The NBA is still months away from crowning an MVP for the 2013-14 season, but if the campaign ended today, Kevin Durant would most likely be the choice to break LeBron James' stranglehold on the most prestigious award in basketball.
And not by way of any fluke beyond either player's control like, say, the dreaded "voter fatigue." Durant needs only his own resume at this point to justify adding the Maurice Podoloff Trophy to his already extensive collection of individual honors and awards.
Shoot to Score
And what a resume it is. Durant's well on his way to his fourth scoring title in his last five seasons. His current scoring average (31.1 points per game) is a full four points better than that of current runner-up and reigning scoring champ Carmelo Anthony (27.1 points) and nearly five points better than James' (26.3 points).
KD's recently snapped 12-game streak of 30-plus-point performances certainly helped in that regard. Durant averaged an astounding 38 points per game during that span, and just a shade under 36 points per game for the entire month of January. In fact, Durant had only two fewer 30-point games last month (13) than LeBron has had since the season began.
All told, Durant has topped the 30-point plateau on 26 separate occasions in 45 games in 2013-14.
More impressive still is just how efficiently KD has gone about this scoring bonanza of his. So far, he's knocked down a career-high 51.2 percent of his field goals, including 41.7 percent of his threes. Both marks rank among the 25 best in the NBA.
He's also the third-sharpest free-throw shooter around (88.6 percent). A string of makes here and there, and he'll be in line for his second consecutive 50-40-90 shooting season. According to Basketball Reference, Durant would be the third player to ever string together two such seasons. The others? Larry Bird and Steve Nash.
Durant will have every opportunity to get all of his percentages up to snuff. He leads the league with 9.8 free-throw attempts per game, just ahead of the oft-hacked Dwight Howard.
James can't claim to the better free-throw shooter (75.5 percent) or the more prolific one (7.5 free-throw attempts). Nor can he say that he's more accurate from beyond the arc (36.9 percent).
Closing the Gap
What the four-time MVP can boast about, though, is his far superior field-goal percentage. Only three players in the NBA have thus far bettered LeBron's 58 percent success rate, and all three—DeAndre Jordan, Andrew Bogut and Andre Drummond—are centers who spend the vast majority of their time at or near the hoop on the offensive end.
Not that James doesn't operate in that space plenty himself. According to NBA.com, 7.3 of James' 16.6 nightly field-goal attempts have come within the restricted area. Only eight players have taken more such shots, and none has finished them at a rate superior to James' league-best 78.8 percent.
Percentage-wise, Durant isn't all that far off. He's converted 74.2 percent of his 5.1 shots per game in the restricted area—the third-best mark among players who've taken at least five shots a night in that precious piece of real estate.
And one of those two ahead of him (Al Horford) is done for the season with a pectoral injury.
Of course, Durant has done well with the 14.7 shots per game he's taken outside the restricted area. Just check out KD's shot chart; there's enough green there to camouflage Kermit the Frog.
LeBron's isn't too shabby, either, though he clearly isn't the all-court shooting assassin that Durant has become.
What usually sets James apart—not just from Durant, but from all of his "peers" in the Association—is the extent to which he affects any and every facet of the game. In addition to his elite scoring efforts, James also ranks among the top 40 in rebounding (6.8 boards) and checks in 12th in assists (6.4 dimes).
But Durant isn't far off by any means. In fact, KD has piled up more boards (7.6) than has James, to go along with his career-high 5.3 assists. Their raw turnover numbers are nearly identical, though KD is less mistake-prone by percentage (12.4 percent) than is James (14.8).
Shocking as it may seem, the numbers even point to Durant as the superior defender between the two. Durant's accounted for more steals (1.5) and blocks (0.8) than has James (1.4 and 0.3, respectively). The Synergy Sports scouting service has also pegged KD as the better stopper across a surprisingly wide range of measures.
|Kevin Durant vs. LeBron James on Defense|
|Points Per Play||Rank||FG%||3P%||TO%|
It certainly helps KD's case, too, that his Oklahoma City Thunder have been better and more consistent on the defensive end this season than have James' Miami Heat. According to NBA.com, the Heat have slipped to 14th in defensive efficiency, while the Thunder have climbed to third, with only the Indiana Pacers and the Chicago Bulls having allowed fewer points per 100 possessions.
Context Is Key
There's a wealth of other stats that point to not only Durant's superiority to James this season, but also his worthiness for MVP consideration, including all-in-one measures like PER and win shares—most of which favor KD by a country mile.
But the true measure of any MVP isn't just in the individual impress of his production; it also comes from what said production means to his team's well-being.
There's no denying the importance of James' exploits to Miami's success. The Heat are a strong 33-13, good for second in the Eastern Conference, because of his efforts on a nightly basis. Miami's 7-6 record in 13 games without Dwyane Wade (i.e. the team's second-best player) in 2013-14 is a testament to LeBron's ability to hold the fort without his wily wingman.
Even by those standards, Durant takes the cake. OKC was an identical 7-6 through its first 13 games this season without Russell Westbrook, who's been sidelined twice by complications with his surgically repaired knee.
But that was before the Thunder's recent 10-game winning streak, which was snapped in a 15-point loss to the Washington Wizards on Saturday. Now, OKC owns a 17-7 mark in games that its All-Star guard has watched while wearing what, for him, qualify as street clothes.
Keep in mind, too, that the Thunder's exceptional win-loss record—both second star-less and overall (38-11)—has come against much stiffer competition. According to ESPN, OKC has played the sixth-toughest schedule in the NBA to date (.514 opponent winning percentage), while Miami has marched through the third easiest (.479 opponent winning percentage).
That includes the Thunder's recent trip to South Beach, wherein Durant guided his team back from an 18-point first-quarter deficit on the way to an impressive 112-95 flattening of the two-time defending champs in their own building. KD, for his part, contributed 33 points, seven rebounds, five assists and two steals to the effort.
As it happens, both the Heat and the Thunder have seen an uptick in their scoring margins when their No. 1s take the floor without their No. 2s, though OKC's has jumped significantly more under those circumstances (per NBAwowy.com).
|Heat and Thunder Sans Sidekicks|
|Off Efficiency||Def Efficiency||Net Efficiency|
|Heat w/ LBJ, no Wade||115.7||108.9||+6.8|
|Heat w/ LBJ and Wade||111.9||105.6||+6.3|
|Thunder w/ KD, no Westbrook||112.1||100.7||+11.4|
|Thunder w/ KD and Westbrook||109.4||103.8||+5.6|
This isn't to suggest that the Thunder are "better off" without Westbrook, or that the same could be said of the Heat absent Wade. Both teams are at their best when their top players are all fit to perform. Westbrook and Wade, in particular, both bring a dose of athleticism and playmaking ability on offense and defense that make their respective squads that much more dangerous and the jobs of their teammates that much easier to fulfill.
Come playoff time, Durant and James will need their superstar sidekicks more than ever. Wade's been a Finals MVP and was an integral part of each of Miami's last two championship runs. When he's healthy and firing on all cylinders, the Heat are nearly impossible to beat. As for Westbrook, his absence from all but one game of OKC's playoff run last spring practically portended the Thunder's second-round ouster.
Reaping the Benefits
But Durant and James aren't the two front-runners in the MVP race solely because of what they don't have; they're at the head of the pack because of what they do have, or, rather, because of what they've done. Likewise, Durant takes the cake in the MVP debate (for now) not because Westbrook's been out, but because he's performed so well and done so much to propel the Thunder to the top of the Western Conference, with and without his partner in crime.
To be sure, "voter fatigue" among those charged with choosing the NBA's MVP from season to season could further solidify Durant's candidacy ahead of LeBron's. As was the case when Michael Jordan was at the peak of his powers in the 1990s, those who've "tired" of James after handing him the honor four times in the last five years could (and, in some cases, probably will) turn to Durant as a welcome reprieve from business-as-usual, as they did with Charles Barkley in 1992-93 and Karl Malone in 1996-97.
With his resume, though, Durant doesn't need "voter fatigue" to secure his first MVP. What he needs, instead, is to keep doing what he's been doing and avoid whatever physical and mental fatigue he might otherwise fall into after carrying such a hefty load for his club over the last month or so. What he needs is for the Thunder to continue on as the best team in the ultra-competitive West and cement themselves as, perhaps, the cream of the crop in the NBA this season.
If anything, having Westbrook back would make Durant's MVP push that much easier. We've already seen how good KD and the Thunder can be without Russ. How much better might this Durant-centric group become with a franchise cornerstone like Westbrook back in the mix?
We'll all find out soon enough. According to Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, Westbrook could return by Feb. 20. Until then, Kevin Durant will have every opportunity to state his case as basketball's MVP.
And everyone—LeBron James included—will get to watch.
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