Posted: Tue January 8, 2013 10:33AM; Updated: Tue January 8, 2013 10:33AM
Ian Thomsen
Ian Thomsen>NBA MAILBAG

LeBron poised to pull away in MVP race; more mail

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LeBron James
Three-time MVP LeBron James is shooting a career-high 54.5 percent from the field.
Christopher Trotman/Getty Images

What would it take for LeBron James to NOT win the MVP award? You wrote recently that even though Chris Paul is the current leader, you still expect James to capture the honor at season's end. Would it take a Heat collapse for voters to honor the contributions of a Paul or Carmelo Anthony?
-- Paul D., Atlanta

James' numbers across the board are already superior to those of any of his rivals: 26.5 points, 8.3 rebounds, 6.9 assists and 1.5 steals. He's shooting career bests of 54.5 percent from the field and 41.1 percent from three-point range. His 8.5 rebounds per game are another career high, and his 2.8 turnovers amount to a low for his 10 NBA seasons.

Here are the MVP contenders at this early moment:

Chris Paul
LeBron James
Kevin Durant
Carmelo Anthony
Tim Duncan
Kobe Bryant

It's important to realize that Paul needed a 17-game winning streak in order to challenge James. I don't know whether Paul can do more for the Clippers than he's done already, but I am sure that James and the Heat will raise their play over the months ahead.

[Chris Mannix: My take on the MVP race]

As the All-Star break passes by next month and the contenders begin to peak for the playoffs, you can expect to see James sharpening his game. He has been terrific already, but he and the Heat should begin to separate themselves from the rest of the Eastern Conference. They'll do so defensively in particular, and he'll be the leader at that end of the floor.

In the end, it's going to be a no-brainer. The Heat are near the top of the league without having played their best. They're not holding back so much as they're building toward the time of year when championships are won, and along the way James will be awarded his fourth MVP in five years.

Is there hope for John Wall in Washington? Stan Van Gundy said Wall isn't a franchise cornerstone, but can you really put that burden on the former No. 1 pick with the clear lack of talent surrounding him?
-- Doug, Washington, D.C.

Based on what we've seen (and haven't seen) from Wall, Doug, it's entirely fair for Van Gundy to say that the Wizards' point guard hasn't shown himself to be a star who can lead a team into future contention. I also believe Van Gundy would be quick to acknowledge that perspectives on young players can change.

Wall has played two seasons for a losing team that has employed two coaches while undergoing major roster transitions. No one was predicting an NBA championship and Finals MVP for Chauncey Billups or regular-season MVPs for Steve Nash in their third seasons. Nash was shooting 36.3 percent as a 24-year-old for the hopeless Mavericks, and Billups was a bust as a No. 3 pick who was recovering from an injury while playing for his third team in three seasons. Each was able to find his way eventually.

[Rob Mahoney: Wizards hopeless at the point without Wall]

I'm not saying that Wall is going to become a star at the league's most competitive position. But I'm also not ruling out the possibility. When he is healthy for an extended period, his team has stabilized and he is surrounded by winning talent, we'll know who he is and what he can be. Right now, it's too early to make any final judgment about a 22-year-old who would be a senior in college.

Are the Warriors poised to play spoiler in the playoffs -- again? They won't crack the top three in the Western Conference, but with Andrew Bogut back, they can match up with anyone.
-- Jeff Guzman, Oakland, Calif.

That's the most intriguing aspect of the Warriors' surprising run, Jeff. Bogut, who remains out indefinitely while recovering from left-ankle surgery, is the kind of player who will only improve them. He won't hurt their chemistry because he passes so well and plays selflessly. The Warriors won't be expecting him to carry them or to play to his highest level, but rather to complement and augment their team, which is the perfect scenario for a potential midseason comeback. Contenders such as the Grizzlies or Spurs will work hard for home-court advantage, and their reward could be a first-round series against the Warriors just as Bogut is rounding into form. If Bogut has recovered and is contributing, a first-round series involving the Warriors would be worth watching.

Is it time for the NBA to move fans farther away from the court? That proximity is unrivaled in professional sports, but, as we saw with Stephen Jackson, it's starting to become an unnecessary hazard for the players.
-- Sara, Minnesota

As you've noted, Sara, the NBA is proud of the access for fans, in no small part because of the exorbitant ticket prices fans are willing to pay for that access. If major changes were ever going to be enforced, they would have come after a more provocative incident involving Jackson -- the 2004 brawl in Detroit. Instead of distancing fans from players, commissioner David Stern imposed strong penalties and other operational changes in order to maintain the access.

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich's suggestion that sideline customers be waited on during timeouts is an idea that ought to be enacted right away. I don't see anything changing otherwise.

Do you believe Royce White will play for the Rockets this season? If they can't reach an understanding, what options do the Rockets have?
-- Malcolm B., Los Angeles

I have no idea whether he'll play, Malcolm. Nor do I have an opinion of who is right and who is wrong in this case. Is White or the team being unreasonable? It would be unfair to speculate. Both sides have a strong point of view backed by principled reasoning, and this is going to have to play itself out. If White doesn't play, I would imagine that the Rockets could release him, though his contract would remain on the books through next season (even though he is currently under suspension without pay). This is all new ground for the league, but I can't imagine that the typical career-ending injury exception would apply here.

If the situation in Boston doesn't improve soon, do you see the Celtics dealing Paul Pierce? Hard to imagine the Celtics without him.
-- Ted, Amherst, Mass.

The Celtics explored trades for Pierce last season and there's no reason to believe they won't assess his value this season. Pierce, 35, is making $16.8 million this season, which means the Celtics might have to take back at least one bad contract to retrieve a valuable younger asset for him. An important consideration is that next season, in the final year of his deal, no more than $5 million of his salary is guaranteed. I expect the Celtics to assess his value, but I'll be surprised if they're able to conjure up a trade that helps them enough to offset the departure of their franchise star.

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