Kevin Durant has a lot of work left in the quest for his first MVP award, but he might have already done enough to merit consideration for a different honor. Thanks to a ridiculous scoring binge and some unlikely team success, the Oklahoma City Thunder star is building a case as the NBA's new alpha dog.
For now, Durant doesn't sound interested in accolades of any kind, official or otherwise. Per The Associated Press (via The Washington Times), he said of the MVP chants that rained down on him in his 54-point explosion against the Golden State Warriors:
"It's premature. It’s way too early in the season. I try not to think about that type of stuff. Of course, as a player, you’d love to win an MVP award, but I can’t take my focus off the team.”
KD's right to skirt talk of full-season honors. He's got a long way to go before collecting any hardware. In the meantime, we can address the more immediate issue of whether Durant has taken over leadership of the NBA pack from LeBron James.
Being named the "alpha dog" has many of the same prerequisites as the MVP award. But it's obviously not an official honor and isn't necessarily rooted in numbers or team success. In many ways, though, it's just as important as the MVP.
We'll start with the numbers, if only because they help contextualize the remarkable things Durant has done lately.
We all know he leads the league in scoring. And unless you've been hiding out in a cave somewhere, you're also aware of Durant's streak of a dozen straight games with at least 30 points. That run is over now, but KD is still on course to put together one of the greatest high-volume, high-efficiency seasons in the modern era.
The list of players who have finished a year averaging at least 30 points per game while hitting 50 percent of their shots from the field and 40 percent from long distance doesn't even exist. That's because nobody has ever done it, per Basketball-Reference.com.
Durant is on pace to be the first.
Of course, it doesn't do any good to talk about KD's numbers in isolation. Becoming an alpha dog isn't about putting up historical statistics; it's about facing down the league's current alpha dog and not blinking.
As you can see, Durant's production this year exceeds James' in many key areas.
Unleashing the Beast
The criteria for being an alpha dog goes way beyond statistical measures, though. The numbers are informative, but an alpha dog does more than make marks on a stat sheet.
He must be a constant threat to take the game over on his own. He's a lone wolf, if you'll excuse the intragenus metaphor mixing.
Russell Westbrook's absence has been integral to Durant's transformation this season. Throughout the years the Thunder's two stars have been paired together, there's been a prevailing belief that Durant's demeanor wasn't suited to leadership.
Westbrook's sneering, outwardly hostile bearing on the court earned him praise from many observers as OKC's real leader.
There's no doubt that Westbrook profiles as a conventional alpha dog. He's aggressive, attacks at the slightest provocation and sometimes does so at the expense of his teammates. Though it's now widely accepted that Oklahoma City is best with both of its stars on the floor together, it's still hard to get past the way Westbrook's style so frequently pushes Durant into a secondary role.
And we all know how Durant feels about being second:
Remember this Kevin Durant Sports Illustrated cover? He really seems done with being second. Looks like MVP leader. pic.twitter.com/KczNCOJ8ef— Mark Kim (@The_Mark_Kim) January 30, 2014
Any doubts about Durant's ability to lead on his own are gone now. He's been a ruthless scoring machine since Westbrook went down. On the year, he's averaging 35.3 points, 7.1 rebounds and 5.9 assists on 53.7 percent shooting since Westbrook hit the sidelines on Dec. 27, per NBA.com.
It now seems as though Durant was actually letting Westbrook occupy the alpha dog spot by choice. That's a smart move, as the point guard's volatile, defiant nature probably wouldn't have allowed him to accept anything other than a primary role. In that sense, Durant might embody a very rare alpha-dog trait: The ability to take control and cede it as necessary.
Finally, an alpha dog has to be a prolific scorer. That's a simple requirement, and one that Durant clearly fulfills. More than that, though, it matters how the alpha dog scores. Spectacular "how'd he do that?" shots are a must.
And it helps if a few of them are legitimate daggers.
No problem there.
The Competition's Case
James is still a dangerous player. He remains the most complete athlete in the league, and even as Durant has gone crazy over the past month, LBJ is only marginally behind him from a statistical perspective.
Plus, LeBron has four MVP awards and a pair of championship rings. To many, Durant won't warrant serious consideration as an alpha dog until he starts piling up hardware.
Up until a couple of months ago, there wasn't any questioning James' primacy in the NBA. So it would probably be sensible to avoid overreacting to Durant's recent dominance. After all, if James tosses up a repeat performance of what he did last February, the narrative will shift instantly, restoring the status quo.
The Secret Ingredient
We've omitted one vital element to this point, and it's probably the most important of all: fear.
A true alpha dog is one who inspires the most fear in his opponent. Michael Jordan was once that player, as was Kobe Bryant. James has held that distinction for a handful of seasons, too.
But right now, at this moment, Durant is the most terrifying force in the league.
Players and coaches at the NBA level aren't accustomed to putting forth their best efforts, only to see them torn to shreds by a force they can't control. That's a scary thing to face.
Nobody has stopped Durant lately, despite the deployment of some truly desperate tactics. The Atlanta Hawks sent three defenders at KD in the game-winning shot above, for crying out loud. That wasn't enough to get the job done—not even when everyone on the planet knew Durant was going to get the ball.
This is the best argument for Durant's status as the new NBA alpha dog. He's as frightening as it gets right now, and he's instilling fear by both his actions and his expressions.
A Long Way to Go
We're a little more than halfway into the 2013-14 season, which means plenty can change between now and the end of the year.
Maybe Durant will remain clinically unconscious for the rest of the campaign, setting records and solidifying his place as the unquestioned alpha dog. But maybe James will reassert his dominance in the coming months.
Based on what we've seen from both players, either scenario seems plausible.
Plus, Westbrook's return is going to force a few changes. We might see Durant bare his fangs a bit less when his running mate makes it back onto the floor. Even if KD retains his efficiency, he likely won't get to operate as a singular, destructive force with Westbrook using up possessions and shots.
For now, at least, Durant's bark and bite are louder and deadlier than anyone else's.
Sounds like an alpha dog to me.