833 vs. the West).
Defense sets KG apart from most MVP candidates.
When asked about the Defensive Player of the Year award, Celtics coach Doc Rivers said, "That shouldn't be a debate."
Maybe Larry Bird said it best. Asked earlier in the season who the MVP of the league was, Bird quipped, "Kevin McHale."
McHale, of course, is the Minnesota GM who made the deal with the C's.
Even his teammates are at times stunned by the 7-footer's intensity.
"He definitely charges me up. He's so intense," Celtics captain Paul Pierce says. "It's hard to get to the level he gets to. He wants to rip off his own jersey sometimes.
And he owns up to mistakes.
"Stars rarely do," Rivers says. "When he does that, then it puts everybody on notice."
During a recent film session, Garnett scolded himself for a defensive lapse. It set an example for the team's young players, Rivers says.
"He asked a question about it and he turned around and said, '(Expletive), that's my fault,'" Rivers says. "Then what can (Celtics rookie) Glen Davis say? Everyone falls in line."
Chris Paul, New Orleans
Chris Paul snatched a rebound under the Hornets' basket, raced the length of the court and crashed at full-speed over photographers on the baseline after converting the thrilling end-to-end layup.
"M-V-P! M-V-P!" screamed the New Orleans Arena crowd.
True star power can galvanize a community. And that's exactly what Paul has done this season, putting the Hornets in contention to finish first in the Western Conference.
"Since All-Star break and on it's been unbelievable in here," Hornets coach Byron Scott said.
Paul, a first-time All-Star, has been the driving force behind the team. Now, he's close to becoming the first player in NBA history to average 20-plus points, 10-plus assists and three steals per game.
"It's never been done, so to even come close to it means you had an unbelievable season," Scott said.
Other coaches have echoed his sentiments.
"They definitely have a legit argument that he's the best guard in the league," Toronto coach Sam Mitchell said after a Raptors loss to the Hornets late last month. "He's definitely an MVP candidate."
Hornets center Tyson Chandler has touted Paul's MVP credentials for weeks. More than 100 of Chandler's dunks this season have resulted directly from Paul's alley-oop lobs.
Chandler averaged 5.3 points and 9.0 rebounds in 2005-06, his last season in Chicago. This season, Chandler is averaging double figures in both categories. In a victory at Minnesota this week, Chandler was 6-of-7 shooting with five alley-oop dunks.
"Not only has he made the frontcourt players better this year, he's made every player better," Chandler said.
LeBron James, Cleveland
Despite his big numbers, LeBron James is seen by many as a longshot.
But it's hard to imagine any of them being as "valuable" to their team as James has been to the Cavaliers.
Humbled and motivated by getting swept against San Antonio in last year's finals, James has taken his game to a higher level in his fifth pro season. Since November, he has silenced critics, the ones who wondered if he could consistently make 15-foot jumpers, the ones who argued that he couldn't finish games, and the ones who doubted his leadership and focus over an entire season.
He has grown into a player for the ages.
"I wish he would stop it," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said with a smile.
A 6-foot-8, 250-plus-pounder who plays anywhere he wants to on the floor, James was leading the league in scoring at 30.3 points per game through Friday, and was averaging career-highs in rebounds (7.9), assists (7.2) and field-goal percentage (.484).
He's also the league's top fourth-quarter scorer, averaging 8.7 points for the defending Eastern Conference champions.
"The guy's the MVP of the league," Cleveland coach Mike Brown said. "I know I'm biased. But there isn't a player who does everything like he does. He doesn't just score. He doesn't just get people easy shots. He doesn't just rebound. He defends."
If a player's stature is measured in historical context, then consider these nuggets: James is on the verge of becoming the third player to average 30 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists, joining Oscar Robertson and Michael Jordan. Only five players — James, Robertson, Jordan, John Havlicek and Larry Bird — have averaged at least 27 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists, and James will be doing it for the second time.
And, a few weeks ago, he became the leading scorer in Cavaliers' history.
"At 23," Brown said, shaking his head.
Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers
Just last spring, an incensed Kobe Bryant was the NBA's most vocal player, demanding to be traded by the Los Angeles Lakers.
Now, nearing the end of what he calls his most satisfying regular season, Bryant is among the leading candidates for another MVP moniker: Most Valuable Player.
This MVP label, obviously, is more preferable for all concerned. Outside of his dealings with NBA officials, who have slapped the All-Star guard with a league-high 15 technical fouls this season, Bryant seems awfully content these days.
The Lakers have been one of the NBA's surprise teams despite having to deal with a number of injuries, including a torn ligament in Bryant's right pinkie. Even though surgery was recommended, he hasn't missed a game.
"Best year ever as far as an overall team player," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said regarding Bryant. "I think the judgment that I kind of make is, how much better do you make your teammates? This has been one of Kobe's finest years in that regard."
Houston's Rafer Alston said, "I just think this league is overdue to give Kobe Bryant his just due. ... I would say he's my MVP."
Vastly improved Andrew Bynum hasn't played since injuring his left knee Jan. 13. Another talented newcomer, Trevor Ariza, has been sidelined since breaking his right foot Jan. 20. In addition, Pau Gasol returned recently after missing nine games because of a sprained right ankle.
Through it all, the Lakers have kept winning and stayed in contention for the regular-season championship of the rugged Western Conference.
"With the injuries and everything that's happened, he gets my vote," teammate Derek Fisher said. "I don't think he's been phenomenal in Kobe standards. He could average 40 points a game if he wanted to."