LeBron James' recent stretch of utter dominance has led some to believe that he has already earned the MVP award. And in any other year, that would probably be true.
The two are in a virtual dead heat statistically. Durant leads the league in scoring with 29.2 points per game, and LeBron has a massive advantage in assists. Both are excellent rebounders, yet LeBron has a slight edge, leading Durant 8.2 rebounds per game to 7.4.
But per game stats are flawed.
What really must be considered are advanced metrics. LeBron is having another legendary season by PER (player efficiency rating) standards. His rating of 31.4 leads the league, but Durant is in second with a rating of 29.2. No other player tops 27.
These stats show how efficient each player is. They both make the most of their opportunities with the ball. Considering their nearly identical usage rates, it also means that neither is carrying a much heavier load than the other.
Just because LeBron leads in PER doesn't mean Durant is without advantages in other areas of efficiency.
Durant's true shooting percentage (which includes every shot a player takes) is 65.7 compared to LeBron's 63.7. This means that when everything is factored in, Durant makes a higher percentage of his shots.
Durant has one other very important statistical advantage that cannot be ignored: he has produced more wins for Oklahoma City than LeBron has for Miami.
He leads the league with 13.1 win shares, the most commonly accepted statistic for measuring the amount of wins that a player has produced. LeBron trails with 12.3, and if both maintain their pace Durant will finish the year more than a full win more valuable to his team than James. What also can't be ignored is that Durant leads in both offensive win shares (9.9 to 9.6) and defensive win shares (3.2 to 2.7).
Speaking of defense, Durant's ascension to a top-tier defender hasn't received nearly as much press as it should have.
His defensive rating (a statistic used to measure how many points a player gives up per 100 possessions) of 101 actually tops LeBron's of 103.
There are numerical arguments on both sides here, but the point is this: the two have both had excellent statistical seasons that essentially cancel each other out.
However, a tie breaker can be found in the form of team success.
Oklahoma City will likely finish the season with a better record, and they currently lead Miami 39-14 to 36-14. While that doesn't seem like much, remember that the Thunder play in the brutal Western Conference. Even if they had the same record, OKC would have had to work harder to earn it given who they have to play.
If the Thunder finish with a record significantly better than Miami's, Durant deserves plenty of praise.
Finally, narratives play a big role in determining who wins an MVP.
When Derrick Rose won it two years ago, it was largely because of his ascension as a player and Chicago's rise to the top of the Eastern Conference. Media bias against LeBron also played a big part, but there was a great story behind Rose's candidacy and that made him more appealing to voters.
What people seem to forget with the Thunder is that there is an incredible story behind how well they're playing. They traded All-Star James Harden before the season for a far less than fair value.
Yet, Durant still has them playing at a championship level.
Imagine if Miami traded Chris Bosh for Luis Scola. Wouldn't that significantly hamper their title hopes? Well, that's what the Thunder essentially did in the Harden deal. The fact Durant has them playing at the same level as they were last year—or possibly higher—is a remarkable feat.
I'm not saying this race should be called for Durant right now. It's an ongoing debate, and LeBron is obviously a perfectly valid choice for MVP.
But let's stop saying he has already won the award.