Who has the best shot to unseat LeBron James as NBA MVP?

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

LeBron James is seeking his fifth MVP, but a strong field of contenders assures the award is anything but a given for the Heat star.

The days of questioning the greatness of LeBron James are long gone. With back-to-back championships and four MVP awards in five years, James has done about all he can to solidify his status as the best player of his generation. At this point, all that's left for James to do is stack up more accolades, both from a team and individual perspective.

James enters his 11th season on Tuesday trying to become the first player since Larry Bird in 1986 to win three straight MVPs. Another MVP would give James five and move him into a tie for the second most all-time with Michael Jordan and Bill Russell. For a player who doesn't turn 29 years old until December and remains as dominant as ever, it would seem Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's record six MVP trophies is an accomplishment within reason for the Miami Heat star.

No one willing to concede another trophy to James before the season starts, though. The NBA is loaded with high-level talent waiting to be recognized for individual brilliance. If James is going to be knocked off as the league's Most Valuable Player this season, here are four candidates with a real chance to take the award from him.

Tony Parker

At some point, the dark horse can't be the dark horse anymore. Parker has appeared fifth and sixth in the MVP voting the last two seasons, respectively, but he has been hurt more than helped by Tim Duncan snapping up votes as a member of the Spurs. With San Antonio's biggest question coming off a stellar season being about its age, a successful 2013-14 run surely should garner Parker more attention.

The 31-year-old is coming off the longest and arguably most productive postseason of his career. And this summer, Parker only continued to prove he hasn't peaked by winning the Eurobasket MVP and leading France to gold. If San Antonio is atop the Western Conference by the end of the regular season, the darkhorse of the past finally has the storyline of an aging team behind him to make him a favorite in taking LeBron James' title this year.

-- Kevin Zimmerman

Derrick Rose

Before the 2010-11 NBA season, Rose asked a simple question: "Why can't I be MVP?" Most people brushed it off, but then Rose led the Bulls to 62 regular season wins and was named youngest MVP in NBA history at the age of 22. This offseason, Rose drew some jeers by proclaiming himself the best player in the league despite not playing in nearly a year and a half due to a prolonged recovery from a torn ACL.

While Rose is no LeBron James, the point guard finally returns to the court this season to show that he remains in the conversation of the NBA's most elite players. And if his preseason performance is any indicator, Rose will be right in the thick of the MVP hunt. Sporting increased strength, an improved three-point shot and possibly even more explosiveness, Rose might just be better than ever. If he stays healthy and leads the Bulls to the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, a second MVP in four years may be in the cards.

-- Jason Patt

Kevin Durant

If LeBron James ceased to exist, Kevin Durant would likely be the league's odds-on favorite to win MVP on a yearly basis. The only problem is, James does exist, regardless of whether he's human or not. Still, even with the reigning MVP chasing a third ring in Miami, Durant has quite a shot at his first Maurice Podoloff Trophy. He's as lethal a scorer as there is on the planet, and he adds to his game with each year in the league.

But Durant plays at somewhat of a disadvantage when it comes to the MVP race: he's teammates with Russell Westbrook. Don't get me wrong, this is obviously great for team success, but playing alongside a volume shooter who frequently dominated the ball isn't always a perfect situation for a Durant MVP campaign. But what do you know? Durant will be without the services of his attack dog point guard for much of the early portion of the season as Westbrook recovers from his second meniscus surgery. With such a young supporting cast, the Thunder will lean heavily on the skinny shoulders of Durant, and he'll have every chance in the world to get a head start on the MVP race from opening tip.

If KD makes a great first impression and Oklahoma City exceeds early expectations with Westbrook out, or if (heaven forbid) LeBron goes down with some sort of injury — or short-circuits, however it is humanoids malfunction — Durant has a hell of a chance.

-- Matthew Tynan

Chris Paul

Arguably the second-best player in the league over the past six years, the problem with Paul's MVP candidacy boils down to a pretty simple fact: he can't really get much better. Since quietly turning in one of the greatest point guard performances in history as a member of the 2008-09 New Orleans Hornets, Paul's settled for simply being the best present-day PG in the game.

Unfortunately, as good as Paul's been over the past six years, LeBron has always been better. When CP3 delivered that season for the ages -- 22.8 points, 11 assists, 5.5 rebounds, 2.8 steals per game; 30.0 PER -- LeBron turned in the greatest season since the Jordan era, leading the Cavs to a franchise-record 66 wins with a 31.7 PER.

So when it comes to actual on-court performance, Paul's days as the league's most valuable player might be behind him. LeBron will almost surely top him statistically this season, possibly along with a number of other players, too. If anything points in favor of the 28-year-old at this point in his career, it's everything else going on around him, from arguably the first championship-quality support of his career to potential voter fatigue with James. Paul might be 95 percent of the player he was five years ago, but that's still enough to win an MVP if everything goes right.

The thing is, Paul would need a lot to go right to win MVP. In past years where a point guard snagged the award -- Rose in 2011, Nash in the mid-2000s, Iverson at the turn of the century -- the field was typically pretty weak. As you've read in this post, and experienced with LeBron's apparently unending brilliance, the 2013-14 MVP candidates aren't a lacking bunch.

So we can firmly place Paul as a long shot, even as prognosticators around the league suggest he has a very real shot at the award. The events that would need to take place -- Paul playing exceptional, the Clips being a top-two seed, nobody else breaking from the pack -- are unlikely to all happen at once. But it's possible, and that leaves 2013-14 as arguably Paul's best last chance to snag that MVP honor.

-- Satchel Price

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