Is LeBron James-Kevin Durant MVP Race Unlike Any We've Seen Before?

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Is LeBron James-Kevin Durant MVP Race Unlike Any We've Seen Before?
Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

If you're not enjoying the MVP race between Kevin Durant and LeBron James, I'm sorry.

You're missing out. 

It's not often that the league's two best players engage in a sequence of punches and counterpunches, following up one incredible performance with a heck of a response. ESPN's Marc Stein does a nice job summarizing the flow of the season, and it's hard not to shake your head in wonder when you remember everything that's happened:

This is LeBron making you think he might shoot 60 percent from the floor for an entire season after a near-flawless November ... followed by Durant uncorking an otherworldly stretch of basketball from Christmas Day through Valentine's after Russell Westbrook went down ... followed by LeBron emerging from an All-Star Weekend that oozed with Durant drool by somehow finding another gear to chase down this better-than-ever KD

It's not often something like this comes to pass, but are the occurrences so rare that this is literally the first time we've seen such a race for the NBA's premier individual award? Are Durant and James allowing us to witness something that has never been seen before?

 

Two Classic MVP Cases

Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

What more could anyone possibly want from these two players? 

Sure, LeBron could average a triple-double while joining the 50/40/90 club. Maybe Durant needs to drop 40 points per game without seeing his efficiency decline even a single notch. But neither of those hopes and dreams are realistic. 

While remaining grounded in what players are actually capable of doing, it's tough to expect anything more than what these superstars are doing on a nightly basis. 

MVP candidacies normally rely on a few key characteristics—statistical domination, team success and narrative. 

The first criterion is pretty obvious for both players. 

Durant is scoring 31.7 points per game and doing so with nearly unsurpassed efficiency. In fact, I recently compared him to the other great scorers in modern NBA history, concluding that his combination of volume and knack for finding the bottom of the net put him in uncharted waters.

And he's been so much more than a scorer. 

Not only is the Durantula passing the ball effectively and rebounding well, but he's locking down on defense like never before. On the spectrum that stretches from scorer to all-around player, the OKC forward is now firmly on the latter side. 

So too is LeBron, who just continues putting up ridiculous numbers. 

He's not going to score as effectively as Durant every night—61-point outbursts notwithstanding—but he dominates in every facet of the game. I don't want to waste your time rehashing LeBron's stats because they're so pervasive in sports media, to the point that even fans living under multiple rocks are aware of how impressive he's been. 

Now, how about team success? 

With the Thunder sitting pretty at No. 1 in the ridiculously tough Western Conference standings and the Heat trailing the Indiana Pacers by only a pair of contests, it's quite clear that both of these stars' teams are right near the top of the NBA totem pole. 

They aren't flukes either. 

OKC is one of two teams in the Association to rank in the top seven for both offensive and defensive rating, and Miami boasts the league's best point-producing bunch. They've both gone on lengthy stretches of undefeated basketball, they've both toppled other giants and they've both demonstrated their elite upside on multiple occasions. 

Finally, we have the narratives, which can often sway a vote in one direction even at the expense of the other two categories. 

Durant's story has gained more national attention, simply because it was one moment rather than a chronic ailment that knocked Russell Westbrook out of the lineup. After the point guard left the lineup, the Durantula exploded in the scoring column, somehow getting more efficient while taking over more offensive responsibility. 

On top of that, Durant is the guy trying to ascend from No. 2 to No. 1, just as he's been trying to do over the last few seasons. 

Layne Murdoch Jr./Getty Images

The narrative isn't so readily apparent for LeBron, but he's likewise done a fantastic job leading his team while his premier sidekick (Dwyane Wade) has needed to rest his knees. This doesn't often get mentioned, but Wade has played in only 11 more games than Westbrook this season. 

Additionally, LeBron is trying to hold onto his crown. He's been the best player in the world for a while now, and this is the first time he's truly needed to elevate his performance in order to maintain supremacy as an individual. 

"Just so we’re clear about what kind of run he’s on right now, LeBron has scored 187 points on 68 percent shooting from the floor over his last five games," writes NBA.com's Sekou Smith. "The last time someone did that in the NBA was when Michael Jordan did it November of 1988."

So far, he's done exactly that—maintain individual supremacy. Most years, that's enough to earn another MVP.

Not this one.  

Most seasons, either of these candidacies would be enough for the player in question to be the overwhelming MVP favorite. But not this year, as there are two resumes with nearly equal merit. 

It only adds to the mystique of this year's race that there is no clear-cut winner. Hell, there shouldn't even be a definitive favorite at this stage of the season. Stein could barely contain his excitement when writing about the race, and it was for that very reason: 

With 43 days to go in the NBA’s regular season -- and thus 44 days until ballots are due -- this MVP race you can legitimately describe as both exquisite and excruciating is only getting tighter. 

It’s agonizingly seesaw and deliciously ideal all at once. 

It’s the consensus top two players in the game, LeBron James and Kevin Durant, punching in with the season’s top two individual performances and trading uppercuts in the center of the ring. 

How can you not get excited?

This is basketball at its finest, as the league's two best players are the unquestioned top dogs in the MVP race. And they're motivating each other night in and night out, which only leads to more exemplary performances. 

 

Unparalleled Combination of Efficiency

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

There have been seasons in which there were two legitimate MVP cases by premier players. That actually tends to happen quite a bit, even if none of them are filled with the same nuances as any other year.

Just think back to the 1990s, when Magic Johnson and Charles Barkley went head to head in 1990, Karl Malone upset Michael Jordan in 1997 and Chuck beat out a group of deserving candidates in 1993. Or how about well back in NBA history, when Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain both made solid cases each and every season?

From that standpoint, this isn't unique. But what makes it special is the ridiculous levels of efficiency reached by both Durant and LeBron.

First, let's turn to player efficiency rating.

The two men in question are the only two with PERs above 30—30.6 for Durant and 30.2 for James. Kevin Love is third in the category, and he's all the way back at 28.2.

Let's dive even deeper, though, this time bringing history into the equation. Throughout the annals of the NBA, only 19 seasons have been recorded in which a player qualified for the scoring title while posting a PER on the right side of 30, according to Basketball-Reference.  

Only twice have two players done so in the same season: 

  • Dwyane Wade (30.4) and LeBron James (31.7) in 2008-09
  • Kevin Durant (30.6) and LeBron James (30.2) in 2013-14

That's it. 

However, the Heat were only barely over .500 when Wade was the lone member of the Big Three calling South Beach home, and that was a death knell for his MVP candidacy. He finished third in the voting, and LeBron was the winner in an absolute landslide. 

Victor Baldizon/Getty Images

Let's use true shooting percentage as well, since it's the ultimate box-score metric used to measure shooting efficiency. How many times have two players in the same season averaged at least 25 points per game with a true shooting percentage of 63 percent or higher?

This season, Kyle Korver is the only other player above that latter mark, but it's not like the Atlanta Hawks sniper is even remotely close to the other criterion. 

First of all, there have only been 14 seasons ever recorded that meet both criteria, and only seven players have managed to join the club—Durant, James, Adrian Dantley, Charles Barkley, Amar'e Stoudemire, Kevin McHale and Chris Mullin

This is the third time there's been a pair during the same season: 

  • Charles Barkley and Chris Mullin in 1989-90
  • LeBron James and Kevin Durant in 2012-13
  • LeBron James and Kevin Durant in 2013-14

LeBron ran away with the MVP vote last season, earning all but one of the first-place votes (thanks a lot, Carmelo Anthony). Back in 1990, The Round Mound of Rebound was rewarded for his efforts with the most first-place votes, but he still trailed Magic Johnson in the final standings. Mullin was nowhere close.

Brian Drake/Getty Images

Now, let's go ahead with one last analytic measurement. 

As you might expect, LeBron and Durant are the top two players in win shares per 48 minutes, beating out Love and CP3 by a narrow margin. Has there ever been another season in which the two leading MVP candidates both topped 0.28?

Twenty-eight entries litter this club, which includes obscure older players like Al Cervi and Larry Foust. Just as was the case with each of the two other advanced stats, only a few years have produced multiple qualifiers: 

  • David Robinson and Michael Jordan in 1995-96
  • Chris Paul and LeBron James in 2008-09
  • Chris Paul, LeBron James and Kevin Durant in 2012-13
  • LeBron James and Kevin Durant in 2013-14

We've already established that the 2013 MVP race wasn't particularly close, but what about the other two? 

CP3 finished a distant fifth in 2009, and the 1996 race was pretty much a landslide as well. Robinson did finish second to MJ, but Jordan earned all but four of the first-place votes. On top of that, Penny Hardaway, Hakeem Olajuwon and Karl Malone were the players stealing the leading spot on the ballot, not The Admiral. 

This battle might not be completely devoid of comparisons, though, even if the search came up empty in each of the three aforementioned categories. 

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

"While LeBron James and Kevin Durant are engaged in an epic MVP race," writes B/R's Kelly Scaletta, "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."

"Similar" is fine, and it's a valid comparison for the most part. 

However, there's one major problem—Chuck and Jordan weren't head and shoulders above everyone else in the league. Karl Malone and Hakeem Olajuwon were right there with them, actually beating Barkley in PER and total win shares. 

Have we ever seen an MVP race quite like this one?

Submit Vote vote to see results

In fact, Hakeem actually earned more votes than Jordan, and Patrick Ewing factored heavily into the process as well. 

I have to admit, when I was first asked the question of whether this MVP race was unique, I wasn't at all hesitant to say that it wasn't. Surely there was some other time in history where there was a clash between two players who were head and shoulders ahead of the rest of the league and both fulfilled all parts of an MVP resume. 

Turns out, it's awfully hard to find another example. 

 

Note: All voting data and statistics, unless otherwise indicated, come from Basketball-Reference.com.

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