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Examining the NBA's MVP race

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Examining the NBA's MVP race

There's still time left and things could always change as teams make a playoff push, but at this stage of the season, the race for the league's MVP award has been narrowed down to a handful of players. Due to an injury-plagued campaign, Derrick Rose isn't in the mix to repeat - -though Bulls fans can take solace in the squad having the NBA's best record and Rose can always hope for another prestigious award: NBA Finals MVP -- but at this late juncture of the regular season, here's a look at five players who have made a case to take home the league's top individual honor.

Kobe Bryant, Lakers: 28.2 points per game, 5.6 rebounds per game

For all of the talk about Bryant getting older, the shooting guard continues to excel and has maintained a stranglehold on the NBA's scoring lead this season. While the Lakers might not be the threat to win a title they've been in the past, don't attribute the drop-off to Bryant, who's been as good as he's ever been. Without former mainstays Lamar Odom and Derek Fisher, not to mention a new coach in Mike Brown and Pau Gasol having a down year -- although center Andrew Bynum has raised his game to another level -- Bryant has adjusted and put the team on his back to ensure they're still a force to be reckoned with.

Kevin Durant, Thunder: 27.7 points per game, 8.1 rebounds per game

The two-time reigning NBA scoring champion is actually second in that category this season, but that shouldn't take away from his brilliance. Durant has made considerable strides as a shot-creator, ballhandler and defender while leading the Thunder to the West's best record. Much has been made of his chemistry with All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook -- speaking of, Westbrook is also having a tremendous individual season -- but Durant is clearly Oklahoma City's go-to scorer in the clutch and the primary reason many believe the Thunder will reach the NBA Finals.

LeBron James, Heat: 26.5 points per game, 8.3 rebounds per game, 6.5 assists per game

For all of the criticism James receives in some circles -- including Chicago -- his near-nightly domination can't be ignored. James has developed into a remarkably complete, two-way player and his emerging post-up game has given him yet another element to torment opponents. While his struggles in the clutch and the Heat's bouts with inconsistency give ammunition to those who aren't fans of his style, his individual success shouldn't be downplayed, particularly with fellow All-Stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh missing time due to injury.

Kevin Love, Timberwolves: 26.6 points per game, 13.9 rebounds per game

The league's Most Improved Player a year ago made another quantum leap in his game this season, becoming one of the NBA's top scoring threat, as well as being considered the game's top power forward in the minds of many observers. Love was the league's rebounding champion last season -- he currently ranks second to the Magic's Dwight Howard in that category -- but he's expanded his game further, as evidenced by winning the All-Star weekend three-point shootout. With rookie sensation Ricky Rubio out for the season, Love has put the Timberwolves on his back and surprisingly has them in playoff contention for the first time since the Kevin Garnett era in Minnesota.

Chris Paul, Clippers: 19.4 points per game, 8.8 assists per game, 2.4 steals per game

The only member of the quintet not to lead his team in scoring -- though he's not far behind Blake Griffin -- Paul is third in the league in assists and ranks second in steals. His trade to the Clippers, which spawned the infamous "Lob City" moniker has done more than create highlights; Paul has made the perennially-moribund franchise relevant. Arguably the league's best pure playmaker, Paul instantly transformed the Clippers into a Western Conference contender, but with Griffin and other weapons also attracting attention, it's hard to say he stands out more than the other names on this list.

Charles Leno dubbed Bears' best-kept secret

Charles Leno dubbed Bears' best-kept secret

Chicago Bears left tackle Charles Leno, Jr. deserves a lot of credit. After starting his career as a seventh-round pick and something of a longshot to ever earn a starting job, he's become an irreplaceable fixture at the most important position along the offensive line.

The four-year, $38 million contract extension he signed last offseason is evidence of that.

Despite his value to the Bears, Leno is still somewhat underrated across league circles. That may be about to change.

Leno was recently named Chicago's best-kept secret.

Leno has consistently improved as a pass protector since he was drafted in the seventh round in 2014 and is now one of the team's top 10 players. If he hit the open market, Leno might be a $60 million player with the way the offensive line market is exploding. Over the next four years, the Bears should save about $20 million on the market price for their starting-caliber left tackle.

Leno has enjoyed steady improvement since his rookie season. His grades from Pro Football Focus reflect that: 53.6 (2014), 56.3 (2015), 71.2 (2016) and 80.4 (2017). 

The Bears' offensive line is poised for a big season in 2018. Leno and Bobby Massie are back as starters at tackle. Rookie second-round pick James Daniels will pair with Kyle Long at guard and third-year pro, Cody Whitehair, will get back to focusing on being the team's starting center.

If Leno's trend of improved play continues, he's a great candidate to go from best-kept secret to league star in 2018.

The trade rumors aren't going away, but that hasn't changed Cubs' faith in Addison Russell

The trade rumors aren't going away, but that hasn't changed Cubs' faith in Addison Russell

How much do the Cubs really need Manny Machado? 

They entered play Tuesday leading the National League in runs per game, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and run differential.

That doesn't sound like a team desperate for another bat and would trade future assets to go all-in for only a few months of a player, even one as good as Machado.

Of course, the Cubs went out and got walloped 10-1 by the Indians Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, but that had more to do with awful pitching and Machado won't do a thing to help that area of the game. In fact, Machado would actually hurt the team's run prevention given he's a worse defensive shortstop than Addison Russell.

All that being said, the Machado rumors probably won't be going anywhere until the Baltimore Orioles deal their shortstop to either the Cubs or another team, so Russell will have to get used to hearing his name included in such conversations.

Any Cubs package headed to Baltimore for Machado likely has to start with Russell, the Cubs' 24-year-old shortstop who won't become a free agent until after the 2021 season.

"He would be robotic if it did not [affect him]," Joe Maddon said. "I think honestly if he was 7, 8, 10 years into the league and something like this was being bandied about, probably not nearly as much. But the age that he's at, the experience level that he's at, I think it just can't help but have an impact.

"So we just gotta continue to nurture him here. I talk to him all the time. There's certain things you can't control. You can't control what's being said, but you can control how you react to it. That's about the best thing we could encourage him to do and he'll get our support."

Maddon said he gives Russell a hug and reminds him of "something" before every game as he tries to massage the confidence of a player that is currently the shortstop of a Cubs team with World Series expectations.

Russell doesn't turn 25 until next January, yet many people act like he's already peaked as a player. 

He's two years removed from hitting 21 homers and driving in 95 runs as part of the 2016 championship season.

2017 was a lost year for so many reasons — from off-field issues to shoulder and foot problems — and Russell has only 1 homer in the first quarter of the 2018 season, but he's taken other strides this year.

He currently boasts career best marks in walk percentage, strikeout percentage, line drive percentage, groundball percentage and is using the opposite field more than ever.

The power hasn't come yet this year, but a .343 on-base percentage is a pretty solid complementary piece to one of the best all-around defenders in the game.

Russell ranks 10th in baseball in Defensive Runs Saved among all players, tied for second among shortstops. Fielding metrics are not perfect, but Machado is 133rd in DRS among qualifed fielders and 24th among shortstops, so there is clearly a gap between the two players' glovework.

Maddon has never shown any outward sign of altering his belief in Russell becoming a dynamic player.

"Addy's gonna continue to progress to the point where all his game is gonna become consistent," Maddon said. "And even beyond that, who do you like better at shortstop [defensively] right now? ... His throwing's dramatically improved. His baserunning decisions — I know he had a gaffe in Cincinnati, but for the most part, he's gotten better.

"So what we're really talking about is his hitting. That's where people get hung up about this game all the time. I see absolute progress in that, also. He just came off a hot week and he had a couple tough days and then all of a sudden, it becomes exaggerated. Why? Because he's 24.

"I think the sky is the limit for this guy. He's a confidence guy like most of us are. As he's feeling good about himself, that's when the line drives start to occur. I mean, one of the biggest hits so far was the ball over the centerfielder's head in Atlanta [last week].

"And he always has this tendency to do some really good work when it matters most. He's been that guy already. So just be patient. He's just gonna keep getting better."

Remember, Russell is the same guy that hit a grand slam and drove in 6 runs in Game 6 of the World Series in Cleveland and started every game at shortstop that postseason. Every year Russell has been the Cubs' shortstop, the season has included a trip to the National League Championship Series.

"Our front office has always been one to make moves and they’re not afraid to do things and we’ve seen that," Kris Bryant said. "We won a world series because of that, getting [Aroldis] Chapman and some of the other guys we got, but we don’t put one ounce of thought into that because we’re happy with the guys we have here.

"The effort that everybody puts forth day in and day out when they’re on the field is spectacular. You know we have a great group of guys here and until someone is gone, we’re going to play with what we’ve got and continue to play the way we have. So, not much thought about [trade rumors]."

Russell has also quietly been very productive over the last month after a slow start to the season. Since April 26, he boasts a .306/.386/.444 slash line (.830 OPS).

It's still hard to see the Cubs willing to give up the next 3.5 years of Russell for 3 months of Machado and MAYBE a slightly better chance of re-signing the superstar this winter.

"I was talking about a 24-year-old hitter, what about a 24-year-old human being having to process all of that?" Maddon asked. "Whether he's hearing it or not from anywhere here, it's just mom, dad, brother, friend, former coach on the phone — 'What's that all about?' 

"He's gotta be inundated with that conversation. He didn't ask for that. He's just doing his job."