The Most Valuable Player award in the NBA is heavily debated almost every season, especially with the distorted meaning of the award.
Should the award be given to the best statistical player that season? Should it be given to a player who is so vital to a team that they are utterly lost and helpless without him?
Unfortunately, there is no consensus on this issue, but the NBA's recent selections for this recognition have been pretty on point. LeBron James of the Miami Heat has won the MVP in three of the past four seasons and is still widely considered to be on his way to a fourth.
The man standing in his way is Kevin Durant. The chatter about possibly being named MVP isn't something new for Durant, who has finished in the top five of voting in the past three years and was runner-up for two of those years.
It's commonplace for players to brush past questions about how much they care about individual awards because they usually redirect those questions to focus on the team's goal of a championship. Durant has publicly been no different about it, and he's been saying all the right things when these types of questions are brought up by the media.
There is the other side of Durant that we don't get to see though: the inner thoughts and desires of a young superstar looking to prove his worth as one of the best basketball players in the world. Durant may seem like a nice guy in the interviews, but that's because he is. When he steps on the court, everything is so much different. The smiles fade when the game face is on, because Durant is a fiery competitor who hates losing.
That hatred for coming up short is what fuels Durant on the court and during the offseason as well. That's what makes him want to be better than everyone else, and he's willing to do whatever work is necessary to reach that point.
So far this season, it's really shown how much Durant has dedicated himself to improving his already elite style of play.
We are seeing a version of Durant that scores more efficiently, passes better, rebounds better and gets to the line more. Though his offensive game is possibly already the best in the league, Durant's really helped to add more credibility to his MVP resume through his improved defense.
Though he's not as bulky or as strong as LeBron, Durant uses his ridiculous length and athleticism to affect shots, get blocks and come up with steals. Having a better grasp on defense adds a lot to KD's all-around game and makes his side-by-side statistical comparisons with LeBron James a lot closer than some would think (via Basketball Reference, stats accurate as of Feb. 6).
Durant has had a stellar season so far, as you can see, and his team's play has also been on pace for another run at an NBA Finals trip. So if you're looking to make the argument that the MVP should also be on one of the best teams, KD has that covered.
Though at this point in the season, it seems that LeBron continues to be the favorite for MVP, there is still a whole other half of the season for Durant to start changing people's minds.
To be an MVP, Kevin Durant will have to give the voters some hard evidence of why he's better than LeBron this season. This means he will have to step up not only statistically, but also with his crunch-time game play as well. Durant has developed the ability to close out games very strongly, but he needs to make his presence known even more in big games against tough opponents.
When looking at who is more valuable to the team, it's also in Durant's favor. KD means an awful lot to the Thunder's success, especially with his knack for taking over a game seemingly whenever he wants. Sure, there's guys like Russell Westbrook who can put up a ton of points when he gets going. However, if Westbrook struggles, he usually defers to Durant, who can take the load off from there, but with no KD, the team is gambling on how good Westbrook is playing.
For James and the Heat, he has a bit more stability in his absence thanks to Dwyane Wade, who has plenty of experience carrying the team on his own, not to mention guys like Chris Bosh and Ray Allen pitching in. Though not having LeBron on the court for any given night would definitely hurt the Heat, it would not affect them nearly as much as the Thunder without Kevin Durant.
We can and will continue debating the MVP race as long as the season goes, but we can't really know until we see each candidate play out the entire regular season. If Durant manages to step up like I believe he will to win the award, it will be an immense confidence boost to him during the postseason and may be just what he needs to take the Oklahoma City Thunder to their first taste of championship gold.