For the last two years, there's been hardly any debate that LeBron James has been the best player in the NBA. He's been the most talented, the most productive, the flat-out most valuable. End of story. But now that LeBron has taken his talents to South Beach and the balance of power among the NBA's elite stars has shifted, there's no clear answer about what will happen next season. How will things change in 2011? Who will win the MVP?
Every year, we've opened the season with one guy clearly standing above the rest, the MVP candidate to beat. That belt has been passed around over the last five years from Steve Nash, to Dirk Nowitzki, to Kobe Bryant, to LeBron James. But at the moment, it's up for grabs.
Nash will turn 37 this season. He's still one of the NBA's best point guards, but he's faded from the conversation as his golden years have passed him by.
Dirk is still going strong, but his reign at the top was a flash in the pan. The Mavericks' star is now a mere top-10 guy.
Kobe isn't the same world-beating force he was three years ago. He can't dominate on pure athleticism the way he once did — he's now got to work hard for everything, living on his basketball IQ and his competitive drive rather than his body.
And then there's LeBron.
You could easily make the case that at 25 years of age, King James is still the best player on the planet. The fact that he single-handedly carried a bad Cleveland Cavaliers team to 127 wins in two seasons would help your argument. But going to Miami will change everything for LeBron.
He's going to have to share everything with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh — money, attention, minutes, touches, shots, accolades.
Separately, with Wade in Miami, Bosh in Toronto and LeBron back home in Cleveland, all three men were perennial MVP candidates. In their last season apart before the realigning summer of 2010, they were all in that conversation — LeBron won the honor, Wade finished fifth, Bosh 12th. But together they stood, and united they'll fall.
No one guy is big enough to rise above the rest of that Miami superteam. They'll all end up splitting the credit for the Heat's rise to power, and they'll all end up splitting space on the ballot.
That leaves an opening for someone new to ascend to the MVP throne.
Maybe someone who's only 21 and already holds a scoring title and a Worlds MVP plaque.
Think about it — now's the perfect time for Kevin Durant to rise to the top and win his first MVP. The old guard of Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Nash, Dirk and Kobe have all faded away. LeBron, Wade and Bosh will cancel each other out. That leaves Durant, who finished second in the voting last season and now looks poised to get even better.
Durant will win because his numbers will be too big to ignore. The guy averaged 30.1 points per game last season, shooting 47.6 percent from the field and 90.0 percent from the free-throw line. You think those numbers are good — but he was only 21! As long as he keeps improving and so does the supporting cast around him, his stats are only going to get better. You try voting against a guy who averages 33 a night.
Durant will win because he's leading a great team. The Thunder won 50 games last season, earning a No. 8 seed in the Western Conference playoffs. But with all their core guys young and rapidly improving, a leap forward this year to 55 or even 60 wins is definitely in play. If the Thunder compete for the best record in the West next season, you can expect voters to reward that. Durant's the biggest reason why OKC has a chance to reach the top.
Durant will win because it's a great story. While LeBron was televising his decision and stabbing Cleveland in the back this summer, Durant was quietly signing a five-year, $55 million contract extension to stay in Oklahoma City. He's the most modest NBA superstar we've ever seen, and the media loves it. He doesn't need to toot his own horn when writers and analysts across America are doing it for him. Durant has the country on his side.
In short, Durant will win his first MVP next spring because now is his time. The belt will be passed along one more time, and it's Durant's turn to wear it with pride.
NESN.com will analyze 25 key NBA questions this September.
Sept. 16: Who wins Rookie of the Year?
Sept. 18: Who wins the Pacific Division?