For whatever reason, the Most Improved Player never goes to the Most Valuable Player. You would think there would be some overlap, considering that MVP often gets handed out to someone who exceeds expectations.
This is the year where Kevin Durant could conceivably claim both awards. Not only is it "his turn" for MVP, as the cliche goes, but he's actually improved his game to a staggering degree.
Speaking of "staggering," that's what it used to look like when Kevin Durant dribbled. He came into the league with an incredible shot and above-average rebounding ability, but a shaky handle. This weakness came into play when Oklahoma City squared off against the Grizzlies in the 2010 postseason, and Tony Allen did an effective job hounding the much larger Durant (credit to Jonathan Tjarks for the video compilation).
This flaw has turned to strength, and Summer League lockout ball in 2011 would seem to be an important step in that direction. At the time, Beckley Mason of ESPN noted what appeared to be an improved handle from KD:
Durant’s handle has improved dramatically this summer. He seems much more confident dribbling through traffic in the open court and using his crossover and hesitation moves, often one after the other, to reach the rim.
Under the pressures of the NBA regular season, perhaps it was difficult for KD to expand and hone certain aspects of his game.
The stakes are high and quite public. Summer League permits the freedom to experiment with lower stakes and fewer viewers. Think of how famous comedians try new material out in tiny clubs. Kevin Durant was a little like Chris Rock, tinkering before taking his show on the road.
NBA skills are not added in one fell swoop, as happens in a video game. Fans seem to believe that a player can "get a post game" as though this happens via the exchange of gold coins and press of a button. No, it takes time to improve one's repertoire at the highest level.
Kevin Durant's improved handle was visible in 2011-12, but it's become a devastating force as he's grown all the more comfortable with it. Better dribbling opens the game up for Durant and allows him to be a far better passer than ever before.
With James Harden traded, KD is averaging 4.2 assists this season, a full 1.2 assists over his career average. When Durant is on the move, off-the-dribble, he's especially deadly. It's as though his passing vision grows more acute, the faster he goes.
Somehow, Durant has become an even more efficient scorer. His true shooting percentage (field goal percentage when threes and free throws are incorporated) has been ramped up from a merely awesome 61.0 to a dumbfounding 65.2. For context, Shaq, in his dominant MVP season, had a .578 true shooting percentage.
It's not often that a player improves by bounds and leaps as a passer and a scorer. Somehow, Kevin Durant has taken a near-perfect skill set and markedly improved it. Part of Kevin Durant's MVP case should be that he might be basketball's most improved player.