By Michael Pina
On Jan. 16, the Oklahoma City Thunder squared off against a healthy, vengeful Houston Rockets.
About two weeks earlier, Houston was seared by 31 points in a fast-break-a-thon put on by Durant -- 33 points -- and his Russell Westbrook-less supporting cast.
In the mid-January rematch, Durant dropped a cool 36, and Oklahoma City won, again, by double digits.
This wasn't the beginning of Durant's NBA 2K14 cheat code dominant 12-game, 30-point streak, (that started January 4 -- less than 100 days after his 25th birthday -- when Durant missed 10 three-pointers and still scored 48 points in a loss to the Utah Jazz) but that second game in Houston had a matter-of-fact vibe.
The Rockets are a very good team, but victory felt light years away whenever Durant had the ball. That performance also may not qualify as one of his 10 most impressive this season. Durant is insanely good, but is he the NBA's Most Valuable Player?
Calling LeBron James the best basketball player in the world is the most accurate narrative in professional sports.
James is an all-time great smack dab in the middle of his prime, with no pronounced weaknesses to his game. His mistakes are almost always due to physical miscalculation rather than mental error.
He's played 49 games this season and shot below 50% in just 11. James finished with at least 20 points in five of those games, and the Heat won seven of them. On the other end of the spectrum, he's shot at least 75% from the field five times (SEVENTY FIVE PERCENT!). His basic statistical average from those contests when he's flirting with perfection: 30 points, 10.4 rebounds, and 6.8 assists. Miami's average margin of victory in those five games is 14.4 points.
Is he the NBA's Most Valuable Player?
Debates about who should win MVP happen every year, and the selection process was not designed by Larry Page. Looking back, here are three examples where a particular pang of regret hovers over an unbefitting winner: 1973, 1993, and 1997.
Dave Cowens, Charles Barkley, and Karl Malone are all in the Hall of Fame. They also won MVP awards when, at the time, everyone knew Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Jordan were the best players in the world. (Jordan deconstructed Barkley and Malone in the Finals. Abdul-Jabbar's Bucks were won 60 games, but lost in the first round.)
James is the two-time defending league and Finals MVP; the world's greatest. Choosing between him and Durant for an award that honors who does the best job helping his team win is like splitting hairs. (See for yourself.) Both players are incredible, unstoppable forces of nature who've yet to meet any meaningful resistance. They're also two of the best defenders at their position.
There's still a good amount of basketball to be played, but here's a look at how James and Durant are playing on both ends of the floor, and how their impressive play stands within the context of their team's regular season success.
Two months before the big unveiling, here's a breakdown of what could be a historical fork-in-the-road race for MVP.
Nobody reads a defense like LeBron James. The way he 1) finds an open teammate then 2) sweeps a pass towards their sternum is basically unprecedented in how ideal it is. His greatest strength (choosing James' greatest strength is more difficult than identifying the single best part of a day at the beach) is as a passer, which is spine-chilling and transcendent.
James averages 15.9 points created by an assist per game, per SportVU. That's more than Tony Parker, Kyrie Irving, and Damian Lillard-three point guards headed to the All-Star game. He can make just about any pass the sport has ever seen, including this perfectly timed pocket pass with roughly three millimeters of breathing room.
The way James draws defenders and attracts attention is unparalleled. Here are a few beauties that prove he knows it.
James is currently second in PER (a stat he's lead the league in the past six -- count' em six -- seasons) and True Shooting percentage. If you still think he lacks "killer instinct" or whatever, go ahead and yell at this picture, a shot chart of LeBron in the clutch this season. ("The clutch" is defined as the last five minutes of a game where his team is ahead or behind by five points or less. James has 113 points here, which leads the league.)
LeBron is also the fifth most efficient scorer in the league from the post, and the third most efficient running a pick-and-roll, according to mySynergySports. The majority (21.7%) of his offense is based in transition, which is not even remotely fair.
If you thought his shot chart in the clutch was impressive, here's his production from the entire season.
With James on the court Miami's offense is best in the entire league. When he sits they're on par with Sacramento's league average outfit. From first to fifteenth. One might call that … value?
Move along! Nothing to see here! (Except one of the most impressive offensive seasons in NBA history.)
Not only does Durant lead the league in scoring -- manually transforming every team's defense from a stone wall into a billboard-sized green light -- he's doing it as one of the most efficient players in the league.
If the season ended tomorrow, Durant's 31.1 PER would tie James' 2009-10 campaign as the 10th highest in NBA history. (Irrelevant but worth mentioning: Only four of those seasons ended up winning MVP.)
Right now Durant's True Shooting percentage trails just LeBron James and Kyle Korver; only DeMarcus Cousins and Carmelo Anthony have a higher usage rate. The gap between Durant and the second ranked player in Win Shares (LeBron) is equivalent with the second ranked player to the 14th.
Nobody in NBA history has ever averaged at least 31 points per game while shooting over 40% from behind the three-point line, according to Basketball-Reference. Durant is averaging 31.2 points per game and shooting 41.9% from behind the three-point line (on over five attempts per game!).
These numbers are fantastic, but there are still certain areas of Durant's game that are overlooked and/or underappreciated. One example being his ability to create opportunities for others.
So much more than a one-dimensional scoring samurai, Durant has evolved into a wise play-maker who peruses the defense, anticipates double teams, and knows where and when rotations will come. His assist rate this season is 26.4%, up 10% from his career average.
Durant's usage rate is higher than it's ever been right now, but his turnover rate is the lowest since 2011. This is incredible and makes no sense. Here's the type of extremely difficult pass Durant makes look easy on a nightly basis.
So, he's perfect, right? Not quite. If there's one area where Durant has resembled a human being it's in the clutch, where in 99 minutes he's shot 33.8% from the floor and 32% from behind the three-point line. He has six assists and 13 turnovers.
Does this mean Oklahoma City should look elsewhere with the game on the line? Um, no. Durant is still one of the 10 most efficient players in the league in post-up situations, isolation sets, and as the ball-handler on a pick-and-roll, according to mySynergySports. He leads the league in free throws made and free throws attempted, and could be on the verge of his second straight 50/40/90 season.
All this is a complicated way of saying he's about to win his fourth scoring title in five years, and nobody living is scarier with the ball in their hands.
James wants to add a Defensive Player of the Year trophy to his bunker-sized collection, and for his prescient play on that end, he deserves one. Few players have ever been able to guard an opposing team's point guard as well or better than its center. James is one of them. He's proficient denying post entry passes, winning battles before they start with quickness, technique, and strength.
Out on the perimeter James isn't nearly as physical as other on-ball defenders; thanks to foul trouble he can't afford to be. On the downside, here are a few examples where he gets beat off the dribble, something that seems to be happening more this season than ever before.
Miami allows 104.3 points per 100 possessions with James on the court, and just 98.3 when he sits. Granted, the team is rarely squaring off against the best any opponent has to offer while James is resting, but the gap between those two figures is equal to what lies between the 17h ranked Orlando Magic and the 2nd ranked Chicago Bulls.
Rationalizing his poor defensive play (relative to previous seasons packed with awesome LeBron-ness) could begin and end with the wafting clouds of fatigue that drift over Miami from time to time. James already does SO much for his club, and without any other shutdown defenders on board (35-year-old Shane Battier is no longer about that life) his responsibilities this year might be heavier than ever.
It's not like he isn't good -- can anybody else cover DeAndre Jordan and Kyle Lowry? -- or doesn't try. But James hasn't been the guy we're accustomed to seeing. That being said, if it was tied with five seconds left in Game 7 of the NBA Finals, who else would you want handling the ball?
Durant's arms were either designed to bewilder a person while they dribble a basketball, or poke someone on their far shoulder and trick them into turning their head the wrong way for a good chuckle.
He's always had length and fantastic reflexes, but entering this season Durant had yet to make a single NBA All-Defense team. That should change sooner than later.
According to mySynergySports, Durant is one of the 10 best defenders in the league in plays that end in isolation or against a pick-and-roll ball-handler. Opponents shoot just 36.7% on him in the post, and an unsightly 29.7% on spot-up shots when he's the closest defender.
Much like Durant was genetically engineered to get whatever shot he wants on offense, his body is perfect for wreaking havoc on the other end. Here he is chasing Deron Williams around a baseline screen, forcing the ball out of his hands, and single-handedly flat-lining Brooklyn's possession.
The Thunder allow less than one point per possession when Durant is on the court, making their defense one of the league's five best. (Interestingly enough, Oklahoma City is a tiny bit better with Durant on the bench.)
Here's another example of what his tentacles can do.
Over the past few years, a blemish on Durant's scouting report was his work on the defensive end. He isn't perfect here by any means, but the strides he's made are noticeable. For the rest of the league, they're petrifying.
TEAM SUCCESS AND CONTEXT
The Miami Heat are an old team competing for the title, and as such they're treating the regular season more as a rigorous training session than a stage to flex their showy muscles.
By giving occasional (and necessary) rest periods to Dwyane Wade, they've consented home-court to a snarling Indiana Pacers squad that entered this season with reared fangs and a set of blinders. (Wade has played in 36 of Miami's 50 games.)
Erik Spoelstra is also treating these 82 games as a test tube, experimenting with different lineups (most notably the Chris Andersen/Chris Bosh duo up front) and tweaking his team's well-known "small ball" identity on the fly, trying to see how Greg Oden can fit.
The Heat approach the regular season like this because they can afford to. The Pacers sit three games up in the loss column, while hot garbage chugs along in Miami's rearview mirror. There's little motivation to do anything but prioritize the long view. For voters who put heavy stock in the candidate's team record, this hurts James' shot at a third straight MVP. That's customary, but doesn't make it any less unfortunate.
The Thunder have been the best team in basketball without their second best player, Russell Westbrook, for over half the season. Their defense smothers. Their offense smolders. James Harden and, to a much lesser extent, Kevin Martin are a distant memory.
The one man we can all point to as the reason is Kevin Durant. His game by game scoring numbers have gone through the roof, but that was sort of expected with Westbrook on the sideline.
What wasn't expected was everything else -- the growth in areas previously perceived to be his weaknesses. Despite defenses zeroing their focus on him every single night, Durant has somehow become more efficient than ever before. Performances like this don't happen every year.
Unless everyone agrees Most Valuable Player should simplify itself by only trying to answer who the league's best player is, the award will always be up for various interpretations.
A few: Who's the most outstanding player on the best team? Who should the year most be remembered for? Which playoff team would sink the furthest without its best player on the court each night? Who absolutely positively would not be traded for any one other single player in the league?
Durant is an incredible basketball player. In a vacuum, James is microscopically better. But what do you do when the best -- who in his own right is incredibly valuable to his title-contending team -- isn't, well, playing like the best?
Going back to 1973, 1993, and 1997, if Durant wins his first MVP this season, voters could be letting history repeat itself. Or it could be the beginning of something far more interesting and attractive: a genuine rivalry. But there's a long way to go before that happens (including a championship for the Thunder), before Larry Bird/Magic Johnson 2.0 can be uttered.
James is 29 and Durant is 25, so it's only natural that the younger player will eventually become emperor of the basketball world. But how close are we to that point? When will we stop describing Durant with the unspoken "he's super awesome, but he's not LeBron James" disclaimer? It appears that day may already be on the horizon.
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Michael Pina is a writer from Boston who lives in Los Angeles. His work appears at ESPN, The Classical, Bleacher Report, and Boston Magazine. Follow him @MichaelVPina.