Derrick Rose ended LeBron James’s two-year reign as the NBA’s most valuable player last season when he led the Chicago Bulls to the best regular-season record. Rose also bumped Washington Bullets legend Wes Unseld from the ranks as the youngest MVP in league history. But he has no shot at repeating because he has been plagued by several nagging injuries.
The lockout-shortened season has been disastrous for Rose, but not the Bulls, who continue to win and once again have the league’s best record despite his absence. Rose still has respectable numbers, and is averaging a career-high in assists, but he has missed nearly one-fourth of the season and could become the first player since Bill Walton in 1979 to fail to make the all-NBA team the year after claiming the NBA’s top individual honor. Rose has already expressed his support for Oklahoma City Thunder all-star forward Kevin Durant.
Here’s a look at the top candidates as the season enters its final month:
Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers
At age 33, Bryant continues to amaze with his resilience and defiance. He keeps playing at an elite level despite the challenges that come with getting older and having limited time to recover from a litany of physical ailments. He’s been bandaged, taped up, and donned a facemask, but he is still capable of four consecutive 40-point games and remains the scariest player with the ball in the final minute. He has surpassed his former teammate and rival, Shaquille O’Neal to move up to fifth on the all-time scoring list, broken Michael Jordan’s record for the most points scored with one franchise and is on pace to become the third player to win a scoring title after turning 30. Jordan and Bryant’s mentor, Jerry West, as the others. But oddly enough, Bryant’s efforts to prove that he hasn’t lost a step – especially after a knee procedure last summer – has at times made him a less efficient volume shooter who is actually shooting the worst field goal percentage since his rookie season. And, the Lakers might actually improve with less Bryant dominance on offense because all-stars Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol still form the NBA’s most formidable and talented big man duo.
LeBron James, Miami Heat
Only seven players in NBA history have won at least three most valuable player awards and James has certainly put up statistics that could elevate him into the select company of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Moses Malone. James is a nightly triple-double threat, collects points, rebounds and assists as if it was a hobby, and is the league’s most versatile two-way player. Despite being the most talented player for at least the past four years, James continues to get better. He has improved in field goal percentage, three-pointing percentage and rebounding in his ninth season. His decision to play despite a dislocated finger in his left hand shouldn’t hurt his campaign. But what works against James is that he is paired with two all-stars in Miami – including Dwyane Wade, who ranks second only to James in player efficiency rating – and the Heat has still been unable to catch the Derrick Rose-less Chicago Bulls for the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
Kevin Love, Minnesota Timberwolves
Minnesota couldn’t have known that after dealing away Kevin Garnett – the greatest player in franchise history – that the Timberwolves would bounce back so quickly with another all-star power forward and double-double machine. Named Kevin. Former General Manager Kevin McHale’s last major draft decision with the organization – to swap the rights for O.J. Mayo to acquire Love in 2008 – has turned out to best move he made since selecting Garnett in 1995 (Both Kevins were taken fifth overall). The bearded Love, last year’s most improved player, has the look of a lumberjack and has plied his trade in relative obscurity for a team that hasn’t been to the playoffs in more than five seasons. But his monstrous production has been impossible to ignore, as Love ranks third in scoring and second in rebounding. With Ricky Rubio done for the season with a torn ACL, the Timberwolves were expected to plummet but Love has provided a glimmer of postseason hope.
Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City
Durant was the most valuable player during the lockout, as he went on a personal barnstorming tour around the country, leaving fans in awe of his offensive outbursts. But the dirty little secret about Durant’s dominance of summer league exhibitions was that he was actually using those meaningless games to add new dimensions to his game. The growth from his extended offseason has been evident this season in Oklahoma City through his increased offensive efficiency, improved playmaking and one-on-one defense. He also is doing a better job of getting open, creating his own shot and making plays in the low post. A two-time scoring champion, Durant is still within range of catching Kobe Bryant but he is shooting a career high from the field, averaging career-highs in rebounding and assists, and is also 3-0 this season against Bryant and LeBron James. Russell Westbrook has also been invaluable in helping the Thunder claim the best record in the Western Conference but Durant’s leadership, steady play and fearlessness in the clutch has made his team a legitimate NBA title contender.
Others in contention: Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers; Tony Parker, San Antonio Spurs; Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City; Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat; Dwight Howard, Orlando Magic.