Commentary

PER Diem: Jan. 16, 2009

The NBA gives us a star-studded lineup of games Friday, with the top four MVP candidates lacing it up on the hardwood.

Updated: January 16, 2009, 4:45 PM ET
By John Hollinger | ESPN.com

Choose this season's All-NBA team, and it's pretty much cut and dried which five names you'll settle on: LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul and Dwight Howard.

Sure, you could nitpick about the lack of a true power forward and argue for Tim Duncan or Chris Bosh, and you might hem and haw for about 0.8 seconds about somebody like Brandon Roy for the backcourt, but ultimately, these are the five on which you'll settle.

They're the five best players in the league, clearly -- and you're in luck, because four of them are in action Friday night, on ESPN and ESPN360.com, playing against each other.

While D-Wade sits out this particular doubleheader, the other four face off with the Hornets visiting the Cavs (8 p.m. ET), followed by the Magic at the Lakers (10:30 p.m. ET).

So as a prelude to tonight, and since we're almost halfway through the NBA season, it seems like a good time to examine the MVP race -- because these four are likely to be 1, 2, 3 and 4, in some order, on nearly every MVP ballot come April.

Here's how I size it up at the halfway post:


4. Kobe Bryant, Lakers. Right now, he's No. 4, but it comes with one big, fat asterisk we'll talk about in a moment.

First, the facts: Bryant is fifth in player efficiency rating going into Friday's games, with the three other players on this list all outpacing him, and while he's been an asset at the defensive end, he hasn't been the imposing force Orlando's Howard (or, I would argue, James) has become.

The best line on his résumé right now is 31-7 -- that's L.A.'s record, the best in the league. Should the Lakers beat Orlando on Friday night and Cleveland on Monday, they'll have a strong leg up in the race for the top overall playoff seed.

On the other hand, the Lakers are only fourth in the power rankings, which is a nice way of saying they probably need to play better if they want to keep the Magic and the Cavs in their rearview mirror.

Now, about that asterisk -- one reason Bryant has a shot at repeating as MVP is his strong second-half trend throughout his career. Check out his splits over the past several seasons, and you'll see he consistently plays much better from January to March than in the first couple of months.

As much as any player in the league, Bryant manages himself during the season and slowly dials it up as the season progresses, then takes it down a notch in April to warm up for the playoffs. If he follows that trend this season, and if the Lakers finish with the league's best record, he has a shot at repeating.


3. Dwight Howard, Magic. Howard is ahead of Bryant in PER by a smidgeon, but the bigger reason to rate him ahead of Bryant is his defense. While three of Orlando's five starters aren't exactly renowned for being shut-down defenders, the Magic are third in the league in defensive efficiency.

That's a tribute to Howard's ability to shut down the middle and dominate the boards -- he is second in rebounding and leads the league by a wide margin in blocks. Plus, he's been able to do it while avoiding fouls and staying on the court. Howard averages 36.2 minutes per game -- just as many as Bryant -- which is rare for a big man.

And of course, he's as important to the offense as to the defense. Even when he isn't scoring, he's allowing the Orlando 3-point brigade to bomb away because of all the attention he draws in the middle. Now if he could just make foul shots -- that 58.0 percent from the stripe might keep him from the MVP award.


2. Chris Paul, Hornets. I felt a little weird about this one because the Hornets haven't quite lived up to the expectations some had for them this season … and because the three other players on this list are on the teams with the league's three best records … and because Paul, defensively, isn't on par with the three other players, even though he leads the league in steals.

But I have to put him here anyway, because he's been so spectacularly good in carrying the Hornets to what might be the No. 2 seed in the West -- even though the bench is terrible, Tyson Chandler is having a bad season and he has no backup. The Hornets somehow are No. 5 in the power rankings despite all that, and while it's a distant fifth, it would be more like 20th if Paul weren't around.

He is second in the league in PER and, in fact, his 30.53 mark will be among the best of all time if he can maintain it the entire season. In addition to leading the league in assists and steals, his true shooting percentage of 60.1 is phenomenal, considering how much offensive responsibility he has, while his 8.8 rebound rate is unbelievable for a 6-0 point guard -- he's outrebounding Danny Granger, Bryant, Wade, Ron Artest, Vince Carter, Roy, Thaddeus Young, Hedo Turkoglu, Richard Jefferson and Josh Howard, among others.


1. LeBron James, Cavaliers. Because James is playing fewer minutes than usual, people might not realize what a historic season he's having. The decline in playing time has resulted in a dip in his per-game averages, but in terms of efficiency, he's never been better.

In fact, one could argue nobody has ever been better.

At 32.09 going into Friday's games, James is on pace to put up the best PER of all time. Yes, better than any of Michael Jordan's seasons (his 31.70 in 1987-88 is the current gold standard). We're halfway through the season now, so we can't just write it off to a hot start -- James has a serious shot at setting a new mark.

He also is the lone star on the team that is No. 1 in the power rankings, tops in the Eastern Conference standings over the NBA champs and set to post one of the top all-time scoring margins (the Cavs currently are winning by 11.9 points per game; Jordan's 1995-96 Bulls and the 1971-72 Lakers were at plus-12.3).

The Cavs also are the league's top defensive team, and James has been a huge part of the success there as well -- he is averaging 2.0 steals and 1.3 blocks, and has improved by leaps and bounds as an individual defender, as everyone saw when he shut down Paul Pierce in the showdown against Boston on Jan. 9.

So while his team doesn't have the league's best record at the moment, and while James' scoring average is down nearly three points from last season, don't let it fool you. Both he and his team have posted a truly historic first half of the season, and if they keep it up for three more months, there's little doubt who will be the MVP.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.