And then there were three...
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - If you already penciled in LeBron James or Kevin Durant as your choice for league MVP, you might want to scribble that out.

Carmelo Anthony is making a late push for the Knicks, who have now won 13 straight games. During that time, Carmelo has averaged 33 ppg on 50.7 percent shooting from the field.

With Kobe Bryant's team headed for an early playoff exit (and that's the best-case scenario), it's fair to eliminate him from the MVP race. That leaves us with three realistic candidates: James, Durant and of course, Melo (maybe next year, Chris Paul).

So who wins it? Let's break it down.

Carmelo Anthony, Forward, New York Knicks

Why he deserves to win: Have you seen him the last five games (40.6 ppg, 61.1 field goal percentage, 58.6 percent from deep)? That's superhero good.

Carmelo leads the association in 40-point games (eight) and his consistency is unparalleled (58 games of 20-plus points this season including 12 in a row). His scoring average is the highest we've seen since 2010 when Durant averaged 30 a night.

Anthony has seamlessly made the transition from wing player to power forward and he's knocking down threes at a rate of 38.4 percent (career-high). Even though the ball is in his hands 24/7, he's only turned the ball over 169 times this season (2.6 per game).

It doesn't hurt that he just led New York to its first division title since Patrick Ewing was in his prime.

Why he doesn't deserve to win: If Anthony doesn't win it, it will probably be because of his reputation. He's never been the greatest teammate and the "ball hog" stigma that he's carried throughout his career still exists (Melo leads the NBA with an average of 22 field goal attempts per game).

Anthony's critics can point to his bizarre post-game altercation with Kevin Garnett and say that he doesn't have the mental capacity to lead New York deep into the postseason.

Of the three players being discussed, Anthony has been the least durable (sat out 13 games due to injury). It's also worth mentioning that most of his scoring outbursts have come without Amare Stoudemire in the lineup.

And as good as New York has been, they're still nowhere near the Heat in the standings (10 games back entering Wednesday).

Kevin Durant, Forward, Oklahoma City Thunder

Why he deserves to win: The Thunder were supposed to take a step back this year after trading James Harden to Houston. Instead, they've actually gotten better (.731 win percentage this season versus .712 in 2011-12). Obviously, Durant has had something to do with that.

The lanky 24-year-old has been nearly perfect from the charity stripe (90.7 percent) and for the first time in his career, he's shooting over 50 percent from the field.

Durant has always been a good shooter but he's really shown improvement in his passing (career-high 4.5 apg) and shot blocking (1.3 bpg, also a career-high) in 2012-13.

And how's this for durability? Durant hasn't missed a game all season. He didn't miss any games last season, either.

Why he doesn't deserve to win: What's with all the technicals? Durant generated just 12 Ts total in his first five seasons. This year he has 12 in 78 games. Sometimes it's good to see players get a little bit of a mean streak but for Durant, it just seems like an act.

If you want to nitpick, he has slumped a little in the second half (if you can call 26.2 ppg on 47.9 percent shooting a "slump"). This season will also be the first time since 2010 Durant hasn't won the scoring title, assuming Anthony holds him off.

Another stat to consider: Durant's record against Anthony and James this season is just 1-3, though he is 3-1 versus Kobe.

LeBron James, Forward, Miami Heat

Why he deserves to win: Well for starters, the guy helped orchestrate a 27- game winning streak. The last time I checked that's only happened one other time in league history and that was 13 years before James was even born.

Despite being his team's primary facilitator on offense, James still has managed to average almost 27 ppg. That's probably because he's been absurdly efficient this year (56.3 field goal percentage, second-best among forwards).

LeBron has also been an animal in the low post. He leads the Heat with a career-high 8.1 rpg this season. That's the most of any forward not named Kenneth Faried or Josh Smith.

Once criticized for folding under pressure, LeBron has hit a number of key shots this season including game-winners against the Celtics and Magic just in the last month.

As long as the Heat can avoid losing its last five games, this year's squad will be the most successful team in franchise history (.792 win percentage).

Why he doesn't deserve to win: LeBron has won it three out of the last four years and could conceivably win the MVP every season for the next decade. Voters might want to give someone else a chance.

Aside from that, you could argue that LeBron has had more help around him than Anthony or Durant. Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Ray Allen have 27 All-Star appearances and four championship rings between them and Shane Battier has always been a terrific role player.

The Heat are in "mail it in" mode right now and that means we probably won't see much of James down the stretch. If Anthony and Durant finish the year with a flourish while LeBron is joking next to Wade on the sidelines, it could cost James in the voting.

Who will win it? The MVP is supposed to go to the best player in the league. Carmelo might be hotter right now but James is still at the top of the totem pole. He's the guy I want to take the last shot and in the end, he's the one who will win MVP: 1. James, 2. Anthony, 3. Durant.

The rest: 4. Chris Paul, 5. Kobe Bryant, 6. Tony Parker, 7. James Harden, 8. Russell Westbrook, 9. Stephen Curry, 10. Dwyane Wade.

And if a moral victory isn't enough for Anthony, he still has this: Carmelo's No. 7 was the most sold jersey in the NBA this year.

Take that, LeBron.




Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Jesse Pantuosco at jpantuosco@sportsnetwork.com.

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