By Mike McGraw
The MVP race is down to two candidates.
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Derrick Rose has one serious competitor to fend off in the final six games of the regular season.
It's not Orlando center Dwight Howard and certainly shouldn't be Miami's LeBron James. The one player with a legitimate chance to beat out Rose is an old favorite, Kobe Bryant.
Bryant seemed to fall out of the picture early in the season based on a perception the two-time defending champs were underachieving. The Lakers spent much of the season trailing San Antonio and Dallas in the Western Conference standings.
But since the all-star break, the Lakers have gone 17-2, even with Sunday's loss to Denver. They've got an outside chance of catching the Spurs for the overall top seed.
So Bryant is back in the picture. Statistically, he's been solid, but doesn't come close to matching Rose in assists. Bryant is averaging 25.2 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.8 assists, with a field-goal percentage of .453.
Rose is at 25.1 points, 7.9 assists and 4.2 rebounds, while shooting .441 from the field. As of Sunday evening, the Bulls owned the NBA's second-best record, 1 loss behind San Antonio.
Statistics and team success are not necessarily the reason Bryant could win the MVP award. It's possible voters could view this as a lifetime achievement award, maybe rightfully so.
During 14 seasons in the league, Bryant has been named MVP once. That's one less than contemporaries Steve Nash, Tim Duncan and James, even though Bryant has a chance to match Michael Jordan with his sixth championship by the end of June.
Are voters ready to crown Rose the MVP at age 22? He would be the youngest in NBA history.
It might help Bryant's cause that he's the only serious candidate in the Western Conference. Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Durant should get some votes, but don't figure to break into the top four.
Using the definition of player who is most valuable to his team, Rose should win the award easily. No one dreamed the Bulls would be on top of the Eastern Conference standings with a 56-20 record.
Rose improved defensively this season, became a dangerous 3-point shooter and controls the ball during 100 percent of crunch-time moments. The idea Rose became the MVP favorite because he's the best story is idiotic.
Howard's statistics are impressive, at 23.1 points, 14.2 rebounds and 2.4 blocks. The biggest problem with his campaign is late-game situations.
Howard's field-goal percentage (.598) is higher than his free-throw percentage (.591).
It's tough for the Magic to go to him late in games because he's unreliable at the foul line. That's not an issue with Rose.
Whether this belief can be measured statistically is unclear. In games decided by 5 points or less, Orlando is 11-9, while the Bulls are 14-8. That's only a slight difference. The Bulls' eight-game lead in the standings, as of Sunday morning, is gaping.
There are influential Internet columnists who believe efficiency is the determining factor, which makes James the most valuable player.
This argument fails the eye test badly. Rose isn't as efficient because teams are sending two and three defenders at him constantly. He's had some poor shooting games, but also 30 points and 17 rebounds last week against Milwaukee.
James basically rests on every other offensive possession and watches Dwyane Wade take his turn. He's been practically useless late in games against good teams. James is great, but he's definitely not the league's most valuable this season.
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