One of the best barometers of an NBA narrative is the vaunted bar test.
Walk into a crowded sports bar, ask a question and then see the levels of passion you get from those who are responding to the prompt. A few years ago, the LeBron James vs. Kobe Bryant argument would nearly cause a brawl. Earlier this season, people would almost throw drinks at each other if you wondered whether or not Blake Griffin was overrated.
But neither of those debates stirs up quite as much passion anymore, as the answers (LeBron and no, respectively) have become blindingly obvious.
Fortunately, the 2013-14 season has given bars a new reason to get worked up over LeBron. Just go in and ask who should be MVP—James or Kevin Durant.
Even during a season filled with twists, turns, injuries and plenty of player development, the two best players in the world have been trading punches and counterpunches while at the forefront of the national attention.
LeBron started the season off in strong fashion, lending credibility to the notion that he might actually shoot 60 percent from the field. Then Durant lost Russell Westbrook to arthroscopic surgery and just exploded as a scorer. He cooled down and LeBron heated up, making it a two-horse race once more. And now, it feels like it's Durant's turn to get going once again.
As Sports Illustrated's Rob Mahoney makes clear, you might need to get out your cameras for the photo finish:
Every passing week seems to bring new heat to the MVP race, which is shaping up to be a too-close-to-call verdict between LeBron James and Kevin Durant. The two are spiraling around and toward one another in a riveting display of one-upmanship, with a great performance from one motivating the other to similar heights.
As a result, the balance of the award seems to shift on a weekly basis. If that waffling persists, James and Durant could be closing in on one of the tightest MVP races in recent memory, if not in NBA history.
How can the NBA not love that?
This is what it's all about for commissioner Adam Silver, as a tight MVP race between the two best—and most popular—active and healthy players makes for loads of entertainment. It involves casual fans who might not spend enough time watching Joakim Noah and Goran Dragic, but it also involves the hardcore supporters who just like good basketball.
Thing is, it would be even better for the Association if LeBron came out on top.
History is Made
"I'm going to be one of the top four who's ever played this game. For sure."
If LeBron wants to make that quote look prophetic instead of hubristic, winning yet another MVP would certainly help his case. After all, the 2014 trophy would be the fifth MVP of his career (all in the last six years) and give him the coveted award three-peat.
First of all, there's only a select few players who have earned at least five of the Association's premier individual award:
- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (six)
- Michael Jordan (five)
- Bill Russell (five)
Larry Bird and Magic Johnson never did it. Oscar Robertson never did it. Wilt Chamberlain never did it.
Of the thousands of players in NBA history, only a trio of legends was able to fill up an entire hand when counting the number of MVPs they won throughout their career. And LeBron would make it four.
But let's take things one step further. How many players have ever won three in a row?
- Larry Bird (1984-86)
- Wilt Chamberlain (1966-68)
- Bill Russell (1961-63)
Again, that's it.
It's not easy to win three MVPs—something only nine players have ever done—much less to win them in successive fashion.
History is important, and the appeal of LeBron winning a third trophy trumps Durant finally feeling as though he doesn't finish second in every competition he enters. It invites historical debates aplenty, and the Jordan-LeBron comparisons that the media thrives off would be omnipresent once more.
Durant winning certainly holds value to the NBA, but that can wait.
Repeat Next Year
What's actually going to change in 2014-15?
Durant will still be playing at a ridiculously high level for the Oklahoma City Thunder, racking up wins alongside Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka. LeBron will likewise be at a high level, but his location is uncertain. Maybe he'll stay with the Heat; maybe he'll go elsewhere.
But does it really matter?
If LeBron can win MVP while playing alongside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, I'm fairly certain he can do exactly that with any group of teammates. His game has reached that kind of level, and he's at his best when he's making those around him look good.
Nothing will change in the sense that these will be the two best players in the world, and therefore the most likely candidates in the future MVP race. Players like Blake Griffin, Derrick Rose, Stephen Curry and Anthony Davis could certainly challenge them for that title, but that would only make the race more intriguing.
If you're trying to brainstorm a scenario—other than injury—in which Durant and LeBron aren't at the heart of the discussion, stock up on food and water. You'll be there a while.
Should LeBron go on to win this 2014 race, the exact same narrative will emerge once more—can Durant dethrone the King and put an end to his reign atop the NBA?
Essentially, the league gets to recycle the same storyline, one that it's 100 percent certain will prove to be appealing to both hardcore and casual fans. It doesn't risk the uncertainty of Durant creating a back-to-back scenario and LeBron falling out of true contention, simply because his name will inherently be tied to the proceedings as the three-time reigning award-holder.
It's basically the dream scenario for Silver's first full season in charge of the NBA.