The race for the 2012-13 NBA MVP has been a two-horse affair for most of the season between LeBron James and Kevin Durant.
But with Kobe Bryant playing better than he ever has, and his late-game heroics dragging the Los Angeles Lakers closer to the playoff berth that once seemed unreachable, it's not crazy to suggest that there's a third party who belongs in the MVP conversation.
Per Ken Berger of CBS Sports, Kobe has become the "overwhelming force of basketball." Whether that's good enough to enter him into the MVP race is a tough question—and one worth discussing.
One edge Bryant has over James and Durant is that his team inherently enjoys a higher profile than either the Miami Heat or the Oklahoma City Thunder do. The market in L.A. is bigger, the lights brighter and the media coverage exponentially greater.
And that was all true before Bryant started engineering ridiculously dramatic fourth-quarter comebacks all on his own.
L.A.'s last three victories have all been nail-biters, and each one has preserved the Lakers' once-faint playoff hopes. If you're remotely familiar with social media, you already know about Bryant's heroism. Twitter has essentially scheduled a designated time to overflow with praise for No. 24 lately:
NBA Guru @NBAGuru
Twitter blowing up at around 1am ET. Usually means Kobe Bryant is up to something spectacular.2013-3-9 05:54:00
Obviously, the thrilling wins and the storybook quality of L.A.'s Bryant-led resurrection can only help his case as a fringe MVP candidate. The brilliance of his recent play is hard to overstate and practically impossible to ignore. But high-profile status and the appeal of drama aren't the only reasons Bryant has a shot to crash the MVP party.
He's also something of a sentimental favorite.
Think about it: We know for certain that the NBA's best player doesn't always win the MVP award. Looking back, we see Charles Barkley in 1993, Karl Malone in 1999 and Steve Nash in 2005 and 2006. Those guys were great players, but it's basically impossible to argue that they were unequivocally the best in those particular seasons.
So, if overall skill isn't the sole objective determinant, we know emotion plays a role. Bryant has just one MVP award to his name, and it's reasonable to assume he's not going to have another season like this one. Maybe there's a feeling building among voters that he deserves one last honor before he starts to fade. You know, sort of a "thanks for the memories" award.
LeBron James and Kevin Durant are going to be fighting one another for the next 10 MVPs; maybe there'll be a push to give Bryant the nod in his last great season.
If you're not persuaded by sentimentality, the numbers are also making an increasingly strong case that Bryant belongs in the MVP conversation.
On the year, he's averaging 27.8 points, 5.4 rebounds, 5.7 assists and a career-high 47.5 percent from the field. But since the All-Star break, Kobe has basically exploded, averaging 33.7 points, 6.2 rebounds, 6.9 assists while shooting nearly 54 percent from the floor.
Sure, his defensive skills have gone from being slightly overrated to essentially disappearing. But that's where sentimentality and the Lakers' high profile might overshadow Bryant's main weakness. And really, it's pretty tough to quibble about his defense when there's moments like these:
Ultimately, a couple of things are more supportive of Bryant's MVP candidacy than anything mentioned so far.
First, the definition of "valuable" is obviously a fuzzy concept in MVP races. The fact that nobody has ever managed to isolate whether pure statistical dominance, worth to a team or overall record matters most proves that. There are lots of ways to arrive at a decision on value when it comes to basketball, and that logical wiggle room could be very helpful to Bryant's case.
And it's easy to argue that because he's been winning critical games all on his own, Bryant has value to the Lakers that is hard to match.
Second, everyone loves a good story. And Bryant winning an MVP after single-handedly bringing the Lakers back from the dead with an amazing string of comeback wins sure makes for a good one.
Realistically, it seems unlikely that Bryant will be able to catch up to the huge lead both Durant and James have built in the MVP race this year. But then again, he's proven to be a pretty damned effective comeback artist.