The 2013-14 NBA MVP debate has turned into a heavyweight fight, and the challenger is showing no signs of backing down from the champ.
One night after two-time defending MVP LeBron James scored a career-high 61 points in a win over the Charlotte Bobcats, No. 1 contender Kevin Durant reminded the basketball world that he too can put up sterling numbers.
The Oklahoma City Thunder forward scored 42 points in a 125-92 win over the Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday night. Per ESPN Stats & Info, it was his 10th 40-point game of the season, which is twice as many as the next closest player, Carmelo Anthony.
Of course, neither of these two basketball titans is going on the record as saying the MVP race is at the forefront of either's focus. James has already said exactly that, per B/R's Ethan J. Skolnick:
You can expect to hear many more cliched nods to team performance, like those uttered by Thunder coach Scott Brooks following Tuesday's victory, per DailyThunder.com's Royce Young:
And they're being honest, to a certain extent; both Durant and James are primarily focused on winning the championship. But that MVP award would be a pretty sweet bonus.
Make no mistake, the "James vs. Durant" MVP debate is raging at this very moment, in sports bars and comments sections. Everybody has an opinion, it seems. And this particular season might be the most hotly-contested race since the Bird/Magic era.
The Sad Reality of the MVP Race
Like Bird and Magic did during the '80s, LeBron James and Kevin Durant tower above every other player in the league at the moment. If you are arguing for a 2013-14 MVP, you are either pro-LeBron or pro-Durant (or one of those Kobe Bryant fans who likes to interject completely irrelevant facts about what their guy did eight years ago).
Unfortunately, this MVP race is also burdened by the fact that both stars ply their respective trades in different conferences, meaning they only get to face each other twice a season.
This battle will not be decided by a regular-season duel. The Heat and Thunder have already played out their season series, and the result was a split-decision. Durant took one in LeBron's house on Jan. 29, and LeBron responded with a win in Oklahoma City on Feb. 20.
So now all we have left to judge is each player's dominance over the rest of the league. Though Durant did not match James' 61 points, his 42 came in just 33 minutes, by far the fewest minutes of any of his 40-point games this season.
But what of the opponents? James' 61 points came against a playoff team in the Charlotte Bobcats, who have the league's sixth most efficient defense, while Durant got his numbers against a Sixers team in the midst of a 15-game losing streak. James needed only 33 shots to get his points, a feat Skolnick described as "one of the most remarkable basketball performances of this century, as well as the prior one."
Then again, these were the same Charlotte Bobcats who allowed 62 points to Carmelo Anthony earlier in the season. As awe-inspiring as James' performance was, it wasn't even the highest total given up by these Bobcats since New Year's.
And so the debate rages on.
A Weight Off His Back
Durant wasn't the only Thunder player to have a superb night against the Sixers. Point guard Russell Westbrook notched the second-fastest triple-double in NBA history, with 13 points, 10 rebounds and 14 assists.
Westbrook missed nearly two months of the season between Dec. 25 and Feb. 20 with a knee injury. It was during that time that Durant truly broke out as a serious threat to end James' MVP reign. With his copilot on the shelf, Durant took total control of the Thunder, posting a ridiculous average of 35.0 points, 6.7 rebounds and 7.5 assists per game.
Now that Westbrook has returned, it logically follows that he will eat into Durant's nightly totals, particularly in points and assists. But another injury to a Thunder starter might allow Durant to play even more efficiently than ever.
Starting center Kendrick Perkins is out four to six weeks with a groin injury. While coaches and broadcasters might laud the big man for his veteran presence and toughness, he has been an absolute black hole on offense.
Players like Shane Battier and Mario Chalmers may not be stars, but they do not drag down the Miami starting lineup the way Perkins does with Oklahoma City. Check out the difference in offensive win shares (OWS) between each team's best and worst starter:
- Miami: LeBron James (9.6 OWS), Shane Battier (1.3 OWS)
- Oklahoma City: Kevin Durant (11.0 OWS), Kendrick Perkins (-1.0 OWS)
If anything, these numbers demonstrate just how incredible Durant has been this season. He is putting up league-best offensive numbers with a 280-pound weight on his back.
With Perkins out, Durant will play more minutes with Steven Adams and Nick Collison in the frontcourt. This is better not only for the team collectively, but for Durant individually:
|Thunder Frontcourt Pairs, per 100 Possessions|
Perkins won't take away any points from Durant, but his absence allows the silky-smooth forward to slash to the rim without the plodding big man drawing defenders toward the middle.
Despite what happened Monday in Miami, Kevin Durant is still the highest-scoring scoring player in the league, not to mention the unquestioned leader of the best team in the best conference in the NBA. LeBron may have four MVPs in his trophy case, but there's no reason to believe Durant is going to fall away in this season's race anytime soon.
*All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference, updated as of Tuesday afternoon.