The NBA has crossed the Holiday River and is bearing down on the Rumor Mill Trail up to the Trade Deadline Mountains. If you've made it this far, prospective MVP candidates, you are real, but you've got a tough path ahead. NBA MVPs are made in January, and also in February and March and half of April, but mostly in January. Yes, in January.
We're four days into January. Who has taken a lead in the NBA MVP race? Oh, you know who.
1. LeBron James, Heat (Previously: 3)
LeBron may not believe he has a shot at the big prize for the third straight year, but the numbers disagree. Just because King James isn't repeating his insane stat lines from the last couple years doesn't mean his stat lines haven't been otherworldly. LeBron and No. 2 on this list have nearly identical scoring, shooting and rebounding numbers, but James has a big edge in assists. All those threes Carlos Arroyo and James Jones have been hitting? LeBron is setting most of those up ... in addition to his 25 points a night.
2. Dwyane Wade, Heat (Previously: 9)
Wade has rocketed up my ballot as the Heat continue to rocket through the NBA. I still hold that we haven't seen what we all dreamed of when LeBron joined Wade in South Beach -- even in the wild success of the past six weeks, the stars are more often co-existing than collaborating ... except on the fast break, where the pair is electric. Whether full integration will come in another month, next season or never, it's something to continue to look forward to. In the meantime, the two best players in the NBA are on the same team. How 'bout that?
3. Chris Paul, Hornets (Previously: 1)
CP3 has fallen from his perch atop my rankings, but not because his performance has dropped off. LeBron and Wade have just been that amazing. Paul's shooting percentages have come a bit back to Earth -- his True Shooting percentage is now .612, fantastic but not unprecedented for a player's with CP3's usage rate. It's well worth wondering if Paul might need to take over more of the Hornets' otherwise pathetic offense. Of course, the fact that the New Orleans attack is so bad outside of CP3 means defense can key on him. Quite a conundrum.
4. Dwight Howard, Magic (Previously: 4)
The Magic are scorching, as the additions have sparked some new offense while Howard, the best defender in the league, holds down the opposition. The Magic have the league's No. 4 defense with exactly one player (Dwight) in their top eight who you can say is better on defense than offense. It's an offensive-minded roster with an anchor and the No. 4 defense in the NBA. That's crazy!
5. Dirk Nowitzki, Mavericks (Previously: 2)
Nowitzki has missed a bit more than a week now, with the Mavericks struggling before pulling out a couple important wins. With Caron Butler out for the season, Dirk's offensive load becomes heavier once he returns. Based on how he's played this season, the herky German will have no problem keeping Dallas cranking.
6. Deron Williams, Jazz (Previously: 4)
The Jazz find themselves in the thick of the chase out West, neck-and-neck with the Lakers and Thunder. Given the roster turnover (not all good), that's simply amazing. Williams and Paul Millsap have been the constants; Deron's ability to handle his individual business while integrating Al Jefferson and getting as much as possible out of old man Raja Bell and young bro Gordon Hayward has been impressive.
7. Al Horford, Hawks (Previously: 5)
Atlanta's working hard to not fall too far behind the Bulls for the No. 3 seed in the East as Joe Johnson tries to rekindle his game. Horford's doing what he needs to, whether he's playing center or power forward. A sure-fire All-Star who deserves to be in the MVP conversation.
8. Manu Ginobili, Spurs (Previously: 8)
Despite the wacky loss to the Knicks on Tuesday, the Spurs are on pace for 60-plus wins and fun run through the playoffs. Ginobili's the star of San Antonio's offense, scoring prolificly and efficiently while sharing the ball and opening the floor for the Spurs' shooters.
9. Paul Pierce, Celtics (Previously: 10)
Pierce survived an injury scare of his own and remains just one of five Celtics to play in every game this season. He kept the offense afloat during Rajon Rondo's two-week absence and is picking up the slack as Kevin Garnett recovers as well. Pierce always played good defense, especially in big games. But his rare combination of size and agility is giving would-be scorers more problems than ever, even at age 33.
10. Derrick Rose, Bulls (Previously: unlisted)
I haven't listed Rose on these rankings before now largely because of his shooting percentages. But Rose is creeping up on league average in True Shooting percentage, and you can't ignore his role in the NBA's No. 2 defense, his pretty incredible playmaking and even his solid rebounding. Rose has bloomed -- no, sorry that's hack-y. Rose has blossomed -- no, dammit, sorry. No pun zone.
Derrick Rose has photosynthesized into something not just wonderful to watch but incredible to behold. There. There we go.
Honorable mentions: Kevin Durant, Pau Gasol, Amar'e Stoudemire, Kevin Martin.