Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant has surged ahead of LeBron James in this year’s MVP race. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

With the NBA entering the final week of the regular season, it’s time to separate the contenders from the pretenders and ultimately, crown the next champion. That not only applies to the playoffs but also the races for the NBA’s various annual awards.

Here’s a breakdown of the presumed winners for four of the major awards:

MVP: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City
At the midway point of the season, this award remained up for grabs, thanks to Durant’s string of 12 consecutive 30-point games and LeBron James’s 61-point performance on just 33 shots in February. But in the past two months, Durant has surged ahead to position himself for his first MVP.
While James is the lone player in the league to boast an effective field goal percentage of at least 60 percent while averaging more than 20 points, Durant has been deadly from all over the court. Not only is he on pace to win his fourth scoring title by a margin of 4.5 points, but through Wednesday’s games, the Thunder forward had recorded more 30-point games this season (45) by himself than the number of 30-point outputs totaled by any other NBA team’s roster (the Miami Heat have 34), according to NBA.com/stats. What’s more, Durant’s Player Impact Estimate (PIE, or how much a player contributes to a game’s total stats) of 20.7 percent is slightly better than James’s rate of 20.0, providing further evidence of Durant’s incomparable value.

Defensive Player of the Year: Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls
The Bulls allow an NBA-low 91.6 points and hold opponents to a field goal percentage of 42.9 — good for second-best overall — and Noah is a big reason why. When Noah is on the floor, his defensive prowess helps create offensive opportunities, allowing the Bulls to outscore opponents by four points per 100 possessions. When Noah is on the sideline, Chicago’s defensive-based attack sputters, as the Bulls are outscored by a team-high net rating of 2.9 points.
Among the players ranked in the top 10 of NBA.com’s defensive impact ratings, Noah allows the third-fewest made baskets (3.5) and the second-fewest attempts at the rim (7.7). Because of Noah’s ability to not only challenge shots but also deter players from even penetrating the paint, the Bulls have been able to elevate their performance at the right time of year, winning nine of their last 11 contests entering Friday’s games.

Most Improved Player: Goran Dragic, Phoenix Suns
On a team devoid of all-stars and just a year removed from finishing dead-last in the Western Conference, Dragic’s play has turned Phoenix into a surprise playoff contender. The flashy guard raised his scoring average (14.7 to 20.5 points), field goal percentage (44.3 to 50.9) and three-point percentage (31.9 to 41.9) this season. Thanks to Dragic’s performance, Phoenix was able to maintain a winning record despite starting guard Eric Bledsoe missing half the season with injuries. When Dragic was on the bench, Phoenix’s offensive rating dropped from 110.6 to 100.1 while its average turnovers rose from 14.8 to 16.3. As the league’s leading shot blocker and one of just five players to average at least 20 points and 10 rebounds this year, New Orleans forward Anthony Davis stands as a close contender for this honor, but Dragic’s impact outweighs that of the second-year player.

Rookie of the Year: Michael Carter-Williams, Philadelphia 76ers
Although the 76ers tied an NBA record with 26 straight losses, Carter-Williams shouldn’t take the blame. The former Syracuse guard leads all rookies in scoring (16.7 points), rebounds (6.1), assists (6.3), steals (1.9) and minutes (34.6), resulting in an efficiency rating of 17.3 that far exceeds the rest of the league’s first-year players. Carter-Williams recorded two triple-doubles and despite missing 12 games because of injury, he’s been named Rookie of the Month three of the five times the award was presented. After starting the season with a 22-point, 12-rebound and nine-steal performance in a win against the Miami Heat, the talented guard deserves to end his rookie campaign on a high note as well.

Points scored by the members of the 1996 NBA Draft class as of April 8, leaving them only second to the 1985 class’s 315,923 points, according to a recent Sporting News article. The players drafted in 1996 include top pick Allen Iverson along with active players Kobe Bryant, Ray Allen, Steve Nash, Derek Fisher and Jermaine O’Neal.

Number of Indiana Pacer starters that played in Wednesday’s 104-102 victory at Milwaukee. Pacers Coach Frank Vogel made the move in hopes of resting his players for the upcoming playoffs.

“I would say he’s the most consistent basketball player as far as the MVP this year, man. He’s put up some great numbers.”

–Miami Heat forward LeBron James when asked about Oklahoma City forward Kevin Durant and the MVP race.

“There’s only been 12 guys that have been 10-time All-Stars, (NBA) Finals MVP and league MVP. So I think that firmly puts him in the top 12. And then getting into the top 10 in all-time scoring validates that even more”

–Dallas Mavericks Coach Rick Carlisle when asked during an ESPN Radio interview where Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki among the best NBA players of all time. With 26,714 points, Nowitzki supplanted Oscar Robertson for 10th place on the all-time scoring list on Wednesday. The 11 other players to accomplish Carlisle’s mentioned feat are Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird, Kobe Bryant, Wilt Chamberlain, Tim Duncan, LeBron James, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Moses Malone, Shaquille O’Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon.