Why Kevin Durant Could Finally Win 1st NBA MVP in 2014

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 6, 2014

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - JANUARY 2: Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder shoots against the Brooklyn Nets on January 2, 2014 at the Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2014 NBAE (Photo by Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images)
Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

Now, more than ever, the NBA's MVP race is a two-man affair pitting LeBron James against Kevin Durant. But for the first time in a while, King James isn't running away with the award.

In fact, thanks to a unique combination of outside circumstances and major statistical growth, Durant, the man long considered the league's second-best player, is closer than ever to earning his first MVP award.

Just don't expect Durant to start making his own public case for the honor.

Per Michael Wallace of ESPN, teammate Derek Fisher said of KD:

He's continuing to evolve in terms of his all-around play—not just leading the league in scoring, but defending, facilitating, rebounding, being a leader, everything you need and want your best player to be. Kevin is one of those guys. He's a quieter spirit. He's not a guy that thumps his chest a lot and wants everybody to even notice what he's doing. But he embraces being in the position he's in.

It'd be shortsighted to make this all about Durant's breathtaking effort against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Jan. 4, but we have to at least start with a mention of his latest dominant showing.

Durant scored a season-high 48 points in OKC's 115-111 victory, doing so in 50-40-90 fashion for the contest. He added seven rebounds and seven assists for good measure, while also drilling the go-ahead jumper in typically unguardable form.

KD won't win any MVP awards for single-game performances, no matter how eye-popping they might be. If he's going to knock the King off the throne, he'll do it with season-long statistical dominance in a situation that helps him capture the interest of voters.


The Statistical Case

We'll start with the numbers, as they provide the best place to form the basis of Durant's MVP claim.

Frankly, he's closed the statistical gap on James in a stunning hurry. His year-over-year improvements get the first mention here, and as you can see below, KD has bumped up his averages in just about every relevant offensive category since the 2012-13 season.

Kevin Durant Year-to Year

While those numbers are impressive, Durant's month-to-month growth this season—particularly in terms of scoring—has been even more striking.

Kevin Durant Month-to Month 2013-14

Right now, Durant actually leads James in PER by the slimmest of margins, 28.8 to 28.7, per Basketball-Reference. That's notable because James has led the entire league in PER in each of Durant's previous six NBA seasons. If KD were to finish ahead of James in efficiency rating, it'd be the first time since the Bush administration that somebody other than LBJ topped that category.

James is still the more efficient scorer, but only marginally so. Durant still lags significantly behind him in overall field-goal accuracy, but he checks in ahead of James in three-point shooting and free-throw shooting. The end result is a pair of true shooting percentages that are remarkably close.

Via Infogr.am
Via Infogr.amInfogr.am

Team records are also technically "statistics," so it bears mentioning that Durant's Oklahoma City Thunder are 26-7 in an exceptionally difficult Western Conference, while James' Miami Heat are 25-8 in the cupcake East.

Furthermore, the Thunder have posted a per-game differential of plus-7.7 points. Miami has managed to win by an average of 6.7 points per contest—still excellent, but not quite as impressive in context as OKC's figure.

And then there's the defense.


Durant's Stunning Advantage

Dec 22, 2013; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder small forward Kevin Durant (35) talks to Toronto Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry (7) after hitting a 3 point shot during the third quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smi
Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Durant has quietly profiled as a better defensive player than James this season.

It used to be that even when the offensive numbers between these two were somewhat close, James' advocates could always rely on his superior stopping power.

It bears mentioning that, anecdotally, James still appears to be the more disruptive, versatile defender. When he's locked in, nobody causes more havoc on the court. If anything, LBJ suffers a bit from the same lapses in focus and effort that afflict his team as a whole.

Miami attacks in bursts, stifling teams with aggressive traps that lead to breakaways. The Heat don't typically bring their full effort for entire games during the regular season. To some extent, that on-off switch applies to James as well.

Enough excuses, though. Here's the truth: Durant has been a better defender than James this year.

According to 82games.com, KD has held opposing small forwards to a PER of 8.9. Against power forwards, he's been nearly as good, limiting opposing 4s to a PER of 9.2. James has been excellent as well, but hasn't quite measured up to Durant.

Against small forwards, James has allowed a PER of 12.1. Against power forwards, he's allowed an efficiency rating of 12.6, per 82games.com.

Team defensive ratings are a substantially noisier number, but even by that broader metric, KD has been better. With Durant on the floor, the Thunder's defensive rating is 98.9 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. The Heat post a 103.4 when James is on the court, per NBA.com.

Feb 1 2013; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Miami Heat forward LeBron James (6) plays defense against the Indiana Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Indiana defeats Miami 102-89. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

We might never see a more terrifying sight than James flying around the court when the Heat set their defense to "nuclear." But in terms of consistency and overall statistical effectiveness, LBJ is actually a long way behind Durant this year.

It seems the best ammunition for Durant detractors has run out.


The Power of Context

The statistics reveal a remarkably close race, which is why the harder-to-quantify factors like narrative and voter fatigue matter a little extra.

Durant is now in his second tour of duty this season without Russell Westbrook, which affords him the opportunity to show voters the kind of do-it-all performance they love to see in prospective MVPs.

Per Sekou Smith of NBA.com:

Durant has shown himself to be up to the challenge with or without Westbrook, of course. He knows only one mode and his quality of work is always at an otherworldly level. What he'll have to work on now, however, is his volume, particularly on offense. Sharing is not necessary with Westbrook sidelined. The Thunder need Durant to look for his own shot until further notice.

Opportunities like this one could easily sink Durant's MVP case. If he were to muddle through a rough stretch this year like the one he endured last postseason without Westbrook, voters could more comfortably disregard KD as an unfit candidate.

But KD is making the most of his solo flight.

Nov 10, 2013; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook (0) and small forward Kevin Durant (35) stand by during a break in action against the Washington Wizards during the second quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandat
Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Since Westbrook went down for another knee surgery, Durant has averaged 35.2 points, 10 rebounds and five assists while shooting 52.6 percent from the field and 41.7 percent from long distance. Oklahoma City is just 3-2 in that span, which is the only aspect of Westbrook's absence that hurts Durant's case.

The numbers, though, have been undeniably great. So if OKC continues to win 60 percent of its games without Westbrook, Durant will be in good shape.

Voters haven't awarded three straight MVP awards to the same player since the 1985-86 season when Larry Bird collected his third consecutive Maurice Podoloff Trophy. They don't want to give James his third win in a row unless they absolutely have to.

And as an aside, you can forget about anybody besides James or Durant walking away with the trophy. Preseason candidates Derrick Rose and Chris Paul have succumbed to season-ending and moderately severe injuries, respectively, and unless the Portland Trail Blazers or Indiana Pacers win 70 games, LaMarcus Aldridge and Paul George have little chance.

Like I said earlier, this is a two-man race.


In His Sights

Nov 29, 2013; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder small forward Kevin Durant (35) celebrates after Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook (0) (not pictured) hit the go ahead 3 in overtime against the Golden State Warriors during the
Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

James has set expectations so high that even if he merely equaled his brilliance of last year, it'd be viewed as something of a letdown. We've become desensitized to excellence, which is a good thing for Durant.

What's also good is that if Durant plays James relatively evenly from here on out, something the statistics indicate he's more than capable of doing, the elevated difficulty of his conference, Westbrook's injury and voter fatigue could combine to swing the race in his favor.

KD is red-hot right now, while James and the Heat are predictably coasting.

Keeping those things in mind, it's difficult to make a strong case that Durant is the better player than James. There are six years of evidence that point in the other direction.

At this moment, though, Durant is playing just as well as James. If he continues to sport roughly equal statistical totals, he's going to win his first MVP. There's a long way to go, but Durant has never been in a better position to overthrow the King than he is right now.


*All statistics accurate through games played Jan. 4, 2012


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