Kobe Bryant won his first most-valuable-player award last season, but will LeBron James prevent a repeat performance?
The Cleveland Cavaliers forward has the better statistics and a comparable team record at this point. He also has an important vote -- sort of.
Bryant seemed mildly uncomfortable when asked for his MVP choice near the season's halfway point.
"LeBron," he said. "Leave me alone about that stuff."
He then expanded upon his thoughts.
"I'm a big fan of his, obviously," he said. "I just think the world of him. Playing with him this summer [at the Beijing Olympics], and seeing his work ethic and what he's about, I just think he's terrific."
TNT, which will broadcast tonight's game between the Lakers (31-8) and Cavaliers (31-7), began debating last week which MVP candidate was having the better season.
Former NBA player Kenny Smith said Bryant was the "kind of assassin you want."
"The best player in the league is Kobe Bryant because at the end of the game, he has the track record and every time he delivers," Smith said. "Forget the playoffs, if you just watch [the Lakers] play last week, you'd say, 'This guy knows how to deliver in the last 30 seconds of a game.' "
Former NBA coach Mike Fratello, however, said Bryant had been surpassed by James.
"You know the car that is always trailing the other car and eventually catches it and goes past it? LeBron James just moved ahead," Fratello said. "This is a different version of LeBron James. The Olympic experience has made a different player out of LeBron James."
Bryant, in his 13th season, is averaging 25.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game. James, in his sixth season, is averaging 27.8 points, 6.1 rebounds and 6.7 assists.
Another consideration might be defense.
Bryant, 30, is averaging 1.3 steals and 0.4 blocked shots. James, 24, is averaging two steals and 1.3 blocked shots.
"Defensively, he's obviously made some improvements in terms of protecting the lane, getting steals, getting out in passing lanes, getting balls back for his team," Bryant said.
Despite their status as two of the NBA's top players, Bryant and James have never been considered friends. Their experience at the Olympics changed that, Bryant said.
"We had a chance to hit it off pretty well," Bryant said. "Normally, it's always me and LeBron, but we're always surrounded by a bunch of people. In the Olympics, we had a chance to interact, just he and I with nobody else around. It was really good for us, just to get to know each other."
Walton is back
Luke Walton practiced Sunday and said there was no pain in a sore right foot that had sidelined him for eight consecutive games.
Walton will play today but is not expected to start.
"He's just still feeling his way a little bit," Coach Phil Jackson said.
Walton is averaging 3.4 points, 1.9 rebounds and 1.8 assists.
Bryant said he would gladly lend his services to the Philadelphia Eagles, his favorite NFL team.
"I'd be a wide receiver. No more 'red zone' issues," he said. "Throw that ball up there, I'll go get it. Knock my head off, I love it. I enjoy it."
The Eagles lost to Arizona on Sunday in the NFC championship game, 32-25.
On the air: TV: TNT; Radio: 570; 1330.
Where: Staples Center.
Records: Lakers 31-8; Cavaliers 31-7.
Record vs. Cavaliers (2007-08): 0-2.
Update: The Lakers have lost their last five games against the Cavaliers and haven't defeated them since Jan. 12, 2006. Cleveland will be without shooting guard Delonte West, who will be out up to six weeks because of a fractured right wrist. Cleveland is 20-0 at home but a comparatively mild 11-7 in the road.
-- Mike Bresnahan