As we head down the stretch, our 5-on-5 crew weighs in on the individual battles between the top players at their respective positions.
1. Better 2011-12 season: Andrew Bynum or Dwight Howard?
Justin DeFeo, Nets Are Scorching: Bynum. Dwight's on-court product hasn't changed, but it was his off-court shenanigans that left a sour taste in the mouth of the public this year. Campaigning to have Stan Van Gundy fired, constant flip-flopping and overall aloofness have made Howard look less like an easygoing star and more like an insecure teenager.
James Herbert, Hardwood Paroxysm: Bynum. This isn't about the numbers, even though they're closer than they've ever been. While the Lakers big man has had some immature moments, he's also had a breakout season. Bynum has had more touches and more minutes than ever before and he's taken advantage of them. Howard's still the better basketball player, but it's hard to call this soap opera of a season a "good" one by his standards.
Daniel Nowell, Magic Basketball: Strictly on-court production? There's no doubt that Dwight Howard has -- despite everything -- had the better season. But combine Dwight's image implosion with Bynum's continued growth, and you have to wonder if perhaps the Lakers don't prefer the center they have, even if he's occasionally difficult to manage in his own right.
Tom Sunnergren, Philadunkia: Andrew Bynum. Statistically, these guys are actually a lot closer than you think. Howard scores 0.6 more points and grabs almost two more rebounds every 48, while Bynum connects from the stripe at a rate that's 20 percent higher. But while they're also much closer than we think in the insubordination/generally despicable behavior department, I'm giving the (slight) edge to Bynum there and overall.
Michael Wallace, ESPN.com: Dwight Howard. They've both been historically productive at times. They've both been embarrassingly immature along the way this season as well. Although Bynum proved to have certainly narrowed the gap between the league's best and second-best centers, Howard still remains the NBA's marquee man in the middle with the way he more routinely impacts play on both ends of the court without the help of a Kobe Bryant or Pau Gasol.
2. Better 2011-12 season: Derrick Rose or Russell Westbrook?
DeFeo: Westbrook. He's posting a slightly higher PER for a team that's leading the Western Conference in wins. Rose has dealt with nagging injuries all season and, if anything, the Bulls' lack of drop-off in his absence may have hurt his value, just slightly. Either way, both of their seasons will be judged on postseason performance.
Nowell: The numbers here are so close I'm comfortable going with my gut and saying Westbrook. Rose has been amazing, of course, but it seems like the Thunder have learned to accept Westbrook's bugaboos and allow his furious dervish style to propel them to Western Conference dominance alongside Kid Backpack.
Herbert: Westbrook. The playoffs will truly determine who's had the better year, but in the regular season it's impossible to choose Rose. With similar numbers, Westbrook has started every game for the Thunder and Rose has missed just over a third of the season. The good news for Rose is that it isn't about the regular season for Chicago.
Sunnergren: Mr. Westbrook. One was voted best player in the league last season, the other is the consensus second option on his own team. But the surprising thing here isn't that I'm going with Westbrook, but that it wasn't even that close. Though the former Bruin commits more fouls, is less dime happy, and turns the ball over more often than Rose, he bests him, both in efficiency and -- owing to the MVP's nagging injuries -- aggregate, in every other area: scoring, shooting efficiency, rebounding and dunks that melt your brain like the samizdat.
Wallace: Russell Westbrook. The erratic Oklahoma City point guard wins this almost as much by default as he does on production. Because of injuries, Derrick Rose has been more spectator than spectacular in the follow-up season to his MVP campaign. Meanwhile, Westbrook signed that big contract and has solidified his role as a top-12 player in the league.
3. Better 2011-12 season: Chris Paul or another point guard?
DeFeo: Steve Nash. He's on the verge of yet another 50-40-90 season, he's second in the league in assists per game and he has his Phoenix Suns on the brink of the Western Conference playoffs. Considering his age and supporting cast, these facts are remarkable and add another chapter to one of the most unique books the NBA has ever written.
Nowell: Paul. This is a nice scenario where everything -- eyes, numbers, narrative -- match up. Paul has famously brought the Clippers to life -- I'd say "resurrected" but that implies a past life -- and boasts the third-highest Estimated Wins Added to match. Even in light of his undeniable occasional coasting, Paul has reclaimed the popular title of league's best PG ... except in Chicago.
Herbert: Paul. He's as dominant as he was as a Hornet, completely changing the look and the outlook of his new team. Under Paul, the Clippers are an elite offensive team because he's ready to capitalize on the smallest of defensive mistakes on every possession. Other point guards score a bit more, but only Steve Nash does so more efficiently.
Sunnergren: Chris Paul has been better than every other point guard in the NBA this season. The only trouble is, he hasn't been better than Chris Paul has been every other season. Such is the downside to incredible success -- and yeah, my understanding of this is only academic: you're a disappointment so long as you haven't topped yourself.
Wallace: Chris Paul. I'll take CP3 for his overall body of work, from the start of the season to now. But you could throw Westbrook and Rajon Rondo in the mix and get a strong argument in support of either of them. In fact, what Rondo has done the past six weeks to resurrect the Celtics is as amazing a stretch as any player has had in the league this season. But I give the edge to Paul because of what he's had to endure in a stronger conference top to bottom.
4. Better 2011-12 season: Kobe Bryant or Dwyane Wade?
DeFeo: Wade. He's managed to have a relatively "quiet" season despite being one of the most efficient players in the league. Bryant's season has been marred by his steadfast refusal to turn more of the offense over to Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, and that stubbornness could be costing the Lakers wins.
Nowell: Kobe. You've maybe heard something about the fact that, until recently, Bryant was in the hunt to lead the league in scoring AND minutes played? With approximately
10 billion NBA minutes already logged? Identical as their respective statistical values seem to be, I'll let my awe of Kobe's doggedness give him the edge here.
Herbert: Wade. While Bryant deserves immense credit for his ridiculous start and his ability to play through injuries, he loses out because of his inefficiency. His field goal percentage is the lowest it has been since his second season; his TS% the lowest of his career. This isn't Wade's best campaign, but he's done the things Bryant does a little bit better than Bryant.
Sunnergren: Dwyane Wade. When our children's children look back on this season, one of the things they'll surely call us to account for is our celebration of Kobe's 2012 at the expense of Wade's. Per 48, Wade accumulates more rebounds, blocks, steals and assists than the transatlantic healthcare seeker, and he shoots almost seven points higher from the floor with 0.7 fewer turnovers.
Wallace: Kobe Bryant. His season started with a wrist injury that probably should have kept him off the court for a month. Instead, Bryant pushed through and has turned back the clock to again become the league's leading scorer. Wade also battled injuries and is having the most efficient season of his career despite a dip in scoring. Both are byproducts of having LeBron James on your team. Say what you will about Kobe's shot volume and selection, but he's still the NBA's most prolific and productive 2-guard.
5. Better 2011-12 season: LeBron James or Kevin Durant?
DeFeo: LeBron. He's put together his finest statistical season of his career and he impacts the game in far more ways than Durant does. The comparison is much closer than I thought it would have been to start the season, but the reality is James is still the best player in the world and nothing has happened to change that.
Nowell: LeBron. Durant's been great, but LeBron has shown once again that he is the standard for consistent regular-season dominance in today's NBA. He's been head and shoulders above the competition.
Herbert: James. This is a bit unfair to Durant, who has improved his passing and ballhandling tremendously and is just about impossible to stop. But even if Durant is now a better scorer than James, he has not had the better season. James is having one of the best stastistical seasons ever and takes over games defensively in a way that Durant cannot.
Sunnergren: LeBron James. I'll paraphrase here what many have said before, and better: in this great debate you have religion in one corner and science in another. While Durant has the good will of the public at his back, LeBron has this at his: the fact that he's better than the young forward, or anyone else for that matter, by the reckoning of every statistical system we have for judging these things.
Wallace: LeBron James. A month ago, James was on pace to have the best player efficiency rating in the history of the league. He's dropped off a bit since then, but he's still having a greater impact on the game at both ends of the court than anyone in the league. Credit Durant for improving his overall playmaking and defense. He can rival James on the offensive end of the court, but this debate ends when you factor in what James has done on the other side by defending all five positions this season.
ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network
Michael Wallace is a writer for ESPN.com. Justin DeFeo, James Herbert, Daniel Nowell and Tom Sunnergren contribute to the TrueHoop Network.