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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 Beat 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.

Unique Company Looms For LeBron

April 19 -- During a lengthy conversation about all things basketball, the NBA's greatest winner paid the league's current ultimate warrior the highest of compliments.

Boston Celtics Hall of Famer and living legend Bill Russell named LeBron James first when asked who he watches most today. Russell said he admires the way James plays the game -- team first, win at all costs and unafraid to walk his own path -- and how he thinks through the intricacies of each game.

It's fitting that Russell recognizes James as the league's torch bearer, because James is poised to join Russell on an extremely short list of players who have captured the NBA's greatest individual honor four times in five seasons. James is the runaway favorite to win his fourth MVP trophy, his second straight as a member of the Miami Heat, after leading his team to a 66-win season and the No. 1 overall seed in the playoffs.

James sits atop the final Kia Race to the MVP Ladder for the 2012-13 season, having distinguished himself from the crowded field of candidates from the start of this season but especially during the Heat's franchise-record 27-game win streak, the second-best mark in NBA history. James could very well become the first unanimous winner of the Maurice Podoloff trophy, which would also be a first in the 58-year-old award's history.

"Don't take it for granted," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra raved earlier this season about the reigning league and Finals MVP. "He makes greatness look easy."

A quick scan of his mind-boggling numbers makes that clear. James is the league's fourth leading scorer (26.8 ppg), finishing behind Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant. But he scored more efficiently than any of the other guys at the top of the list, connecting on a staggering 56.5 percent of his shots, including 40.6 percent of his 3-pointers. Those are staggering numbers for a player whose glaring weakness early in his career was his shooting stroke.

James also averaged 8.0 rebounds, 7.3 assists and 1.7 steals per game. He impacts games in so many ways, making him not only the league's most valuable player, but also its most versatile and dynamic.

"I've never seen anything like him and we might not ever see anything like him in the future," Los Angeles Clippers guard Jamal Crawford said. "When you think of all of the great players that have come through this league, there are only a handful of them you can say that about. He's in a league of his own right now."

While James is adamant about never playing the game for number's sake, there is no denying his brilliance a decade into his career. In fact, were it not for lingering resentment after his departure from Cleveland three years ago in free agency (the public relations debacle better known as "The Decision"), James might actually stand alone in MVP lore with five straight trophies.

Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose won the award after the 2010-11 season. Russell's four-in-five stretch came from 1960-65, with Oscar Robertson (Cincinnati Royals) interrupting his flow in 1964.

James still has a chance to join Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Larry Bird as the only players to win three straight MVP awards, an honor that eluded Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the league's career scoring leader who sits atop the all-time standings with six MVP trophies.

Spoelstra is convinced that an intense desire to be the best to ever player in the game, and the work ethic that has to come along with that, is what has fueled his star's rise to the top.

"He came off one of the more historic MVP seasons with a championship. Most people, the human condition would have been to relax and say, 'OK, that's the pinnacle,"' Spoelstra said. "But instead, he wanted to push and find another barrier. And that's why we don't want to, he doesn't want to, put a ceiling on how far he can go. ... He's a player that could conceivably continue to get better."

What else is left for a player who could conceivably lead any statistical category of his choosing? James already has accomplished what was essentially the perfect year -- that first title, two MVP trophies and that shiny Olympic gold medal.

If we're lucky, we'll find out in the coming years as James, 28, continues to fine tune his already otherworldly game.

And like Russell, the rest of the basketball world will be watching.

-- Sekou Smith, NBA.com

The Next Five: Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs; Ty Lawson, Denver Nuggets; Deron Williams, Brooklyn Nets; Paul George, Indiana Pacers; Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

Falling out: Duncan

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

1
LeBron James : MIAMI HEAT

SEASON STATS: 26.8 ppg | 8.0 rpg | 7.3 apg | 1.7 spg | 0.9 bpg
What do you do for an encore to one of the greatest runs ever? If you're LeBron James, you try to do it again. The Heat star won his first title and Finals MVP last season and capped off a wicked 10-month journey with Olympic gold in London. This season, he led the Heat to a franchise-best 66 wins, a run that included an all-out attack on the Lakers' 33-game win streak. The best part? James did it his way, playing the all-around game that has made him great. Four MVPs in five years, huh? Not bad at all for a guy who won more games this season than his old team has in the three years since he left (64).

2
Kevin Durant : OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER

SEASON STATS: 28.1 ppg | 7.9 rpg | 4.6 apg | 1.4 spg | 1.3 bpg
Durant ceded his scoring title to Carmelo Anthony, concentrating instead on making sure the Thunder earned the No. 1 seed in the West. But he still joined an exclusive list of players. He joins Larry Bird, Reggie Miller, Mark Price, Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki in the exclusive 50-40-90 club. The only thing left for Durant is to gain entry to the two true VIP rooms the league has to offer --- league MVP and championship owner. If it wasn't for that LeBron James fella, Durant would be hoisting his first MVP trophy.

3
Carmelo Anthony : NEW YORK KNICKS

SEASON STATS: 28.7 ppg | 6.9 rpg | 2.6 apg | 0.8 spg | 0.5 bpg
It took Anthony a decade to validate his reputation as arguably the NBA's best scorer with his first scoring title. The title isn't what made Anthony's 2012-13 season one of his best ever. It was the way he led (by example and otherwise) and helped the Knicks to 54 wins, an Atlantic Division title and the No. 2 seed in the East. If ever Anthony's critics needed to take a break from browbeating him for being an elite scorer and little else, this is that season. And who said being an elite scorer is a bad thing, anyway?

4
Chris Paul : L.A. CLIPPERS

SEASON STATS: 16.9 ppg | 3.7 rpg | 9.7 apg | 2.4 spg | 0.1 bpg
When they come up with a Most Valuable Leader trophy, they might as well engrave Paul's name on it and ship it to him each season. Wherever he goes, he reshapes a team's culture for the better. The Clippers won their first-ever division title this season and knocked the Lakers off their perch as L.A.'s kings. The Clippers don't come close to a 56-win season and that No. 4 seed in the West without Paul's leadership and play. If you don't believe in the power of Paul, just look at the where the New Orleans Hornets (now Pelicans) are since he left.

5
Kobe Bryant : L.A. LAKERS

SEASON STATS: 27.3 ppg | 5.6 rpg | 6.0 apg | 1.4 spg | 0.3 bpg
Watching Kobe go down with a ruptured Achilles was brutal. That tragic end overshadows what was an absolutely remarkable season for the Lakers' assassin. Bryant's numbers were up across the board -- except in minutes played (stagnant) and scoring (slight dip), the two areas of his game that garnered the most discussion at the end of the season. Those who fear we've seen the last of the swashbuckling Bryant are underestimating the Black Mamba.

6
Tony Parker : SAN ANTONIO SPURS

SEASON STATS: 20.3 ppg | 3.0 rpg | 7.6 apg | 0.8 spg | 0.1 bpg
Injuries derailed Parker's chances of crashing the MVP party after being a top-three contender before the All-Star break. He played just 15 games after All-Star weekend and dealt with an assortment of injuries (a severe ankle sprain, mostly). For a while, Parker was in one of the best grooves of his career. In nine February games, he averaged 26.1 ppg, shot 54 percent and averaged 8.3 apg and 4.0 rpg as the Spurs surged to the top of the West. But as Parker's health got sketchy, so too did the Spurs' grip on No. 1. Parker & Co. had a bigger finish in mind.

7
Russell Westbrook : OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER

SEASON STATS: 23.0 ppg | 5.2 rpg | 7.4 apg | 1.8 spg | 0.3 bpg
Westbrook's ironman reputation is well earned. The All-Star point guard has played in 394 straight games -- every regular-season game since coming into the league. He was spectacular again this season, but his critics will continue to bemoan the fact that he took 102 more shots this season than Kevin Durant (1,535 to 1,433) and didn't shoot anywhere near as efficiently as the Thunder's, ahem, No. 1 option. But if it works for Thunder coach Scott Brooks and for Durant, maybe they know something the rest of us don't?

8
Dwyane Wade : MIAMI HEAT

SEASON STATS: 21.2 ppg | 5.0 rpg | 5.1 apg | 1.9 spg | 0.8 bpg
Wade pulled off one of the great Houdini acts in recent NBA memory. He was supposed to be on the back nine of a career or even done as an elite player. He responded with the best shooting year of his career (52 percent) and lights-out play during the Heat's 27-game win streak. In fact, you could argue that the real difference in the Heat during that streak is that Wade was every bit as good as LeBron James most nights. Wade's MVP window might be shut, but he remains one of the league's elite players.

9
Marc Gasol : MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES

SEASON STATS: 14.1 ppg | 7.8 rpg | 4.0 apg | 1.0 spg | 1.7 bpg
The defensive anchor for one of the league's best teams, Gasol finally has bragging rights over big brother Pau. Marc isn't an elite shot blocker, but he's an elite defender, and arguably the most complete player at his position (sorry Dwight Howard) in the league. When the Grizzlies traded Rudy Gay, they needed someone to stabilize things. Gasol was the man for the job, playing his best basketball of the season after the deal. Gasol has made it impossible for anyone to doubt him. He's married Pau's low-post skill set with his own rugged streak beautifully, earning his place on this list without much hype.

10
James Harden : HOUSTON ROCKETS

SEASON STATS: 25.9 ppg | 4.9 rpg | 5.8 apg | 1.8 spg | 0.5 bpg
Harden's trade from Oklahoma City to Houston trumps that multi-team, Dwight Howard/Andrew Bynum blockbuster from last summer in ways that no one (outside of maybe Rockets GM Daryl Morey) foresaw. After all, it's not every day that a guy goes from Sixth Man of the Year to legitimate MVP candidate in a few months. Harden's on this list because the Rockets wouldn't have sniffed the No. 8 seed in the West without him driving the train. Harden asserted himself from the very start, posting career numbers in every stat known to man (and Morey).

Current Rankings

Rank Status Player
1 -- LeBron James
2 -- Kevin Durant
3 -- Carmelo Anthony
4 -- Chris Paul
5 -- Kobe Bryant
6 -- Tony Parker
7 -- Russell Westbrook
8 -- Dwyane Wade
9 -- Marc Gasol
10 NR James Harden