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Race to the MVP Ladder

The Race to the MVP Ladder is a weekly look at our favorite to walk away with the Maurice Podoloff Trophy (aka the NBA MVP award). The rankings are written by Sekou Smith of NBA.com's HangTime blog, Hang Time podcast and The Jump! fame. If you have an issue with the Ladder, or have a question or comment for Sekou, send him an e-mail. You can also follow him on Twitter.

Clearly A Closed Case In This MVP Race

April 27 -- Even if you despise everything about LeBron Raymone James, you'd have a hard time arguing against his case for KIA Race to the MVP honors in a court of basketball law.

Whatever so-called facts you tried to present would be trumped by a series of metrics that would blow your case to bits. By virtually every measure, James put together the most impressive statistical regular season (production and efficiency-wise) the league has seen in recent memory.

His closing argument to the regular season -- 32 points, eight rebounds, five assists and two blocks in a win over Houston Wednesday -- was a fitting capper for a fantastic campaign. James averaged 27.1 points, 7.9 rebounds, 6.2 assists, 1.9 steals and shot a 53 percent from the floor, 36 percent from beyond the 3-point line. James refined his already wickedly versatile game by taking fewer 3-point shots and crafting a post game to go along with all of his other obvious advantages over the competition., making him the league's most unstoppable force on both ends of the floor.

That's not the only reason he edged Kevin Durant at the tape for the top spot in the final KIA Race to the MVP Ladder of this season and will get at least this one vote in the official ballting for the league's top individual award. But it's a great start.

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra is biased, but he made a compelling, stat-free case of his own to reporters before the Heat's regular season finale against Washington.

"Part of LeBron's greatness is he cannot be defined by a statistic or a number," Spoelstra said. "It's the fact that he can be great at so many different things, and on both ends of the court. ... What he has allowed us to do is to use the versatility of the rest of the roster," Spoelstra said, "by playing him wherever we need to.

"He'll patch it up and fill in all the gaps to make it work. That's something nobody else does. On any given night, who else can be the best point guard or the best center or the best two or the best three or the best four?"

The versatility James displayed in this, his ninth season in the league, was truly remarkable. If someone needed to be shut down, regardless of position, the Heat called on James to handle it. And yet he scored at least 30 points this season 24 times, matching Kobe Bryant for the league-lead in that category as well.

He's already been confirmed by a jury of his peers, inside and outside of his own locker room. "Kevin Durant and the Thunder have had a great year and played great. I just think LeBron has had a special, special season," Heat forward Shane Battier told the Miami Herald when asked who was deserving of the league MVP. "Some of my boys on Houston [where Battier played before] just shook their heads and said, 'That guy is animal.' I'm like: 'I know. That's what I've been telling you guys.'"

Even Durant, who spent time doing two-a-day workouts with James during the offseason, admitted that James has a ridiculously strong case for the top honor.

"He deserves all the love [for MVP]," Durant told the Oklahoman.

Not even that gracious concession from his chief competitor for the award will silence those who believe James is undeserving because he hasn't mastered the art of closing out games the way Bryant or Dwyane Wade have.

They'll point to the one glaring omission on his resume, a Larry O'Brien trophy, as to why he can't be held in such regal esteem just yet.

Well, even James acknowledges as much. He realizes that whatever honors he drags into the postseason, they'll fade if he can't drag the Heat to The Finals and finish the deal this time. He'll need to lock down The Finals MVP to rid himself of all of the haters.

But that's a case to be made another day.

The case for the top spot in the KIA Race to the MVP Ladder, however, is closed!

-- SEKOU SMITH

The next five: Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks; Josh Smith, Atlanta Hawks; Blake Griffin, b Andrew Bynum, Los Angeles Lakers; Rudy Gay, Memphis Grizzlies

Got something to say about this week's Race to the MVP Ladder? Give us a shout on the Hang Time Blog!

1
LeBron James : Miami Heat
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2011-'12: 27.1 ppg | 7.2 rpg | 6.9 apg

What more do you want? James carried the Heat from start to finish, bouncing back from his struggles in The Finals to re-establish himself as the league's most dominant force. James didn't seem at all like a superstar unsure of himself, establishing early on that he would command the floor for the Heat in whatever way necessary. While Dwyane Wade battled injuries, James was busy leading the Heat to a 14-1 record in the games they played without their other MVP candidate. With the Heat in need of a more imposing inside presence, even with All-Star power forward Chris Bosh assigned to the task, James assumed those duties as well, putting that summer school work with Hakeem Olajuwon to good use. Of course, it'll take more yeoman's work in the playoffs to atone for his postseason failures from a year ago. But the revitalized and re-energized James we saw all season appears to be up to the task.

2
Kevin Durant : Oklahoma City Thunder
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2011-'12: 28.0 ppg | 6.6 rpg | 2.8 apg

Durant locked up his third straight scoring title, becoming the first player to do that since Michael Jordan (1996-98). Lost in the glare of Durant's undeniable scoring brilliance is the fact that his overall game has improved dramatically over the past three seasons. He posted statistical career highs across the board, including rebounds (8.0), blocks (1.2) and minutes (38.6). We're talking about 23-year-old wunderkind just five years into a career that could very well go down as one of the greatest the league has seen. The model of scoring consistency, Durant's numbers in wins (28.0) and losses (28.1) was nearly identical and he was just as good before All-Star weekend (27.9), when he put on a dazzling show, as he was after (28.2). He won't be held off much longer. Durant's too good to finish another season without claiming an MVP trophy.

3
Kobe Bryant : Los Angeles Lakers
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2011-'12: 27.9 ppg | 5.3 rpg | 4.7 apg

Bryant could have suited up last night and chased that scoring title. He could have laced up his shoes, unleashed the Kobe System and lit into the Kings for 38 points or more and snatched the scoring title that seemed to be his all season. But Bryant has bigger things on his mind this season ... he is chasing that sixth Larry O'Brien trophy to add to his collection. For Bryant to play this well 16 years into his career is a testament to his talent, desire and relentless determination to be not just the greatest player of his generation but more importantly one of the greatest of all time. His 27.9 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.6 assists are impressive. But the number that really sticks out is the 38.5 minutes he averaged this season, a truly staggering figure for a player who has played as much regular season and postseason basketball as Bryant has the past decade and a half.

4
Chris Paul : Los Angeles Clippers
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2011-'12: 18.8 ppg | 9.8 apg | 2.4 spg

The Clippers are in the playoffs for the first time since 2006 because they wrested Paul away from the crowd in training camp in a deal that could very well change the the franchise's future. Without Paul, the Clippers were an exciting bunch that filled up highlight reels. With him, they are filling up the win column regularly enough to challenge the Lakers for the Pacific Division crown. In the seemingly never-ending debate about who is the league's best point guard, Paul's case is as rock solid as it gets. His numbers combined with his leadership, competitiveness and a penchant for playing his best with games on the line provides the Clips a bedrock player they haven't had in ... perhaps ever.

5
Tony Parker : San Antonio Spurs
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2011-'12: 18.3 ppg | 7.7 apg | 2.9 rpg

For a stretch this season it appeared Parker might have a legitimate shot at adding some MVP hardware to The 2007 Finals MVP trophy already on his mantle. While Manu Ginobili was out with an injury and Tim Duncan was easing his way into the season, the Spurs were leaning on Parker to carry them. In typical Spurs fashion, Parker did his work without much fanfare. We could wax about Parker's numbers -- 18.3 points, 7.7 assists and 2.9 rebounds -- or we could focus on the more important digits. The Spurs clinched the No. 1 spot in the Western Conference three days ago and will own home court advantage at least through the conference finals. Peel back the layers on the Spurs' season and you'll find Parker.

6
Kevin Love : Minnesota Timberwolves
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2011-'12: 26.0 ppg | 13.3 rpg | 2.0 apg

Love's season ended prematurely, courtesy of a concussion and the fact that the Wolves were out of the playoff race and didn't want to toy with the face of their franchise. There shouldn't be any more questions about the abilities of Love, whose two-season run marks one of the most impressive rises from maligned rookie to All-Star that we can remember. Glowing endorsements from Hall of Fame power forwards like TNT's Charles Barkley bolster the argument that Love is the leader of the up-and-coming pack. His scoring (26.0) and rebounding (13.3) place him in a category of one, in terms of players who rank among the top five in the league in both categories. But it's the constantly improving shooting touch from deep that makes the league's reigning 3-point shootout champ stand out.

7
Rajon Rondo : Boston Celtics
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2011-'12: 11.9 ppg | 8.1 apg | 1.9 spg

There's a healthy debate to be had as to who had the better finish to this season between Rondo, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. But there is no debating that from the start of the regular season until last night's finish, Rondo has been the Celtics' MVP. His run of 24 straight games with double-digit assists, the first of its kind since John Stockton was doing his thing, is not being fully appreciated in a point guard era that values scoring over facilitating. Rondo's ability to dominate the game on both ends without having to rely on scoring makes him one of just three players (James and Dwight Howard are the others) capable of doing so on a consistently elite basis. Rondo at his best makes the Celtics a serious threat to the Heat and Bulls in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

8
Russell Westbrook : Oklahoma City Thunder
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2011-'12:23.6 ppg | 5.5 apg | 4.6 rpg

If the Westbrook we saw in the regular-season finale against Denver -- he finished with 30 points, six boards, nine assists, three steals and four blocks -- was the guy who showed up every night, he'd have finished in the top half of this list. He's capable of that sort of production on a nightly basis. As he continues to develop he'll continue to push his way through the crowd and up the ladder. But there are holes in his game that remain. He's far too careless with the ball (3.6 turnovers) for a guy who averaged just 5.5 assists this season. And if he's interested in shaking that "not a true point guard" label, he'll have to do a better job of picking and choosing when to take over games and when to get his teammates, even the ones not named Durant or Harden, into the mix.

9
Dwyane Wade : Miami Heat
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2011-'12: 22.1 ppg | 4.8 rpg | 4.6 apg

A series of nagging injuries limited Wade to just 49 regular-season games in an abbreviated season, which would have sunk the Heat pre-Big 3. The Heat's performance in his absence (14-1) is one of the strongest factors in favor of the MVP candidacy of LeBron James. This was not anything close to what Wade is used to, let alone the sort of season Heat fans have grown accustomed to seeing from him. His season averages in scoring (22.1), rebounds (4.8) and assists (4.6) were all down from his career numbers, as was his shooting percentage (27 percent) from 3-point range. With all of that said, we must not forget that Wade remains one of the league's truly elite talents when healthy. And he's going to be extremely well-rested come playoff time. The Knicks probably will have to deal with a motivated Wade who won't start the postseason on dead legs.

10
Dwight Howard : Orlando Magic
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2011-'12: 20.6 ppg | 14.5 rpg | 2.2 bpg

Back surgery for a herniated disc cost Howard the chance to finish the regular season and participate in the playoffs. But a training camp trade request, followed by those trade deadline shenanigans, stained this campaign for Howard from the start. The fact that he put up MVP numbers (20.6 points, 14.5 rebounds and 2.1 blocks) throughout the season with all of that extra stuff going on speaks volumes about the talent and abilities possessed by the man who -- sorry Andrew Bynum -- is still the best big man in basketball. With Howard healthy and in uniform, the Magic were a legitimate threat to the come out of the East, even with the dysfunctional working relationship between Howard and Magic coach Stan Van Gundy. Without the big fella, who is not even expected to be in attendance in street clothes for the playoffs, the Magic could be headed for a quick exit.