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Race to the MVP Ladder

The Race to the MVP Ladder is a weekly look at our favorite to walk away with the Maurice Podoloff Trophy (aka the NBA MVP award). The rankings are normally written by Sekou Smith of NBA.com's HangTime blog, Hang Time podcast and The Beat. If you have an issue with the Ladder, or have a question or comment for Sekou, send him an e-mail. You can also follow him on Twitter.

LeBron Ready To Cede His MVP Crown?

April 11 -- Before anyone puts words in the mouth of the two-time defending Most Valuable Player of the league, let's be crystal clear about what LeBron James said in regards to Kevin Durant earlier this week.

When asked if Durant should be the frontrunner for top honors this season, LeBron chose his words carefully.

"He's the most consistent basketball player as far as the MVP this year," James said about Durant. "He's put up some great numbers."

MCP, huh?

"I think KD has had one heck of a season," James said. "If he's rewarded with the MVP, it would be great. It would be awesome for him, for his family. He's played MVP-type basketball. I don't really get caught up into what people say. At the end of the day, they have their own votes and they go from there."

Indeed, the voters will speak soon. And from all indications, Durant's campaign this season has been waged beautifully. With or without Russell Westbrook in OKC's mix, he has been consistently brilliant in all aspects of his game.

As much as people would like to make this KD vs. LeBron showdown, it's really been about the contrasts of two elite artists and admiring the fine work they've done in their own particular ways.

Choosing one over the other almost becomes a preference issue. The Thunder trail the Spurs for the top spot in the Western Conference standings and the Heat are a half game behind the Pacers for the top spot in the East, with their fourth and final matchup of the season set for tonight in Miami (7:30 ET, NBA TV). So that all-important his-team-finished-higher-than-his factor might not even come into play.

But the fact that LeBron responded to questions about Durant the way he did, at this late stage of the race, is perhaps most telling. Both players have had to work under duress this season: LeBron for long stretches without a fully healthy Dwyane Wade (various injuries), while Durant didn't have Westbrook (various knee injuries) to lean on for huge chunks of the season.

The chorus for a Durant-over-LeBron MVP finish this season grew a bit louder this week and took an interesting twist when Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers said (as biased as it might be) that Blake Griffin had also surpassed James and should finish second to Durant.

It's a slight that will no doubt leave a mark on James, as Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com makes clear:

Wednesday, one of James' favorite people in the league, Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers, said he'd have to bump James down to third place on his own Most Valuable Player rankings to make way for Blake Griffin behind Kevin Durant in the top spot.

This was while James was dragging the Heat on his back with a 37-point performance as Dwyane Wade sat out his 27th game of the season and Chris Bosh contributed a grand total of three points. The Heat lost to the Memphis Grizzlies and fell behind the Indiana Pacers for the top record in the Eastern Conference.

Over the past 10 games, eight of which Wade has missed with a hamstring injury, James has averaged 29 points, seven rebounds and six assists. In the past five games he's averaging 31 points but also 40 minutes, something he hoped to avoid as the playoffs approach.

Those are MVP-type numbers, but the Heat are only 5-5 in those 10 games and that has essentially sealed the deal for James. He most likely will not become the first player in history to win five MVPs in a six-year span as he'd aspired to this season.

In 2011, James gave what amounted to a concession speech in early April when he knew Derrick Rose was taking the MVP title that he'd held for two seasons from him. He did it again Wednesday when he effectively admitted he knows the award is probably going to Durant this season.

That leaves us with a simple choice as we head into the final six days of the season: do we go ahead and call the race now or do we play out the string and pick a winner for the sake of formality?

Because the incumbent seems to have already made that choice for us ...

-- Sekou Smith

Editor's note on player stats: Instead of going with points, assists, rebounds, blocks and steals to measure each MVP candidate's numbers, we are instead going with PIE.

While we do not discredit traditional stats around these parts, PIE is one stat we think helps accurately reflect the overall value of a player.

What is PIE?: It stands for Player Impact Estimate, and it's a new NBA-developed stat that measures a player's (or team's) overall impact on games.

PIE eliminates league- , season- or style-of-play bias, enabling comparison of a player (or team) across different eras. The PIE formula also includes the team's rate of success -- which some see as the ultimate measure of a player's worth.

But if you're looking for the traditional (and advanced numbers), they're just a click away, too.

Got something to say about this week's Race to the MVP Ladder? Send us an e-mail.

1
Kevin Durant : OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER

Durant's PIE: 20.7% | More Durant stats

Durant could take his foot off the gas and ease up a bit for the final few games of the season. He's all but locked up the No. 1 MVP spot in most everyone's mind. But he's simply not made that way. He cannot let up, not even with the Thunder firmly entrenched among the top two in the West, another scoring title on the way and his first MVP trophy looming. Durant's non-stop motor has driven him to the top of this list and the top of the charts in the categories every elite player needs to be in the mix of. And yes, he passed Michael Jordan's 40-game streak of games with 25 or more points, saw his own streak stop at 41 games and is already one game into a new streak.

2
LeBron James : MIAMI HEAT

LeBron's PIE: 20.0% | More James stats

He all but conceded the MVP trophy to Durant before putting on a show in Wednesday's loss in Memphis. While LeBron seems willing to part with the MVP hardware, it's that Finals MVP trophy he won't give up. He knows he gets a two-for-one for winning that trophy (a Larry O'Brien comes along with it). LeBron and the Heat actually have more pressing matters at hand this weekend, including tonight's showdown with the Indiana Pacers for control of No. 1 in the Eastern Conference (and the home-court advantage throughout the East playoffs that comes with it). Those things are seemingly more important to James than another MVP.

3
Blake Griffin : L.A. CLIPPERS

Griffin's PIE: 16.1% | More Griffin stats

As impressive as Griffin has been throughout a season that has sent plenty of adversity his way, he's been arguably his most stunning recently while playing with a sore back and bum ankle. He's averaging 25.3 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 5.0 apg and 1.3 spg in his past four games. Griffin's best stroke during that stretch came at the free throw line, where he has knocked down nearly 81 percent (33-for-41) of his shots this month. Whatever rest coach Doc Rivers can find for Griffin here in the final week of the season will come at just the right time. The Clippers will need Griffin at his very best in a potential first round playoff matchup with the Golden State Warriors.

4
Joakim Noah : CHICAGO BULLS

Noah's PIE: 15.6% | More stats

All Noah has done this season is put together one of the finest big-man campaigns -- a first team All-NBA season if you ask me -- without needing to score more than 13 ppg to do it. He collected his fourth triple-double of the season in Wednesday's win over Minnesota and did so in quintessential, efficient Noah fashion -- 15 points on 7-for-13 shooting to go along with 13 rebounds, 10 assists and two blocks. Noah has piled up seven games this season with double-digit assists, cementing his status as the best facilitating big man in the game, a group that includes the likes of Marc Gasol and Tim Duncan.

5
LaMarcus Aldridge : PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS

Aldridge's PIE: 15.6% | More stats

Aldridge is the definition of an MVP with what he's meant to the Trail Blazers this season. They were a totally different team without him in the lineup last month while he dealt with a sore back. Their 3-4 record during his absence last month put them in danger of falling out of the West's ultra-comptetitve playoff chase. They are 6-1 since he returned (Aldridge is averaging 22 ppg, 11.6 rpg, 2.1 apg and 1.1 bpg in that span) and clinched their playoff spot during his comeback. As good as Damian Lillard is and has been this season, the Blazers will go only as far as Aldridge leads them in the playoffs. This is his team.

6
James Harden : HOUSTON ROCKETS

Harden's PIE: 15.6% | More Harden stats

His dismal showing (1-for-11 from the floor, 0-for-4 from deep) in Wednesday's awful loss in Denver aside, Harden has shown the finishing kick you want to see from a legitimate first option (sorry, Rick Fox, and anyone else who thinks Harden is a No. 2 or 3 option on a good team). Over his last 10 games Harden is averaging 29.2 ppg, 7.8 apg, 5.0 rpg and 1.8 spg as Houston fights it out to the finish for the West's No. 4 spot in the playoff standings. He'll need a healthy Dwight Howard by his side if the Rockets are going to make any serious noise in the playoffs.

7
Al Jefferson : CHARLOTTE BOBCATS

Jefferson's PIE: 16.8% | More Jefferson stats

The Eastern Conference Player of the Month for March, Jefferson and the Bobcats weren't just satisfied with clinching the second playoff berth in team history (which they did with an overtime win over the Cavaliers on April 5). They were intent on climbing the food chain in the East and if that meant whipping Washington in OT to the Wizards' spot, so be it. They're No. 6 in the East this morning, but Jefferson knows there's a lot more work to be done to keep that position. "Big Al" has done his part, and then some, leading the way with his stellar play on the block on both ends of the floor, in addition to his work off the floor as a true leader for this young bunch.

8
Stephen Curry : GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS

Curry's PIE: 16.2% | More Curry stats

Curry's improved defense is all about attention to detail and the fact that coach Mark Jackson, who spends an inordinate amount of time talking about his team's defensive prowess, might finally be getting to his stars. Curry's not going to make anyone's all-Defensive team. But if you watch the way he stays in the passing lanes and the on-ball pressure he brings against opposing guards, it's clear that he's put some time and energy into improving there. Combine that with his ridiculous production as the league's best shooter and you have a rare player leading what will be one of the most dangerous teams in basketball come playoff time.

9
Tim Duncan : SAN ANTONIO SPURS

Duncan's PIE: 15.4% | More Duncan stats

The Spurs need just one more win to clinch the No. 1 overall seed in the Western Conference and throughout the postseason. In their last efforts, Duncan and Patty Mills helped the Spurs shred the Dallas Mavericks Thursday night for their 30th road win this season. Duncan, who suffered a hyperextended right knee early on, finished the game with his second-highest minute total of the season. Duncan's 20 points (on 7-for-12 shooting), 15 rebounds, two assists, one block and one steal in 39 minutes drives home the point that Duncan has aged as well or better than any of his peers in the twilights of their respective Hall-of-Fame careers.

10
Goran Dragic : PHOENIX SUNS

Dragic's PIE: 13.6% | More Dragic stats

What else can be said about the effort Dragic and the Suns are giving to earn one of the West's final playoff spots? They've won three straight games heading into tonight's (surprise) must-win game at San Antonio. Dragic is dealing with a sore ankle that would normally need resting, but given Phoenix's postseason aspirations, you better believe he'll do whatever it takes to play. And if he plays anything like he did in Wednesday's win over the New Orleans Pelicans -- 20 points on 8-for-14 shooting and 2-for-3 from deep, nine assists, three blocks, three rebounds and a steal -- the Suns will have a fighting chance to knock off the Spurs in Arizona.