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Why Kevin Durant's MVP Case over LeBron James Is Better Than You Think

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Why Kevin Durant's MVP Case over LeBron James Is Better Than You Think
USA TODAY Sports

LeBron James would have turned the race for the NBA's MVP award into a contest against just himself if it wasn't for Kevin Durant.

Though it's difficult to imagine the first player in league history to score at least 30 points on at least 60 percent shooting in six straight games not winning such an honor, Durant has rendered such an occurrence a real possibility.

This is not to say the Durantula is a lock to overthrow the reigning MVP. Instead, it merely points out that LeBron's fourth award in five years is hardly sewn up. Durant has made this a much, much closer competition than you think.

But how? James is averaging 27.1 points, 8.1 rebounds, 6.9 assists and 1.7 steals on 56.5 percent shooting per game. He's posting a league-high PER of 31.2. He's dominating every facet of the game. He's making history.

And now, according to the Associated Press, he's turning the league's MVP race into a seemingly one-man show (via ESPN.com):

Heading into the All-Star break, James is making the race for league MVP a one-man contest. He has grabbed all the headlines by logging an NBA record six straight games with at least 30 points while shooting 60 percent or better.

By comparison, the three-time NBA scoring champion Durant has hit both of those marks just five times all season.

How is Durant supposed to top that?

Well, per Alok Pattani of ESPN.com, in some ways he already has:

LeBron James has garnered a lot of praise for his six-game streak of scoring and shooting percentage. However, if you look at a complete statistic that takes everything a player contributes to his team over the course of a season, James actually trails Kevin Durant. 

The statistic is “Win Shares”, developed by Basketball Reference building off the individual offensive and defensive rating framework established by ESPN Production Analytics’ Dean Oliver. Win shares quantifies a player’s overall impact on his team’s winning – taking into account a player’s individual box-score statistics in the context of his team’s offensive and defensive performance.

The statistic is not a be-all, end-all, but it does take into account most statistics people generally use to evaluate players, and gives a good baseline of how many wins a player accounts for. As of Wednesday, Durant leads the NBA with 12.9 win shares and James is second with 11.9. 

Pattani also goes on to note that James has led the league in win shares for the past four seasons. Three of those years culminated in an MVP award, and rightfully so.

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Does LeBron really have this year's MVP award all sewn up?

Win Shares is one of the most complete statistics there is. Since it essentially measures how much of an impact a player has on his team winning, it's a good starting point when talking about the Association's most valuable players. That Durant is actually on pace to account for more wins than James is therefore a testament to how indispensable he is.

At the same time, it's also just that—a starting point. Win Shares is not a "be-all, end-all" metric that promises an MVP award. James led the NBA in Win Shares (15.6) for the 2010-11 campaign, but Derrick Rose, who was with fifth (13.1), was named that year's MVP.

Other factors must come into play, like LeBron's historical run. Or Durant's unprecedented campaign.

Wait, what?

James isn't the only one who has made or is on pace to make history this season. Durant is poised to become the 12th player in NBA history, who has played at least 50 games, to shoot at least 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from deep and 90 percent from the free-throw line in the same season.

Of those 12, no player has totaled more than 16.3 Win Shares in the same season (Dirk Nowitzki). Durant is currently on pace for more than 20.

Just for kicks, James has tallied more than 20 Win Shares just once in his career. When he did (2008-09) he won his first MVP award with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Sold?

I wouldn't expect you to be. During the 2008-09 campaign, James didn't have someone like him tearing through the record books. 

Still, Durant's torrid pace is worth noting. Also worth noting is how his offensive performance has been able to rival, and in some spots exceed, that of LeBron's.

Bombs away, Kevin.

James is shooting a better percentage from the floor (56.5) while taking more shots (18.3) per game, but Durant is shooting at a higher rate from beyond the arc (43.2 percent) despite hoisting up more deep balls (4.5) a night.

At 29 points per bout, Durant is also outscoring LeBron (27.1). And as far as making history goes, the Oklahoma City Thunder's wunderkind is on pace to become the first player to lead the league in scoring while shooting at least 50 percent from the field since Shaquille O'Neal during the 1999-2000 crusade.

And let's not even get started on Durant's free-throw percentage (90.4) compared to LeBron's (74.2).

Point to James' efficiency all you want, but Durant has proved to be equally as efficient. Should he win the scoring title while shooting a 50 percent clip, he'll have then laid claim to an efficiency-driven accolade that LeBron himself hasn't.

Just as important as these individual accolades, though, is the impact the two's performances have on their teams' offenses.

Harry How/Getty Images
Durant, at the very least, is equally as important to OKC's offense as James is to Miami's.

The Miami Heat are scoring 115.8 points per 100 possessions with James on the floor, compared to the 114.8 the Thunder post with Durant. Close though it may be, the edge is still given to LeBron there.

James also has the edge as a facilitator. He's dropping 6.9 dimes a contest and assisting on 34.1 percent of his teammates' field goals when he's in the game. Durant is averaging a career-high 4.4 helpers per night and assisting on a career-best 20.6 percent of his squad's shots, yet he still falls short to James in that category. That his numbers are career bests, though, must be taken into consideration.

As must Durant's improvement on the defensive end.

How much has he improved, you ask? To the point where he's actually outperforming James, one of the Association's most suffocating defenders.

With the lanky Durant on the floor, Oklahoma City is allowing 103.4 points per 100 possessions. Traipse your way over to Miami, and you'll see that the Heat are relinquishing 104.8 points per 100 possessions with James in the lineup.

For those who would argue that those numbers are more a reflection of the collective's performance, of Oklahoma City's defensive superiority, I would say that you're partially right.

For those who would then argue that they mean nothing, that when broken down individually James would easily have the edge, the stats suggest you're wrong.

USA TODAY Sports
Is Durant having more success on defense than LeBron?

Not only has Durant tied a career-high with 1.2 blocks per game, but per 82games.com, he's also holding opposing forwards (both power and small) to a combined PER of 12.1 per 48 minutes. LeBron, by comparison, is allowing opposing forwards to post a 16.3 PER.

When we delve even deeper, those marks still hold true. Per Synergy Sports (subscription required), Durant is allowing just 0.86 points per possession on defense to James' 0.88.

Are we honestly supposed to chalk all this up to one elephantine-sized coincidence?

Absolutely not.

Durant is no stranger to greatness. He's just played at a time when James has overshadowed everybody.

Where he could have shied away from seemingly unbeatable competition, he has instead embraced the challenge and used James as inspiration (via ESPN.com):

Durant says he's always trying to raise the bar on his own level of play, and James only provides more inspiration for him to get better.

Gotten better he has. Much better. In some cases, better than LeBron even.

We can't go as far as to say declare Durant the league MVP just yet, but it's important to understand we can't do the same for James either. The Chosen One does have the statistical edge in certain metrics as previously noted, but so does Durant. He has arguably more.

USA TODAY Sports
The MVP race is much closer than you think.

By no means does this diminish the significance of LeBron's torrid displays this season. He has bordered on perfection.

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Lost in all the hullabaloo of his performance, however, is the near perfection of Durant's. And I can't help but wonder why.

Both are playing the best basketball of their careers. Both are on pace to find numerous spots in the NBA record books. Both are irreplaceable to their respectable teams.

Most importantly, both—James' record-setting efficiency and all—are still legitimate MVP candidates.

So not so fast, LeBron. That Maurice Podoloff Trophy isn't yours just yet.

Not so long as Durant has as strong a case over you as anybody ever has.

 

*All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports and 82games.com unless otherwise noted.

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