Meet the top 10 candidates for MVP

The ballots will arrive soon. The selections are due back to the league office before the playoffs start. So there are only 38 days left to sort this out.

This being the tightest MVP race in memory.

OK, OK. We media folk are prone to say that. That's probably because there's rarely a slam-dunk pick and because the most excruciating vote is always the one in your immediate future.

This one, though, really is a whopper. Predicting the actual Most Valuable Player, this far out, is basically futile, because opinion seems to sway nightly in this season of deep-running individual brilliance.

Best we can offer for now, then, is to trot out our MVP scorecard as it stands with five-plus weeks to go. You could make a passionate case for pretty much anyone in the top four and you get the feeling the next three or four still have time to force their way into serious consideration.

In this cyberspace, the selection of an MVP is based, rather unscientifically, on the idea that the best individual season will be rewarded ... with team success factored in heavily. I don't subscribe to the theory that rhetorically wonders: Imagine How Many Wins Team A Would Have If It Didn't Have Player X. You can't have the best season in the league individually unless your team had a memorable regular season. At least not to me.

So …

Here's where we are as the stretch run beckons:

Kobe BryantKobe Bryant, Lakers. Let the hateration commence. The masses won't like it, but we can't ignore the 40-point average in February -- yes, for the whole month -- and how Bryant has lifted a half-speed Shaquille O'Neal and plenty of players you wouldn't want on your team out of an 11-19 hole. All while playing on sore knees/groins for much of the season, no less. If the Lakers can continue their sudden surge and open the playoffs having restored a good chunk of their Fear Factor, as perilous as their plight looked on Christmas Day, Kobe has to be the MVP.

Tim Duncan2. Tim Duncan, Spurs. Duncan won it last season, so seemingly no one wants to vote for him this season. Problem there is that he's so damn good. As such, Duncan might well repeat as MVP, because the Spurs -- who started 19-13 compared to Dallas' 14-0 -- suddenly have a shot at catching the Mavs and winning the Midwest. TD's case is boosted further by the fact that his supporting cast is improving daily, which only makes Duncan look better. He's lifting Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili and Bruce Bowen and they're lifting him, all while David Robinson creaks to the close of his classy career.

Kevin Garnett3. Kevin Garnett, Timberwolves. A week ago, KG had unexpectedly vaulted to the top of this list. Reasoning being: If Minny can really challenge for home-court advantage for the first time in its history, after losing Terrell Brandon and Chauncey Billups and playing without Wally Szczerbiak for 30 games, KG has to be the MVP choice over Kobe or anyone else. Then the Wolves started playing road games again and it became apparent that they could well finish fifth or sixth again. Which would almost certainly mean First-Round Exit No. 7. KG has been brilliant, but he needs to lead the Wolves to a No. 4 seed to beat out the tough comp.

Tracy McGrady4. Tracy McGrady, Magic. If he weren't in the East, where it's easier to prop up a skeleton team, McGrady would undoubtedly be higher. He's probably going to hold off Kobe for the scoring title and has played brilliantly and manfully in the face of yet another Grant Hill letdown. Like Duncan, T-Mac looks even better now that he has a semblance of assistance since the arrivals of Drew Gooden and Gordan Giricek. Yet I'm afraid he's going to have to settle for East MVP honors, although that's no consolation prize in a conference with Jason Kidd and Allen Iverson.

Jamal Mashburn5. Jamal Mashburn, Hornets. This is the only up-for-grabs spot on the official five-man ballot, as the aforementioned four are essentially locks to occupy those spots in some order. Mash is nosing out Kidd and Iverson here as a prime exhibit of the leadership that has to come from a true MVP. Mash came back from his frightening case of vertigo, earned his maiden All-Star selection and has since justified it by leading the Baron Davis-less Hornets to an eight-game win streak in his new role of point forward. Of course, once Mash sees the next three names, he'll know staying here won't be easy.

The Next Five
6. Allen Iverson, 76ers. Iverson's energy was iffy there for a spell, perhaps affected by his ongoing exclusion from Larry Brown's Team USA, but now look. The Sixers are the hottest team in the East, for what that's worth, and A.I. is balling anew. Fact that Eric Snow is having a career year doesn't hurt; Iverson feeds off Snow more than you know.

7. Jason Kidd, Nets. JKidd is usually an automatic for the Stein Line MVP Top Five but the Nets' 5-10 swoon since the All-Star break has temporarily dropped him. The problem: New Jersey's injuries have forced Kidd to do too much and, as a result, he's fading, especially as a shooter. Yet there's still time for Mr. Triple-Double and his Nets (for now) to rebound.

8. Chris Webber, Kings. Webber has missed 15 games this season and only one MVP in history has missed that many: Portland's Bill Walton missed 24 in 1977-78. Absences, however, are the only variable keeping Webber out of the top five. With CWebb hobbling around on one leg and tossing in killer jump hooks in OTs, maybe he should be a top-fiver regardless.

9. Dirk Nowitzki, Mavericks. The Mavericks and Kings are in the same MVP predicament -- each team has so many good players that it's tough to single one or two out, but the teams are too good to submit no one for MVP consideration. Especially Nowitzki's Mavs, still on pace for a 63-19 finish. Could be worse, though. Detroit's Ben Wallace can't even crack our top 10 because he doesn't score, even though he'll be a top-fiver on some real ballots.

10. Shaquille O'Neal, Lakers. We didn't see the real Shaq until this weekend's detonations against Minny and Philly, some 60 games in, but he's got to be on here somewhere. We're guessing he'd settle for another Finals MVP trophy anyway.

The Next, Next Five
Ben Wallace (Pistons), Stephon Marbury (Suns), Paul Pierce (Celtics), Jermaine O'Neal (Pacers), Karl Malone (Jazz).

Friendly reminder: Before your inevitable protests, take solace in the knowledge that your favorite MVP candidate has 38 days to change my mind.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, send Stein a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.