We're still living in the LeBron James era, yet the debate about who should take home this year's NBA MVP is as intense as it’s ever been.
This year's vote has been muddled by an invasion of new dominant figures like Stephen Curry and James Harden, adding intrigue to a voting criteria that's perennially blurred by conflicting ideas of what the true definition of "Most Valuable Player" really is.
Eternally, the term ebbs and flows between four basic definitions:
1. The best player on the best team
2. The player having the best season
3. The most vital player to his team's success
4. The flat-out best player in the league
Scanning back through the all-time list, MVPs are typically a combination of all those elements. Go back to the late 1970s and you can see the progression from Kareem to the Moses Malone years to Bird to Magic, Jordan, Tim Duncan and Steve Nash for a bit, and on up to LeBron James. Each of those signature players owns real estate on the NBA timeline. There were a lot of great players in the league alongside those guys, but they stood out because they transcended everyone's idea of an MVP.
But we're still living in the LeBron James Era. He's only 30.
He's won four of the last six MVP trophies and James could very well go home with his fifth this year because he may be the only true confluence of the four universally accepted ideas of what an MVP is supposed to be.
Cleveland is going into the playoffs as the No. 2 seed in the East, James was third in the league in scoring (behind Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook and Harden), and unlike anyone else in the league, James is a generational player, the heartbeat of an entire franchise and city. That includes Kobe, who was somehow only an MVP once in his five-title career.
This year though, there are legit challengers to LeBron’s bid for number five. Here's a closer look at three other supremely worthy candidates.
Why he's a candidate: Curry is the best player on the best team in basketball. He hit 77 straight threes in practice the other day. He can score from the hallway outside the locker room. Of all his highlights from an MVP-caliber season, the crossover that
cut Chris Paul in half was his best.
Why he's a candidate: More than just the beard, Harden was second in league scoring and his Houston Rockets are the No. 2 seed in the West despite All-Star Dwight Howard spending most of the year on the sidelines. The NHL has the Ted Lindsay Award, which is given to the outstanding player in the league as selected by other players. If the NBA had one, Harden would win it.
Why he's a candidate: The NBA's scoring champ, Westbrook had the best statistical season of anyone. With last season's MVP Kevin Durant hurt, Westbrook turned in a season for the ages, but Oklahoma City missed the playoffs. But he'll always have March, though, when Westbrook became the first player since Michael Jordan in 1989 to record four consecutive triple-doubles.