It will take something special for someone to knock LeBron James off his MVP throne.
Something so dominant that it takes a second or third viewing just to confirm its existence.
Something like Kevin Durant's career-high 54-point effort during his Oklahoma City Thunder's 127-121 win over the Golden State Warriors on Friday—when the execution and efficiency seems to test the limits of reality:
MVP campaigns aren't completed in one night, but they do feature signature moments like this. This might have been KD's finest work to date, but he's been designing museum-quality stat sheets all season.
Box-score brilliance is only part of the curriculum. A true MVP candidate has to be an irreplaceable piece of a championship-caliber picture.
No matter which hardware test, though, KD's passing it with flying colors.
Whenever you send numbers crunchers running to the history books, you must be doing something right.
Durant's been doing that to the extreme. The only time stat geeks have raised their heads is when they've had to come up for air.
KD just became the founding member of the 50-point club for the third consecutive season. As far as scoring is concerned, the company he joined in doing so doesn't get any more elite:
Crazier still is the fact that's not the only possible link between Durant, Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain. Durant (30.6 points, 30.1 player efficiency rating, 10.0 win shares through 40 games) is on pace to become the only player other than those Hall of Famers with 30-plus points, a 30-plus PER and 20-plus win shares in the same season.
That's historically remarkable, yet in a way not that surprising. He's been documented as one of the greatest scorers of all time for a while now.
Yet he's shattering his already lofty standards this season.
It seems as if a fourth scoring title is simply a formality for the 25-year-old. The separation he's creating in the scoring race has been unseen in more than 20 years:
It has to be the byproduct of his offensive volume though, right? After all, it was his shot totals that James singled out while daydreaming about an expanded scoring role.
KD isn't hurting for touches (19.7 field-goal attempts per game). But he's not the league's most active shooter (Carmelo Anthony, 21.0). He's not even No. 2 (LaMarcus Aldridge, 20.9).
Still, even if he was at the top of the list, who'd be complaining? He's been making more out of his shots than anyone else in the league. Just look at the league's top-five scorers and their different levels of efficiency.
|KD's Shooting Against Other Top-Five Scorers|
KD's a dominant scorer, but he's so much more than that.
He keeps figuring out how to make the most out of his length, and his evolution as a playmaker remains a crucial but overlooked part of his story. His assists have climbed to a new career high (5.0), and his turnovers are down to a three-year low (3.2).
Take the whole body of work and you're left with yet another possible entry into the history books:
Neither the old-school voters nor advanced-stats gurus could pick a hole in his stat lines.
None of his numbers matter on their own, though.
There isn't a statistical category that can compensate for an underwhelming win column.
"All of the fancy numbers are fine," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said, via NBA.com's Sekou Smith. "But you have to impact the game. You have to leave a footprint out there night after night."
That means consistently making smart plays, never taking a night off and always searching for improvements.
Sometimes, like when you lose an all-world point guard (Russell Westbrook) to his third knee surgery of the last 12 months, you have to literally carry your team in a way the league hasn't seen for five years:
The Western Conference should be too crowded for OKC to survive Westbrook's absence.
The Thunder understandably struggled after Westbrook went back under the knife in late December. They're still just 7-5 since he went down, but they've won two consecutive games—both by double digits, both over Western Conference contenders (Houston Rockets, Warriors).
If Westbrook's injury exposed OKC's vulnerability, no one else has been able to do anything with it. The Thunder (30-10) still have the fourth-best record in the league and are the No. 3 seed out West.
Only the Indiana Pacers and San Antonio Spurs have a better net rating than OKC's plus-7.9 points per 100 possessions. The Thunder have held a plus-5.4 mark in these 12 games without Westbrook, which would still be seventh-best in the league.
Why does this matter to Durant?
For one, MVP winners don't come from bad teams.
Over the last 10 seasons, the teams that employ the league's MVP have a combined record of 599-205. That's a .745 winning percentage. Durant's Thunder are one of the four teams currently clearing that mark.
Second, this team would collapse without KD.
There may not be a less productive starting shooting guard-center combo in the league than Thabo Sefolosha (6.2 points, 39.3 percent shooting) and Kendrick Perkins (3.3 points, 45.7). Serge Ibaka still caps his impact with a lack of consistent aggressiveness (11.8 shots per game). Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb are both handling significant roles for the first time in their careers.
Yet KD makes everything click.
The defensive attention he demands make Ibaka, Jackson and Lamb all look potentially special. His top-shelf offensive ability is what allows Brooks to fortify his defensive ranks with Sefolosha and Perkins.
And OKC has yet to play its best basketball.
Westbrook was just starting to find his groove when his last surgery put him on the shelf. He's not expected back before the All-Star break, but he should still have enough time to be hitting on all cylinders down the stretch.
The added experience Jackson and Lamb are getting from their expanded roles will only help them develop as reliable options. OKC's scary good now, with the potential to get even better.
For any best-player-on-the-best-team voters out there, KD could be sitting in that spot by the end of the season.
Surveying the MVP Race
Durant owns the Association's best stat sheet right now.
James still turns heads with his 58.6 field-goal percentage, but KD has better shooting marks in other categories. Not to mention, he's leading in rebounds (7.9 to 6.7), steals (1.5 to 1.3), blocks (0.8 to 0.3) and PER (30.1 to 29.0). Even the King's lead in assists is smaller than you'd think (6.6 to 5.0).
And it's a race Durant is currently winning.
B/R's Grant Hughes called KD "a slight favorite" in his last round of NBA MVP odds, published on Jan. 6. Durant has averaged 39.7 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.5 assists in his six games since.
The gap is widening.
We all know James is capable of making tremendous strides, though. Perhaps it's no coincidence that KD's MVP climb has coincided with Miami's annual midseason malaise. If the Heat find their running shoes like they usually do, James could stay on top of the MVP perch he's held for four of the last five seasons.
Assuming KD doesn't sprint out to an insurmountable lead, of course.
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