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Sunday, March 22, 2009
Updated: March 24, 2:29 PM ET
Straddling the fence: Kobe or LeBron?

By Chris Sheridan
ESPN.com

Kobe & LeBron
The battle for the MVP award between LeBron James and Kobe Bryant is too close to call.

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Perplexed myself by the elusive answer to the very question I was asking, I approached LeBron James for his counsel Sunday, seeking guidance for who is going to end up No. 1 and No. 2 on my Most Valuable Player ballot when I submit it to the NBA office on the day after the regular season ends.

The question: In this particular two-man race (and yes, Dwyane Wade, it is a two-man race, as I'll explain later), what should go down as UDF -- the Ultimate Deciding Factor?

If you're going to choose Kobe Bryant over LeBron, or if you're going to vote The King ahead of The Mamba, what single thing is going to tip the balance one way or the other? Better record? Better stats? Better job given the relative merits of each of their supporting casts? What they did head-to-head? Which guy's team would be worse off if you took that particular player off it?

The UDF tends to change from year to year, and I've been covering the league long enough to remember the discussion back in 1996-97 when the UDF seemed to be "Isn't it time that Karl Malone won this award?" -- an argument whose validity was ultimately undermined by what happened between him and Michael Jordan in the Finals.

The ever-changing nature of the UDF was a source of frustration for Shaquille O'Neal when I spoke to him about the subject a couple of weeks ago upon his return to Miami. The Big Sewer (OK, that's one of his old nicknames, but still a favorite -- if you can figure out the meaning) seemed frustrated that his legacy will include only one MVP award, or half as many as those won by the guy sitting across from him in the locker room, Steve Nash.

Myself, I always put a premium on winning, which is why I can't fathom the thought of voting for Wade. As great as he has been, as much as he has resurrected his superstar status, his team is five games over .500.

Me? I weigh five games over .500 versus an NBA-best 44 games over .500 (Cavs) and 41 games over .500 (Lakers), and Wade right there immediately drops to third on my ballot (Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and Tony Parker are contending for spots 4 and 5) -- especially given the fact that Bryant has kept his team winning with the NBA's leading offense despite losing Andrew Bynum for half a season, and James has done likewise as the anchor of the league's best defense as the Cavs have fought through an array of injuries to Delonte West, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Ben Wallace.

So it comes back to the Kobe vs. LeBron argument, and I asked James what, in his opinion, should be this season's UDF?

His answer was the same as mine: still undecided.

"No idea. You know, I glad I'm not on the board of selecting MVP. I think there's a lot of MVP candidates out there, myself, Kobe, Dwyane, Dwight, Chris Paul, there's a lot of guys, so I don't know," James said. "For me as an individual, like I say, I try to put our team in position to win ballgames every night we go out there, and that's all I can do."

We are still nearly a month away from the end of the season, so there is no need for me to make up my mind now. I want to see how the Lakers do on their current East Coast swing, I want to see how Cleveland does in this back-to-back set against Orlando and San Antonio two weekends from now, and I want to see which of the two locks up home-court advantage through the playoffs, because I have a strong feeling we're going to a Game 7 in the Finals this year, and it's going to be Lakers-Cavs.

But the MVP is a regular-season award, and there are a couple of other things I'll be weighing right up until the minute when I pull out my quill pen, fill out my ballot and crank up the fax machine (if you're going to be a Luddite, you have to pull out the ink jar and the fax while remaining Sloanlike in your bewilderment at twittering). Some of the arguments cancel each other out; others give a slight edge to one guy:

•  Bryant has gone 2-0 against James in their head-to-head meetings, and Bryant is 4-2 against the NBA's three other elite teams (I include Boston, Orlando, the Cavs and Lakers in that foursome), while James has gone 2-5 against the three other elites (with one game remaining against both Boston and Orlando).

•  Bryant and the Lakers are 16-5 against the other seven likely Western Conference playoff teams, including 3-0 records against Houston and Dallas, 3-1 against New Orleans and 2-1 against Denver, Portland and San Antonio, while the Cavs have gone an impressive 10-2 against those same seven teams.

•  James is the more versatile defender and a tougher matchup difficulty for most opponents on a night-in, night-out basis, which carries more weight in my mind than James' slight advantage in statistics and statistical superlatives -- James has seven triple-doubles, plus higher averages in points (28.5 vs. 27.7) rebounds (7.6 vs. 5.4) and assists (7.2 vs. 4.9).

•  James' team is on pace to improve by 20 to 22 wins over last season's 45 wins, and I gave considerable weight (actually, it was my UDF) to the Celtics' record-setting accomplishment of winning 42 more games than they had the previous season when I cast my vote for Garnett in April 2008. The Lakers will be steamrolling past last season's victory total of 55 sometime in the next few days, but their improvement will not be nearly as significant as Cleveland's.

Again, though, there is no reason for myself or anyone else to decide now which way we'll be voting three and a half weeks from now. We can milk the clock on this one, procrastinate, hem, haw and flip-flop, then sit down when all 82 are in the books and make up our minds then.

That is the prudent thing to do, and prudence will trump impatience -- at least for me.

Now, that may not thrill anyone in L.A. or Cleveland (and I'll be sure to infuriate plenty of folks in Miami), but that's the way I'm proceeding forward.

In the meantime, I will leave you with a prediction of sorts that'll be worth keeping an eye on when the vote totals are announced: I think there will be a bias on behalf of East Coast voters in favor of James, since they see him more; though that geographical advantage will be neutralized by the West Coast bias for Kobe. But I also think there will be a handful of voters who choose neither James nor Bryant, throwing their support behind Wade (with perhaps a first-place vote or two for Paul or Howard).

There are 123 MVP voters: 33 national media members plus three writers and/or broadcasters from each NBA city. The voters in those cities are typically determined by each team's media relations director, and what very well might swing this election is the amount of support that goes to Wade.

An election determined by Floridians? Ever heard of that before?

Well, I'll go out on a limb to say Wade will become the Pat Buchanan (I'd call him Ross Perot or John Anderson, but I don't want to date myself too much) of the 2008-09 NBA MVP race by drawing enough first-place votes from Florida (there will be six MVP voters among Heat and Magic writers and broadcasters) to make that state as pivotal to an election as it was when Katherine Harris was supervising the Bush-Gore recount.

And when I do make up my mind, I'll explain why -- and what ultimately ended up being my UDF.

Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Sheridan, click here.