With just six weeks left in the grind that is the NBA's regular season, it's time to start having the MVP conversation. LeBron James and Kobe Bryant will likely be the first two names mentioned when this hotly debated topic is brought up, but they shouldn't be -- not this season. If you've been paying attention, Dwyane Wade is the league's most valuable player, and it's really not even that close.
Of course, any MVP discussion is highly subjective, and before you start choosing sides, you have to define what the award is going to be. Most of the time -- and with few exceptions -- the voters have decided that the trophy goes to the best player on one of the top two teams in the league during the regular season.
That's the way it's been for some time, and things aren't likely to change this year. But by looking at it that way, we're really taking the "value" part out of the equation, aren't we?
What really should define an MVP is a player's value to his team. As in, take a look at the player's all-around performance, look at his supporting cast to see how much help he's getting, then see where the team is in the standings and then determine how different things would be if the player we're talking about wasn't a piece of that puzzle.
If you look at it that way, Dwyane Wade has to be your clear-cut choice.
The Heat right now sit at the five spot in the East, three games above .500 and just two-and-a-half games behind the up and down Atlanta Hawks. The top three seeds in the conference were locked in a long time ago, but it's not out of the realm of possibility that Miami could overtake Atlanta for fourth, and thus have home-court advantage for the first round of the playoffs.
Let me say that again: the Miami Heat could host a first-round playoff series.
Looking back at preseason projections, most people didn't even have the Heat making the playoffs at all, much less finishing as high as fourth; the brain trust at the Worldwide Leader had an average prediction of Miami finishing no higher than ninth. The reason the team is in the playoff mix is solely due to the play of Wade, because his supporting cast just hasn't been, well, all that supportive.
Besides the fact that no player on the Heat (Wade excepted) averages more than a few decimal points above 13 points, eight rebounds, or four assists per game, the inconsistent lineups that Wade has been forced to play with this season make Miami's current playoff position that much more impressive.
Due to a combination of injuries, trades, or just plain trial and error on the part of the coaching staff, the Heat have had players like Yakouba Diawara and Michael Beasley in the starting lineup for 15 games each, and Joel Anthony in there for 28 games. Beasley's a rookie and has been OK in stretches, but Diawara and Anthony don't do much more than take up space.
Most people believed Marion would be gone before the end of the season given his contract situation, and O'Neal appears to be a slight upgrade and a better fit for what the Heat's needs are. But it's extremely difficult to try and get new players (especially starters) acclimated to a new team and a new system some 52 games into the season, and Miami's 3-4 record since the trade is reflective of that.
Dwyane Wade knows this perhaps better than anyone, which is probably why he's raised his game to an even higher level since the trade was made.
Over his last seven games, Wade has been simply off the charts. He's averaged almost 36 points and 10 assists per game during that stretch, including dropping career-highs in those two categories (50 points vs. Orlando on Feb. 22, 16 assists vs. Detroit on Feb. 24) in consecutive games. And, Wade has gone for more than 41 points in each of his last two games.
I don't want to give you the impression that Wade's dominance has been a recent phenomenon, however, because the fact is, he's been a monster all season long. Wade leads the league in scoring (at 29.2 points per game), is ninth in the league in assists (7.4), second in steals (2.79), and (as discovered by our own Tom Ziller) is on pace to break the record for most blocked shots by a player 6'4" or shorter in a season. Obscure, maybe. But awesome, undoubtedly. And it shows just how much Wade is doing in every single facet of the game to carry his team to the playoffs.
Now, the case for Wade has been made, but it probably would be much more difficult to make the case against either of his two likely competitors for the award. That's because they are, by most accounts, the two best basketball players in the entire world -- so I'm not really going to try. But I will give you a comparison of what LeBron James and Kobe Bryant have done this season, just to point out how stellar Wade has truly been in a league-wide context.
Kobe might (MIGHT) have been overtaken by LeBron this year as the consensus "best player in the league," but that doesn't mean he still can't bring it when he wants to. His 61 points in New York earlier this season were amazing, and as recently as Sunday he scored 49 points and grabbed 11 rebounds against the Suns, which included a stretch of less than five minutes in the third quarter where he scored 17 points. Bryant (28.0 ppg) is a close third in the league scoring race behind Wade and James, and his rebounding (5.6 rpg) is right there with what Wade is doing this season.
But Bryant is playing on a stacked Lakers team. Think about it: a Lakers club with Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, and a healthy Andrew Bynum would likely sneak into the playoffs without one of the best players in the world anyway; with Kobe, they're the heavy favorites at this point to win the championship (or at least reach the Finals). Could Kobe Bryant do everything that Wade is doing and drag a less talented team to the playoffs by himself? Certainly, and he did exactly that in 2006. We know that Bryant is capable of doing this, but he doesn't need to this season, and the bottom line is, he hasn't done so.
The same can be said for LeBron James.
There aren't really words to describe just how great LeBron has been this season. He has his Cavaliers at the top of the Eastern Conference standings, and has been statistically every bit as impressive as Wade -- at least offensively. LeBron is second in the league in scoring, merely seven-tenths of a point behind Wade, per game, (28.5) for the season. He averages virtually an identical amount of assists per game (7.0), and being more of a physical beast than Wade is, James averages a couple more rebounds per game than Wade manages to (7.3).
But Wade has him beat in steals and blocks, which again, is a testament to his value to his team. See, LeBron has people like Zydrunas Ilgauskas to rebound, Anderson Varejao to block shots, and (now healthy) Delonte West to help out with the steals. And let's not forget too that James has another All-Star on the team (even though it took him a while to get there) in Mo Williams, who just happened to drop 30 the other night when the Heat and the Cavs went head-to-head.
No one on the Heat is going for 30 besides Dwyane Wade, period.
It's not that Lebron couldn't be as good as Wade has been this season, and in fact, I'm pretty sure that he could be even better. But the reality is, he doesn't need to be that dominant in every single category because James has so much more help than Wade does -- and the same is true for Bryant.
If you want to give the MVP award to the best player in the game, then this season, LeBron James is your man. But if we're truly looking for the player who is the most valuable, the guy who's just killing it in every statistical category on both offense and defense, and without whom his team would likely finish dead last in the Eastern Conference, then Dwyane Wade is the easy choice for league MVP this season. And it's really not even close.