- Justin Verrier, NBA
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Although his Cleveland teams fizzled out the past two postseasons, LeBron James has ruled the Most Valuable Player race recently, having run away with the individual title in consecutive years.
But things have changed.
Now LeBron is an ex-Cav and, according to most of our panel, soon to be an ex-MVP. Our crew of 93 NBA experts has forecasted LeBron's new squad, the supercharged Heat, will finish atop the East next season, but with no clear team leader, the MVP voters might look not to Miami but elsewhere.
In that case, who is the early leader in the MVP race?
Here are our panel's predictions:
2010-11 Forecast: Most Valuable Player
Durant: Meet the heir apparent to King James' MVP throne.
Just three seasons removed from earning rookie of the year honors with Seattle and less than a year after leading the upstart Thunder to their first postseason berth, Durant, the soon-to-be-22-year-old reigning scoring champ, is our panel's pick to hoist his first MVP trophy at season's end.
KD's 2009-10 numbers (30.1 points, 7.6 rebounds and a 26.23 Player Efficiency Rating while playing all 82 games) were good enough for him to pick up 609 points in last season's voting, in which he finished second to LeBron (and just ahead of Kobe Bryant). But with Oklahoma City predicted to finish second in the West, almost half of our crew of 93 believes it's the young gun's award to lose, especially with James taking his talents to South Beach, where he'll share the ball and spotlight with Wade and Bosh.
And Durant might pick up even more supporters on his burgeoning bandwagon before the summer is over. Serving as the unquestioned leader and face of the latest version of Team USA (just check out any of the recent ads), Durant has a chance to bring home the U.S.'s first world championship since 1994 -- perhaps not a factor when it comes to MVP votes, but another way to build the buzz for his highly anticipated fourth NBA season.
Bryant: He's creeping up on MJ in rings, but Kobe has a ways to go if he wants as many Podoloffs lined up on his mantle; Jordan leads Bryant just six NBA titles to five, but he is ahead 5-1 in MVP trophies.
Of course, it's that sixth ring that could get Kobe into the conversation for greatest ever, and that should be more than enough motivation for this uber-competitive superstar as he and the Lakers embark on their quest to become the first team to three-peat since, well, (Shaq and) Kobe and the Lakers.
But in the MVP race, injuries could play a role as they did this past season, when myriad health issues forced KB24 to sit out nine games and sport a sizeable wrap on the mangled index finger on his shooting hand. Still, his production didn't slip much, as his 2009-10 stats (27 ppg, 5 apg, 1.5 spg, 45.6 field goal percentage) were pretty close to those of his MVP campaign three seasons ago (28.3 ppg, 5.4 apg, 1.8 spg, 45.9 field goal percentage).
Can he top rivals LeBron and Durant and take his second MVP trophy? Of our 93 panelists, 23 (25 percent) say No. 24 can get it done.
James: Miami might offer him his best shot at a ring, but its All-Star ensemble cast isn't currently helping LeBron's MVP stock, as our panel thinks the King's streak will end at two.
Some believe that with Wade and Bosh by his side, Bron has a shot at becoming the first player to average a triple-double since Oscar Robertson in 1961-62. But it's hard to be the alpha dog of the league when you might not be the leader of your own pack.
And while official voting is still eight months away, James probably won't be winning any popularity contests anytime soon after some questionable PR decision-making left more than a few groaning about LeBron overload.
Wade: D-Wade finally has some high-priced help with which to make another title run. But will there be enough shots for any of Miami's Super Friends to have a legitimate shot at an MVP?
Numbers have never been hard to come by for the Heat's go-to guy, as Wade has filled up the stat sheet, averaging more than 26 points per game in four of the past five seasons. But he will be hard pressed to find the 18-plus shots per game he's grown accustomed to over that same span when he's playing alongside two new teammates who ranked in the top 11 in usage rate last season.
Still, with Miami expected to top 60 wins next season, this looks like Wade's best chance at his first regular-season MVP award, especially if the Heat lifer is the one hoisting up the final shots in crunch time.
Howard: Defense wins championships. But MVPs? Not often.
Such is the plight of Howard, who has won consecutive defensive player of the year trophies and compiled more blocks than a Lego warehouse the past two seasons but has been shut out from a top-three spot in the official MVP voting.
The big culprit: his offensive game. To be fair, D-12's repertoire of post moves has grown, but his points-per-game average actually dipped last season (from 20.6 to 18.3) as he battled foul trouble and hack-a-Howard tactics.
Howard is so dominant on D that he'll be a perennial MVP candidate, but he will never get the votes if he can't stay on the court or make free throws.