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Tuesday, March 18, 2008
MVP race: CP3's case

I'm on record as saying LeBron James is the best player in the NBA.

And I stand by that.

I'm also on record as saying Kobe Bryant is at the top of my MVP ballot (last Thursday on NBA Fastbreak).

But uhhh, things are changing.

As the voting draws closer and closer, I'm beginning to lean more and more toward Chris Paul. His stats -- as is the case with LeBron and Kobe -- are obviously terrific. But the biggest argument for Paul is how he's put the New Orleans Hornets in contention for the West's best record.

When I consider that they're just a game behind Houston for the West's top mark, I find it almost impossible to deny Paul the MVP trophy. Especially when considering his supporting cast.

Tyson Chandler is continually improving, but there's no doubt that he benefits greatly from playing with Paul. David West is a very good player in his own right, but I don't think he's an All-Star without Paul. And Peja Stojakovic, while still solid, is about two-thirds the player he was during his heyday in Sacramento.

Paul's starting 2-guard? Mo Peterson, who averages 8.3 points a game on 42 percent shooting.

But besides Paul, Tracy McGrady, who I didn't even consider an MVP candidate a week ago, is making a sterling run. He's now in the conversation, though he'll have to do plenty more to get my vote.

The 22 straight is just incredible -- 10 straight without Yao -- and if the Rockets win their next four games (Boston, New Orleans, Golden State and Phoenix), McGrady becomes a serious candidate for the award. But right now, he's got too many other things working against him.

First, he's missed 15 games -- and during a late-December, early-January run without him, the Rockets went 7-4. Second, McGrady's played most of the season with Yao, who's better than anyone Paul, LeBron or Kobe has on their respective rosters. Third, T-Mac's numbers aren't eye-popping. He averages 22 points, 5.6 assists and 5 rebounds per game on 43.9 percent shooting.

Fourth, T-Mac's postseason failures work against him. Even though it's a regular-season award, it's hard to give the MVP award to someone not known for coming through when the heat is on. T-Mac's playoff numbers are outstanding -- 28.8 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 6.1 apg -- but he's let far too many playoff series slip through his hands.

It's not just that he hasn't gotten past the first round; it's that in three of his series, his team held a two-game lead. In 2002-03, his Orlando Magic were up 3-1 before falling in seven to Detroit. In 2004-05, his Rockets were up 2-0 on Dallas before losing in seven. And of course, last year, Houston led Utah 2-0 before losing Game 7 in its own building.

With a track record like that, it may take a 34-game win streak for McGrady to win MVP.

I know, I know, Dirk Nowitzki won the award last year. But at the time, the evidence on Dirk's postseason struggles wasn't conclusive. However, after the collapse against Golden State last year, Dirk will likely never win another MVP award unless he first wins a title.

As for Kobe ... he's still got a shot. But the Lakers are just 6-7 without Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum in the lineup. And three of those seven losses were at the hands of his three major MVP competitors: LeBron's Cavs, Paul's Hornets and T-Mac's Rockets.

Kobe may have to show he can carry the Lakers to at least a plus-.500 mark without Pau and Bynum to win the award.

Then there's LeBron. If the award were to go strictly to the most outstanding individual, he's your man. But with the Cavs on pace to win just 46 games in the woeful East, it's hard to give him the award.

In the last 25 years -- since Moses Malone won the award with the 46-36 Rockets in 1982 -- no one has been named MVP when his team won fewer than 50 games.

Couple that with the fact that the Cavs aren't going to win 50 despite playing in the wretched Eastern Conference and it's hard to give LeBron the trophy.

I know that LeBron has carried the Cavs through holdout after holdout, and injury after injury (Sasha Pavlovic, Anderson Varejao, Larry Hughes, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Daniel Gibson), but his schedule isn't nearly as tough as the ones faced by Paul, Kobe and McGrady.

Anyhow, I still have time before turning in my ballot. But this is getting awfully tricky.