While LeBron James and Kevin Durant are engaged in an epic MVP race, it’s worth mentioning that there is a historic double to it: Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley vied against one another in a similar battle during the 1992-93 season.
The similarities, while not perfect, are striking. In terms of their individual play, team accomplishments and even their Olympic history, the two rivalries have much in common.
The Best Player vs. the Best Season
First, the two situations are similar in the sense that they have a common paradox: In both cases there is one player who is widely regarded as the best player in the world, and another who is widely regarded as having the best season.
In the case with Jordan and Barkley, if you look at the advanced stats it’s hard to justify that Barkley was having a better year, but bear in mind that at the time advanced stats didn't exist. Regular box scores were the measure, and Barkley’s numbers stood up very well against Jordan’s.
Jordan chalked up 32.6 points, 5.5 assists and 6.3 rebounds per game. Barkley averaged 25.6 points, 12.2 rebounds and 5.1 assists. So, total stats were fairly even. Barkley was also shooting better, though, with a field-goal percentage of .520 to Jordan’s .495. Ergo, people generally considered that Barkley was having the better year, even if Jordan was the better player.
Similarly, while James is still generally regarded as the best player in the world, Durant is recognized as having the best season.
Dave D'Alessandro of the Star-Ledger, in his column titled "Kevin Durant Is an MVP Frontrunner in LeBron James' League," puts the race this way.
Now it’s Nos. 1 and 1-A. That itself is a mouthful: Part of James’ dominion is the distance between him and the rest of his kingdom. The mere fact that there is a "1-A" never really seemed plausible before in the Age of LeBron.
Yet by any most analytic evaluation, Durant has actually moved past James this season. The geeks who crunch the numbers will tell you, in fact, that this is the second-greatest month a player has had since they began using certain metrics in 1997. The best belonged to LeBron, last March.
It’s an interesting phraseology, it’s still James' domain, even though Durant is actually playing better. It should remain so until if, and when, Durant takes the championship from James.
With Durant, the advanced stats, which do exist now, are on his side. Durant is leading the NBA in win shares, with 12.9 to James’ 9.8, and has a player efficiency rating of 31.0 compared to James’ 29.1.
In both timeframes, the best player in the world and the player playing the best in the world have two different answers.
The Championship Team vs. the Best Team
The next similarity is that the two scenarios have a comparable level of team-oriented success.
In both cases, the player who was perceived as better was on a team chasing a three-peat. Additionally, the player in question had not only won the MVP the previous two seasons, but also the Finals MVP. That meant a level of personal and team fatigue was setting in.
Jordan’s '93 Bulls won just 57 games, a full 10-game drop from the previous season. The current version of the Heat is on pace to win 60 games, a six-game drop from last year. That means that both the players and the teams share a common mentality of "coasting." That's not a bad thing. In fact it's wise.
On the other end, Barkley, fresh off a trade to the Suns, led his new team to the best record in the NBA in '93. Likewise, the Oklahoma City Thunder, under the wing of Durant, became the first team in the NBA to reach the 40-win mark on February 5.
As tracked by Neil Pane of Basketball-Reference, in the history of the NBA, there have been 57 MVP awards. (I added in the additional awards since Pane’s blog entry.) Of those, 35 times the award went to a player on the team with the best record. Another 11 times it went to a player on the second-best team. Five times, it’s gone to a player who was on the team finishing third. Only six times has it gone to a player not on a top-three team in the league.
Like it or lump it, with the voters, the MVP has always been as much about winning as it has been about being the best player in the league. That’s part of the reason that Barkley won in '93 and it’s a part of the reason that Durant is starting to run away with it now.
In both situations the “underdog” in question was/is leading the quantifiably better team, and because of that, hardware is the reward. In Barkley’s case he broke Jordan’s string of MVPs at two, and in Durant’s case, he’s the favorite to do the same.
Yet, there was a lingering doubt in 1993, just as there is now. With both Durant and Barkley, we were/are seeing them play at a higher level than ever, and had/have doubts as to whether there's another gear in them.
With both Jordan and James, we'd seen them play at an even higher level. Ultimately, Jordan did win his third-straight Finals MVP. When the postseason comes, will Durant have another gear if he needs it? We know that James will because we've seen it before.
The Emergent Olympian vs. the Most Dominant Olympian
As an intriguing footnote, in both cases the two pairs were also teammates on what are generally regarded as the two greatest basketball teams ever assembled. Barkley and Jordan were on the original, “Dream Team” in 1992; James and Durant headlined the 2012 team.
There are two interesting dynamics to that coincidence. First, in both cases there was a kind of semi-official handing of the baton from a Los Angeles Lakers guard: from Magic Johnson to Jordan in '92, and from Kobe Bryant to James in ’12.
First, this happened in 1992.
Then, in 2012, per Bleacher Report’s Benjamin Klein, Bryant declared that he wouldn't be back for the 2016 Olympics (no video link available), declaring,
This is it for me. Four years is a long time. These young guys will probably give it a go in Rio and I might be there to support them.
The “young guys” he was referencing were James and Durant.
The other similarity is that Barkley actually had a better Olympics than Jordan, and Durant outplayed James in 2012. So there was a kind of microcosm of the larger argument within the Olympics. The player that had the best performance didn't emerge with the reputation of being the better player.
As a footnote to the footnote, in 2012 James was just the second player in history to become MVP, Finals MVP and an Olympic gold medalist all in the same summer. The first? Michael Jordan.
I'm just speculating here, but the basketball fan in me would love to see the rematch of James and Durant in the NBA Finals. If that’s the case, hopefully history can repeat itself again. In Game 2, the Barkley vs. Jordan matchup offered one of the greatest head-to-head superstar square-offs ever.
Barkley told the story to Bill Simmons on his podcast. Unfortunately the link is broken, but the good news is that Andrew Sharp of SB Nation transcribed the anecdote.
You know, I’d always thought that I was the best player, to be honest with you. I always thought, Michael Jordan when he started winning, he just had more help than me. So, when I finally came to Phoenix, I had told the late, great Cotton Fitzsimmons, ‘Hey dude, I’m the best basketball player in the world. We’re going to the Finals.’ And he said, ‘That’s why I traded for you.’
I actually thought I was the best. I thought Bird and Magic just had better players. So, I said, ‘Listen dude, I’m going to the Finals this year. Dan Majerlie, Kevin Johnson… That’s what I need. We’re going to the Finals.’ He says, ‘Well Michael’s gonna be there.’ I said, ‘Cotton, I think I’m better than Michael Jordan.’ He says, ‘We will see when you get there.’
So, we actually got nervous before Game 1. We struggled. The pressure got to the guys on the team. I played decent, but then I think the other guys were nervous. So Game 2, I’m talking to my daughter.
She said, ‘Dad? Are y’all gonna win tonight?’
I said, ‘Baby, your dad is the best basketball player in the world. I’m going to dominate the game tonight.’ And I remember… I think I had like 46, 47 (actually it was 42, but we'll cut him some slack). I played great. And Michael had 52 (also 42, but Jordan nearly had a triple-double).
And I got home that night, and my daughter was crying, and she said, ‘Dad, y’all lost again.’
I said, ‘Baby, I think Michael Jordan’s better than me.’
She said, ‘Dad, you've never said that before.’
I said, ‘Baby, I've never felt like that before.’
Of course, no analogy is perfect, Durant doesn't have a daughter. (Although if you want your true Illuminati moment, Scott Brooks, the Thunder’s head coach, was teammates with Barkley his rookie year.)
In some ways, though, this could be better than perfect.
Barkley and Jordan played different positions, so they weren't specifically guarding one another. In the current scenario, James and Durant would be. Two years ago when they met, Durant was still maturing, but this year he’s grown up, carrying the Thunder in the absence of superstar point guard Russell Westbrook.
The last similarity could very well be another epic showdown. One can hope.