Kevin Durant has taken an insurmountable lead in the MVP race, even in a league where LeBron James is still very alive and well. It's not that James' play has dropped off. It's not that the Heat are anything less that dominant.
It's just that Durant has finally proven all he needs to prove. He's no longer a "top-two or top-three" player. He's the best—by a relative long shot.
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
The latest reminder came Friday night when he tied Michael Jordan's streak with 40 games scoring at least 25 points:
Kevin Durant hits a 3 to tie Michael Jordan's record with 40 straight games with 25+ points! pic.twitter.com/3KaQ832Bcb— Bleacher Report NBA (@BR_NBA) April 5, 2014
It came in a losing effort—one of the few such efforts for the Thunder this season. But it was nevertheless a testament to Durant's sustained greatness, the extent to which he puts OKC on his back night after night. The extent to which he's become a dominant scorer.
Lost in the shuffle is the fact that he's doing everything else pretty successfully, too. KD has become a versatile, well-rounded talent with worlds of skill—the equivalent of a "five-tool player" in baseball.
Less impartial fans will still insist this is a two- or three-man race. They'll say that no one defends like LeBron. They'll say Blake Griffin is playing on another level. Some might even contend that James Harden deserves a look.
A few months ago, it might have been worth listening to those arguments. That time has come and gone.
Durant is a scoring savant with the tools to remain the best in the business for another decade. His efficiency and versatility from around the floor are unmatched.
For you visual learners, study up.
That's what dominance looks like.
There's a reason he's well on his way to his fourth straight scoring title. His length gives him the ability to shoot over anyone. His first step affords him the liberty to get past all but the quickest defenders. His ability to create space makes it nearly impossible to stop his oh-so-pure jumper. Quite simply, Kevin Durant is a picture of offensive perfection.
Teams are left with little recourse when attempting to guard him. Their first option is to try and deny him the basketball, face guarding him and playing passing lanes. Their second option is to push him out to the perimeter so that he gets his touches outside of his comfort zone. When all else fails, defenders play him as closely as possible, often risking fouls in the process.
There are no easy answers to Durant's scoring ability. He's doing things we haven't seen since Jordan, and he's still just 25-years-old. Most impressively, he just keeps getting better.
Durant's averaging career highs in points and assists alike, making the most of Russell Westbrook's extended absence by proving he can put a contender on his back and keep it in the hunt. That's the definition of most valuable play.
The passing has been especially key. Teammate Caron Butler, who's been around the league, intimated as much, per the Associated Press' Cliff Brunt. "Probably one of the most unselfish superstars I've ever seen play the game. I haven't seen a guy like him who can score pretty much at will, but is such a willing passer and facilitator. That's the growth of his game."
It's hard to believe there are enough possessions in a game for Durant to do the damage he does as a scorer and passer alike. The Thunder's tempo helps, but more central consideration is Durant's much-improved decision-making. He isn't forcing anything, letting the game come to him.
It always seems to do just that.
Durant wasn't much of a two-way player in his early years. That's changed.
He can guard virtually any position, finally adding court-awareness and activity to a long body that was built to frustrate opposing scorers. On the statistical front, Durant is averaging 1.3 steals and 0.8 blocks per game, demonstrating a keen awareness of timing. The physical tools were always there, but the game IQ that puts those tools to use is emerging in full force.
Beyond understanding the game, defense is also a matter of sheer effort. When Durant was establishing himself as the league's best scorer, that effort wasn't always there. Old news according to Daily Thunder's Royce Young:
Now? Durant’s a good defender, maybe even secretly a great one. A lot of people either are choosing to ignore that fact, or are still living off past reputation. The numbers everywhere say it. And if you watch KD play, you can see his energy, effort and focus on that end are at an incredibly high level.
Indeed, at an MVP level.
Defense is one of those things that's hard to credibly measure in numbers. Our best insights into Durant's improvement come from those who've watched him most.
According to Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra, Durant has arrived "He's a multipositional defender now, impacting the game on both sides of the court," per USA Today's Sam Amick. "Somebody of his length and knowledge and experience, it was a matter of time."
Thunder head coach Scott Brooks attributes the growth to improved toughness, again, from Amick:
I don't think he gets enough credit for how tough he is. With his body type early on, you would've thought he would've been on the bench more often, or on the floor more often, but I think his toughness has allowed him to improve during those parts of his game when he wasn't physically strong enough to battle and compete and to lock up defensively.
But I think he's there now. He has really done a great job with our staff of developing, of working on his body...I think his defense is really good. He doesn't get enough credit because he's such a great offensive player, but we don't have success if he's not defending.
Few have watched more tape of Durant than Brooks and Spoelstra. It's Brooks' job to make him better and Spoelstra's job to make him lose. Who better to vouch for Durant's overshadowed defense?
Durant doesn't take nights off. The Thunder's impressive record should make that readily apparent. No one can accuse him of taking anything for granted, per Daily Thunder's Royce Young:
The often used excuse for LeBron and the Heat are that they’re coasting. I don’t think LeBron is, but if so, shouldn’t that just be more MVP points for KD? How could we award the league’s most prestigious award to a guy that isn’t bringing it every night, compared to a guy that is consistently putting up absurd numbers every game he plays?
But we've also noticed a more MVP demeanor from Durant over the last couple of seasons. For a guy who came into the league doing his best Tim Duncan impersonation, Durant has been different lately—more passionate, more vocal, more...pissed off.
Durant has proven he can keep up with the ever-demonstrative Russell Westbrook, lest there be any confusion about whose team this really is. That confusion doesn't exist, and Durant's newfound expressiveness has a lot to do with it.
KD picked up his 15th technical foul in March, bringing him within one more of receiving a one-game suspension. That would have been unthinkable during his first couple of years in the league. The new Durant lets his mind be known. He's no longer the shy guy.
That might sound inconsequential enough, but it's not—not on this team. The Thunder desperately need leadership, and they don't have many veterans around to provide it. Sure, Derek Fisher and Caron Butler can play the role on the margins, but Durant has the pedigree needed for others to listen.
Nick Collison has witnessed Durant's transformation firsthand, per Brunt:
I think we're seeing a natural progression with him. He's more mature. He's more comfortable with himself and has a better understanding of the game. And now, he's not just thinking about how he's playing, he's thinking about how the team's playing: What can he do to help other guys?
That selflessness has clearly translated into concrete dividends on the floor, but it's also setting an important tone. Setting tones is what MVPs do.
And Durant is setting one for the ages.