April 15, 2008

SI.com's Ian Thomsen, Marty Burns and Jack McCallum are among the media members who cast official ballots for the NBA's top performers. Here's how they will vote for MVP. (Click here for their other award picks.) Disagree or want to weigh in with your own picks? Join the debate here.

There is no one right answer to this category. There are instead four players who deserve the award. James has put together a sensational year, and with a team of better talent or fewer injuries he might be the front-runner. Paul has been a leader in all ways for New Orleans, and I have no good reason for not voting him No. 1. My feeling is that Garnett and Bryant have been even more valuable.

Garnett has transformed the Celtics in all kinds of ways, and he is the closest thing there is to Bill Russell in the modern NBA. Bryant has achieved similar results, though in a much different way. While Garnett is a complementary star, Bryant is a ruthless finisher who has learned to make plays for his team.

The Lakers looked like a terminal franchise at the start of the year, yet Bryant had them in contention long before their breakthrough midseason trade for Pau Gasol. So Bryant was taking essentially the same team as last year and finding ways to win at both ends of the floor. He has always been the most talented player in the league, but this year he has maxed out his roster. Despite numerous injuries, the Lakers are set to enter the playoffs as the West's top seed.

Put it this way: Among these four deserving candidates, Bryant did the most to earn the award.

Bryant was great. Paul was sensational. James put up ridiculous stats. But no player was more valuable to his team -- and the NBA -- than Garnett.

The Celtics -- and their return to relevance -- are what people will remember most about this 2007-08 regular season. Boston's 65 wins (and counting) are way more than the rest of the pack -- including either Paul's Hornets or Bryant's Lakers. The Celtics' incredible 41-win improvement from last year's 24-58 team is the biggest in NBA history.

Garnett is the Paul Revere who rode in on his horse and started the whole Boston uprising. While his numbers are down, he still entered the season finale averaging 19.0 points while ranking in the top 25 in rebounds (9.3), blocks (1.23), steals (1.4) and shooting percentage (54.0). More important, Garnett is the league's best defensive player.

Sure, Garnett has some prime-time help in Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. But so do Bryant (Lamar Odom and Gasol) and Paul (David West, Peja Stojakovic). No MVP can do it alone.

Garnett might not be able to match Bryant, Paul, James or any number of other players in terms of numbers, but no one made a bigger impact in the standings than the 2004 MVP. He provided all the intangibles, sacrificing for the good of his team and bringing that fierce mien to the floor each and every night. Garnett simply refused to let the Celtics ease up all season.

In a season with several deserving MVP candidates, how does one choose? Maybe by asking which player will be most identified with the season when paging through the history book 20 years from now. For 2007-08, the player who will leap to mind is Garnett.

I have nothing bad to say about the four guys I didn't pick. Nothing. If you want to diss my choice, feel free, but don't begin your argument by saying, "How can you not pick ..." If any one of the first four names on my list wins the award, I have no problem with it.

Regarding picks three through five ...

True, no one can imagine the Cavs without James unless your imagination takes you into the D-League. But Cleveland still finished exactly where it was supposed to finish, no higher. Garnett has been splendid -- witness my nod to him as Defensive Player of the Year. But you could make a case that Pierce has been the most valuable Celtic. Stoudemire might be the most unstoppable offensive player in the league right now, and perhaps his time will come.

But the choice for me came down to Bryant or Paul, and I've never had a tougher one. I agonized. I made phone calls to coaches. I consulted my wife, who believes Paul is the most exciting player to come along in a long while, not to mention kind of cute. Paul's season is analogous to the one Steve Nash had when he won his first MVP award, in 2005. His steals and assist-to-turnover ratio alone merit him MVP consideration, never mind his scoring, passing and leadership.

But I went with Bryant. His Lakers, like Paul's Hornets, are much better than we thought they would be and he is the primary reason. He plays both ends better than anyone. At the opening tip, Bryant is the most feared player on the court. At the end of games, he's the most feared player on the court.

Bryant has been the game's best all-around player since Michael Jordan departed, yet he's never been the MVP. This is the year he proved that he should be.

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