There's still plenty of time left in the season, but Durant may not be all that far from his first ever MVP award.
Since Russell Westbrook reinjured his knee on Christmas Day against the New York Knicks, Durant has transformed his game. He was already arguably the best offensive player in the league. Now, he's a step better.
In 20 games without Westbrook, we've seen Durant's scoring skyrocket. We've seen him take way more shots. And we've seen him do all that while maintaining the efficiency that has helped him become one of the greats.
It's common knowledge that LeBron James is the best player in the NBA. But now, Durant is narrowing the gap.
He used to be far behind James, just like everyone else. At this point, that may not be so true. There may not be much of a difference between the two of them.
James has won the MVP in four of the past five years, with the one off-year coming during his first season in Miami. But that was a strange season. After "The Decision", signing with the Miami Heat and taking his talents wherever he chose to take them, LeBron backlash was bound to be in full force.
Now, though, Durant is looking like a legitimate challenge to James's MVP candidacy. And more than halfway through the season, it's time to start asking what exactly he needs to do to dethrone LeBron as the most valuable player in the NBA.
At 38-11, the Thunder currently sit atop the Western Conference with the second-best record in the NBA. A three-game lead on the San Antonio Spurs and the Portland Trail Blazers isn't as comfortable as it could be though, considering there is still plenty of time left in the season.
The good news for the Thunder, though, is that the harder part of their schedule is over. In their final 33 games of the year, they face only 15 teams with records of .500 or better. That's as many as the Spurs have and is more than the Blazers and Los Angeles Clippers, who currently sit fourth in the West, have.
The schedule is somewhat favorable. And let's remember that Russell Westbrook's return can only help.
So, yes, it's supremely possible that the Thunder finish this season No. 1 in the West—especially considering how hot this team has been of late. After all, we did just see them rattle off a nine-game winning streak like it was nothing.
If Oklahoma City finishes with the best record in the West, that only contributes to the Durant-for-MVP campaign, and it looks like the Thunder may be on the way there.
There are actually plenty of NBA players who have the "unguardable" attribute. They just can't all sustain that level of play for extended periods of time.
J.R. Smith can be unguardable. Jamal Crawford can be unguardable. Even someone like Nate Robinson can be unguardable. (See: 23-point fourth quarter.)
But those guys can't keep up that level of play for all that long. Maybe they can go off for a quarter. Maybe they can go off for a game, or even a few games, but the streak ends. Eventually, it's over.
When you evaluate an MVP, at some point you have to ask yourself: "Has this guy sustained his unguardableness for the entire season?"
And no, "unguardableness" is not a word, but we're getting to a point where Durant is allowed to start rewriting parts of the English language along with the NBA record books.
Yes, Kevin Durant is completely and utterly unguardable. And he's probably only one of two, maybe three, players in the league who fits that description (along with LeBron James and possibly Chris Paul).
In 20 games since Westbrook left the lineup, he's averaging 35.3 points per game. He's scored more than 30 points in 16 of those games. He's broken the 40-point barrier in five of them.
Durant is scoring like crazy, and we haven't even gotten to his efficiency yet. Unguardable. He's totally unguardable.
Here's where the efficiency comes into play.
Over that aforementioned 20-game, Westbrook-less stretch, Durant has put up a 54-41-89 shooting line. He's a smidgen away from posting 180-shooting numbers (50 percent from the field, 40 percent from three, 90 percent from the line). And it's not like Durant is going off one night and then reeling in the scoring the next.
We've already gone over the counting numbers. All the 30-point games, the 40-point games, even the one 54-point game against the Golden State Warriors. Durant has been scoring more than the Pitch Perfect music director.
But with all those points, maybe the most impressive part of this stretch is how consistently efficient he's been.
Durant has shot better than 50 percent from the field in 13 of those past 20 games. He's only shot worse than 40 percent from the field in three of them.
Seriously, he just had a streak in which he made 50 percent of his shots in eight consecutive games. And he scored 30 or more points in all but one of them.
We always talk about LeBron's streak from last season: six straight games of 30-plus points and 60 percent shooting. Well, that Durant streak wasn't all that different, especially considering he shot 60 percent or better in six of those eight games.
At least for now, Durant is playing his best. This isn't just about taking more shots, even though Durant has used 34.9 percent of his team's possessions since the Westbrook injury.
He's shooting more and he's actually been more efficient in some ways. He's getting better. Or at the very least, he's getting hotter. Now the question remains: How long can he stay this hot?
Is there any reason why Durant can't sustain this level of play for the next few weeks, or even months, while waiting for Westbrook to return from his knee injury?
We don't really have a past sample of how KD performs without his sidekick, and that's mainly because Westbrook had never missed a game before he hurt his knee against the Houston Rockets in last year's playoffs.
Not an NBA game. Not a college game. He never got hurt.
So we don't fully know from the past how Durant can dominate without Westbrook. And thus, almost all the evidence we have to support any Durant-without-Westbrook theories has come in these last 20 games.
For Durant to boost past LeBron and into MVP-level play, though, it's not just about the scoring.
One of the most subtle changes Durant has made to his game since the Westbrook injury is that he's running the offense far more often. And that makes perfect sense, considering Westbrook is the team's point guard, the guy who the Thunder offense has to run through most of the time.
So when Westbrook first went down, there were some issues coming up in the Thunder attack.
The pick-and-roll game with Serge Ibaka wasn't as effective. Reggie Jackson's drive-and-kick game didn't give the offense the same dynamic as Westbrook's. Everything seemed just a little discombobulated.
But that's fine. Westbrook is a star. These sorts of adjustments take time.
Now, we're seeing Durant develop as a playmaker for his teammates. We're seeing him control the pick-and-roll more, making Ibaka's job so much easier and thus making him into arguably the best pick-and-pop power forward in the NBA.
What we're learning now is maybe that a change in style is what's spurred Durant's recent hot streak. And the change in style may have to do with the absence of Westbrook.
Everything changes with Westbrook out.
Now, the Thunder are running more plays with Durant than they ever have. They're putting him at the center of the offense more often, and plenty of that has to do with Westbrook not being there to handle the ball.
Last season, Durant was a pick-and-roll ball-handler on only 13.7 percent of his possessions, per MySynergySports (subscription required). This year, though, that number has jumped to 19.7 percent.
He's also become the NBA's second-most effective scorer out of the pick-and-roll, ranking by points per play. He's running plays more and isolating less.
We saw Durant use almost a quarter of his possessions last year in isolation (23.7 percent). This year, it's all different. That number has plummeted down to 16.5 percent.
Winning an MVP award isn't just about scoring. It's about running a team, controlling a game, dominating a contest in as many different fashions as possible. So don't get blinded by Durant's flashy 30-plus points when you see him, because his play is up across the board without Westbrook.
Keep in mind that doesn't necessarily mean the Thunder are better without Westbrook. They clearly aren't. But it seems like Durant's Westbrook-less style may be more fitting for the way he should play.
He's figured out how to run the Ibaka pick-and-roll. He's figured out how to distribute.
Durant isn't just scoring better. He's running an offense better. He's understanding the game more—or at least applying what he's learned over the first seven years of his career in a different way.
The Thunder offense isn't better without Russell Westbrook. That would be an egregious statement, but maybe, just maybe, Kevin Durant is an improved player without his sidekick.
Durant has become a good defensive player.
That isn't news. He's been that for quite some time. But that doesn't mean he doesn't have flaws.
There are times when we see ball-handlers get in front of Durant. We've seen him rotate incorrectly when an offense throws some more complicated schemes at him. He's not always the best communicator on the floor.
None of those attributes make Durant anything close to a poor defender. He's long, he's athletic, he's smart and he's a high-effort player. But, at least as a defender, he's not LeBron James.
That's not an insult to Durant. Frankly, no one is LeBron on the defensive end.
It's supremely possible James is the best defensive player in the league. He may not be the most important—that title would probably go to a center, who can have a bigger defensive impact on his team—but in terms of shutting down an opposing wing, there's no one better.
In some ways, James's game has grown to become so boring.
His style is exciting. So are his dunks, his unbelievable passes, his remarkable playmaking ability, his strong finishes at the rim and everything else he seems to do so as to ruin the basketball lives of his opponents. But consistent greatness doesn't hold the attention of the public for that long.
We don't have far-reaching attention spans. We need something new, something just a little bit flashier.
Durant's game isn't flashier than James's, but for now, the storyline is just that.
James's defensive play would be a legitimate reason to vote for him over Durant in the MVP race, but still, the argument for Durant can remain strong if he keeps posting numbers like he has without Westbrook for the final 33 games of the season.
Ultimately the MVP race comes down to Durant and LeBron. And no, that's not exactly the boldest statement of the year.
So, at this point, what separates those two players?
We always talk about Durant's efficiency. The 180-shooting season last year, the almost unrealistic scoring numbers, the consistently intelligent shot selection. It's all near perfection.
For some reason though, we've started to ignore that James's efficiency may be even better than Durant's.
James is shooting 58 percent from the field. Even with his recent three-point shooting slump, he's still making 37 percent of his long-range shots. Durant is only a few free-throw shooting percentage points away from becoming the third player in NBA history to post back-to-back 50-40-90 seasons, but still, James is sitting with the better true-shooting percentage.
As a society, as a basketball-watching base of people, we're hardly impervious to recency bias. Durant has been brilliant over the past 20 games. He's been brilliant all season, brilliant for his entire seven-year career, but has he truly outperformed James since opening day?
Remember, the MVP is for the whole season.
It's not for the post-Westbrook season. It's not for the second half. It's for the whole year. And because anyone could reasonably say that a game in November or December is as important as one in January, the case for James may be a tad stronger than the one for KD.
It's not like James has every statistical advantage over Durant. He doesn't.
Really, though, is James's coasting still better than anyone else's non-coasting? It might be; it might not.
Ultimately, the best-player-in-the-NBA rankings go LeBron James, then Kevin Durant and then everyone else.
After this stretch, we at least know Durant is now in James's league. He's pushing him. That gap is becoming slimmer than the Slim Reaper himself.
The MVP is going to come down to the two of them. Now we just have to wait and see if Durant can keep up this remarkable 20-game stretch for the rest of the season.
Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains that his per-36 minutes numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at RotoWire.com or on ESPN’s TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.
*All statistics current as of Feb. 3.