No matter how you look at it, Kevin Durant is the Most Valuable Player of the NBA season's first half. He's been scoring at an unstoppable rate while posting career highs in assists and steals, on top of leading the NBA in player efficiency rating, ahead of even LeBron James.
But most importantly, KD has helped his team maintain a top-three seed in the Western Conference despite cohort Russell Westbrook's absence.
Even so, let's not kid ourselves; James is still the best player on the planet. Durant is the best scorer on Earth, but when it comes to all-around play? LeBron is still king.
The Heat small forward is averaging 6.6 assists and 6.7 rebounds despite playing the fewest minutes per game of his career. He's also led the Miami Heat to a 29-11 record despite receiving less help than usual from his teammates.
But arguing James' MVP candidacy is fruitless, as Durant is undoubtedly this season's current MVP. Instead, let's turn to the past to truly examine how this MVP race will play out.
Last season, Durant was also considered a threat to upend James as the NBA's Most Valuable Player, at around the same time. Indeed, KD averaged 29.2 points per game in the first half and his Thunder posted a better record than James' Heat during that span. But then the Heat went 30-2 to close out the season (following the All-Star break), and James won his fourth MVP trophy in five years.
But here's why James really lends confidence to his quest for a third straight MVP award. His recent comments regarding Durant and the latter's scoring prowess mean James really does care about his MVP chances.
LeBron on Durant's 54: "I love it. I love when I see K.D. do something like that. It gives me an incentive."— Joseph Goodman (@JoeGoodmanJr) January 19, 2014
"I do get jealous, I'm not gonna lie," James said, via ESPN's Tom Haberstroh (subscription required), earlier this week. "I get jealous sometimes when I look over at KD and he's like 16-for-32 and then 14-for-34. ... Man."
But then James continues. "I'm not much of a forced-shot guy," he said. "But there are games where I have it going, and then at the end of the game, I'm like, damn, I shot just 12-for-16? Why don't I get up at least six or seven more? I definitely notice it."
That explains why James shot 25 times against the Charlotte Bobcats on Saturday, hitting on 13 of them for 34 points. That's five 30-point games in his last seven games, after he had four such games in his last 22. If history is any indication, when James sets his eyes on something, he tends to get it. (Look no further than his two straight NBA Finals MVP awards, for example.)
In short, James is turning it up a bit, especially with Dwyane Wade's constant absence. It will be up to King James more than ever this season to lead the Heat back to the promised land, with his aging cast of support providing less production than ever.
Indeed, Ray Allen is shooting 32.2 percent on threes, the lowest efficiency rate of his storied career, while averaging a career-worst 9.4 points per game. Then there's Wade, who has missed 10 games, which equates to a quarter of his team's games. When he is in, Flash is averaging the fewest points per game since his rookie season with unusually low numbers across the board. (Though he is efficient, with a career-high field-goal rate of .540.)
Then, when you factor in the Heat's lack of a dominant inside presence, their 29 wins in 40 tries seems that much more improbable. (Miami ranks last in the NBA with 36.6 rebounds per game.)
If James can indeed lead his team to a top seed despite his teammates' lackluster play, that can only lead voters to view his MVP case that much more favorably. Add the possible impact of Greg Oden's return, and the Heat could really be set up for a second-half run.
Also, let's not kid ourselves by assuming Durant lacks a supporting cast of his own. Westbrook has missed the last 12 games, but the Thunder still have the repertoire of block machine Serge Ibaka, Reggie Jackson, who is having a career season, and defensive whiz Thabo Sefolosha.
Additionally, Durant hasn't exactly carried his team to victory without Westbrook, as the Thunder have posted a mediocre 7-5 record since the latter's knee injury.
Of course, it's important to acknowledge the stringent toughness of the Western Conference in comparison to the lackluster East, but James' Heat have fared rather well outside of their native conference. (Against the West, Miami is 10-2 this season.)
However, what it all boils down to is how much James really wants his MVP three-peat. There's no question the Heat will finish with at least the second seed in the East, with the Toronto Raptors and Atlanta Hawks a distant 8.5 games back at one game above .500.
Will LeBron James win the MVP award this season?
That means James can still "coast" to the playoffs, because he really doesn't need to (and probably shouldn't) go all out in the regular season for the sake of winning an award. But that doesn't mean James can't make an effort to stay on top, and if his past several games and recent comments are any indication, he's prepared to make an effort to retain his crown.
Don't forget, the NBA season has a long way to go. For now, Durant is the MVP front-runner; expect that to change by season's end.