Kevin Durant Vs. LeBron James: Breaking Down The MVP Race

As we near the All-Star break, this year’s Most Valuable Player race has been narrowed down to just two serious contenders: Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder and LeBron James of the Miami Heat.

This should hardly be surprising; they were the best players on the teams that made the Finals last year and since the decline of Dwight Howard, it’s been clear that they are the two best players in the NBA. Both players have been amazing this season and this looks to be one of the tightest MVP races we’ve ever seen. Let’s break down what each player brings to the table, and see if we can’t solve this mystery right now.

If all we were going on his pure talent, we’d probably give the edge to James. Granted, Durant is a great player as well, but the feats of strength pulled off by James on a nightly basis are unmatched by anyone else in the league. He can impose his will on just about any defender. Obviously, James’ excellent shooting is a big part of his success, but even when he can’t get his jumper going, he will still be effective on the offensive end just due to his sheer athletic force. When James drives to the basket, he’s just about impossible to contain. He’s been doing it for years, and yet, the rest of the league still hasn’t caught up to him.

Additionally, James’ defense would likely give him a slight advantage. Both players have a mixture of size and speed that makes them versatile on the defensive end, but James wins out simply because he can guard any position at any time. If an opposing player is wreaking havoc on the Heat, the easiest way to stop the bleeding is to put James on him. Durant’s defense has certainly been solid this year, but it’s hard to go against James since there’s no individual player he can’t defend.

And of course, you can’t forget what James does as a passer. It’s hard to be one of the highest scorers in the league and average more assists than most point guards when you spend most of your time playing power forward, but that’s what James has been able to do, averaging seven assists per game, which of course, is perfectly normal for his standards. The completeness of James’ game can’t possibly be understated. His ability to do everything his team needs him to simply unparalleled.

Having said all this, he’s a shoo-in for his fourth MVP trophy, right?

Not so fast.

In spite of all the great things James does, as of right now the slight edge in this year’s MVP race goes to Durant. Why? Because he’s having what may be the best offensive season of the modern era. Durant is leading the league in scoring, while also having a season that would put him in the 50/40/90 club (50 percent from the field, 40 percent from 3-point range, 90 percent from the line), only seven players have ever done this and none of them took the amount of shots that Durant is taking. His ability to take an extremely high volume of shots while still remaining hyper-efficient is unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.

Additionally, team performance needs to be considered. Sure, James is playing well, but his Heat have been somewhat underwhelming this year. They do have the best record in the East, but that has more to do with the relative weakness of the conference and they’re still danger of being passed by the New York Knicks, or possibly the Chicago Bulls when Derrick Rose comes back.

The Thunder have a robust record of 37-12 and are as scary as anyone else in the league right now. Durant is the heart and soul of a team with a firm identity that knows exactly what it’s capable of. James is doing great things on a team that is suffering from a bit of title hangover, and seems a but unsure of itself. To put it simply, Durant is doing more for the Thunder than James is doing for the Heat.

Finally, as the hard as this maybe to believe, Durant has a slight edge in overall efficiency. Admittedly, James’ player efficient rating (PER) is slightly higher, but Durant has the edge in Win Shares and Win Shares per 48 minutes, the latter of which is over .300, which is nearly impossible to pull of unless you’re a freak of nature.

Durant’s mind-boggling offensive play has put him ahead in that department and while James is a better defender, Durant’s defense has still been solid enough to keep him near the top in terms of overall efficiency. The clearest way to put it is that the totality of what Durant has done is just a little bit more impressive than everything James has done.

If all we’re talking about is pure talent, James would still have the edge, but Durant is having the kind of season that only comes along once in a career. He’s been absolutely transcendent this year and if the season were ending right now, I’d barely give him the edge over James for the MVP.

With that said, this race is far from over and I’m guessing James will have something to say about this between now and April. In the meantime, I have Durant just barely in the lead, and I can’t wait to see what these titans do between now and the start of the postseason.

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  • Greg

    Good article, but I found a mistake.
    You said: ” Durant is leading the league in scoring, while also having a season that would put him in the 50/40/90 club (50 percent from the field, 40 percent from 3-point range, 90 percent from the line), only seven players have ever done this and none of them took the amount of shots that Durant is taking.”

    Durant is currently taking 18.3 shots per game.

    Larry Bird, in 86-87, shot .525 on FG, .400 on 3PT, and .91 on FT. He took 20.2 shots per game, and averaged 28.1 PPG.

    Larry Bird, in 87-88, shot .527 on FG, .427 on 3PT, and .916 on FT. He took 22.0 shots per game, and averaged 29.9 PPG.

    You said of Durant: “His ability to take an extremely high volume of shots while still remaining hyper-efficient is unlike anything we’ve ever seen before”

    While what Durant is doing is incredibly impressive, it is not unprecedented. Bird actually accomplished it while taking considerably more shots per game (22).

    Love your writing, but please do more research before making such absolutist statements.

    • John Hugar

      You’re right; I should have looked that up. My bad. Perhaps what I should have said was that very few of the other 50/40/90 players have had has active a role in the offense (the shooting portion anyway, since obviously, Nash’s passing was crucial) as Durant, with Bird (and probably Dirk, too) being the exceptions.

  • bra

    Further, Lebron is shooting 55% (.556 actually) from the Field and 40% (.408) from 3pt land, which HAS NEVER BEEN DONE BEFORE BY ANY PLAYER EVER, all while committing less turnovers, less fouls, more assists, and more rebounds that Durant. Lets not forgot Lebron is/can be a teams primary ball handler, where Westbrook handles the ball for the Thunder.

    Defensively it isnt even close, Lebron covers KD in the 4th Quarter and KD covers Mario Chalmers…enough said

    Hard to Give a Guy an MVP over the Player that just beat him in the Finals 4-1 and just beat him in their only match up this season

    Say what you want about the heats performance, lebrons has been stellar, as seen by his 20 pt streak that started the season and broke a 35 year old record

    • John Hugar

      What happened the previous season should have no bearing on the awards for this season.

      Also, LeBron is shooting better from the field, but KD is better on threes, and much better on free throws.

      As for LeBron having more assists, let’s keep in mind that his point guard is Mario Chalmers, and Durant’s is Russell Westbrook.

      • bra

        point is Moot, Lebron is a better Ball handler than Durant,

        If Durant was on the Heat, Wade/Chalmers would take the ball up

      • bra

        Are making the implication that if Durant was on the Heat, He would be averaging 7 assists a game? And lebron would average only 4.5 on the Thunder, even though lebron”s career average is 7?

  • Eric

    I think that Lebron’s consistency should be noted. He has shot 47% or worse only 5 times this season compared to 15 times for Durant. He has shot below 44.4% only twice to 9 times for Durant. Lebron also always manages to help his team in other ways even on off shooting nights. In his 5 worst shooting performances he has still put up 8.2 assists and 8.4 rebounds per game. Don’t forget he recently just concluded a streak of 61 straight games (including last year and the playoffs) of at least 20 points and that streak would be 72 games if you dropped the requirement to 19 points. And in the 12 games since that 15 point performance that broke the streak, Lebron is averaging a cool 29 points on over 60% shooting. He is really having a historically consistent season where 25 points on 50% shooting is nearly automatic. You can go back and look at game logs for Michael Jordan in his prime and he doesn’t even come close to Lebron’s level of consistency. One more stat for perspective, Lebron has only had 4 games all season with a fg% lower than Kobe’s career average.
    Also consider how Lebron’s unselfishness affects his stats. Sure it adds to his assists but it has a definite negative impact on his points and probably his fg% as well. The point is that he typically does not “milk it” when he is hot. I don’t know how many times he has started a game like on 7 of 8 shooting and went a quarter and a half without attempting a single shot after that. Being more selfish in these situations would definitely give a boost to his ppg and probably attempting shots when he is on fire would make a noticeable impact on his fg% as well as long as he doesn’t try to milk it too much.
    Lebron is also averaging a career low in turnovers. Durant is averaging nearly half a turnover more per game with little to show for it especially considering how low his assists are compared to Lebron. Lebron is having one of the greatest and most consistent seasons in history and a WS48 of .3 is almost ordinary for him. He has reached a mark of .298 or better in 3 of the last 4 season and has a good chance of doing that again this year as he currently sits at .292 and is trending upwards as of late.

    • bra

      I’ve really started to notice this year that many Durant Supporters are merely Disgruntled Lebron Naysayers who have simply ran out of demerits to throw at Lebron. The new course of action is to Inflate Keven Durant, and somehow isolate a few stats in order to make Durant seem better than Lebron, who is 3-12 against career wise, and 1-6 against in the past two seasons. Can you imagine If Dirk was having a career year last year? Do you think Lebron would have won an MVP over Dirk the year after Dirk beat his team in the Finals,with Dirk having the highest PER in the league? It simply wouldn’t happen. Durant is either going to have to BLOW lebron out of the water in terms of season stats/accomplishments, or he is going to have to win a title before he wins an MVP over Lebron. Simply “having his best year ever, but not quite as good as Lebron” simply won’t cut it. Besides, Durant is only 24, he will probably be the undisputed best player in the league in 2-5 years, then we can give him a REAL MVP, and not some charity one.

      • Zach

        Every Miami fan thinks that anyone who doesn’t absolutely gush about the Heat and LeBron or anyone who thinks that someone other than LeBron could be the best player in a single season is either a Heat hater or an LBJ hater. Your logic honestly makes no sense. Everyone who has a vote in this competition knows that you measure performance on a season by season basis. What happened last year doesn’t matter. If even one player on either team is different, then you really can’t even compare them to a previous season’s teams.

      • Eric

        First of all Bra, are you expecting Lebron to retire in the next 2-5 seasons because he is still getting better too. I mean 7 consecutive seasons of increased season fg% and 10 consecutive seasons of increasing his career fg% is pretty rare stuff not to mention he recently added Ray Allen’s game day shooting routine and is now shooting 42% from 3. Everything for Lebron is trending upwards and undisputed is a pretty big word.

        As for the rest of what you said, I agree but only in a perfect world. In reality voters hate picking the same mvp every year; just look at how Kareem was robbed in the 70′s. Stories win over stats most of the time, like in the case of Derrick Rose. Look at the race for sixth man this year. Jamal Crawford and J.R. Smith are apparently running away with it. Jamal gets 17 points on 42% shooting while J.R. gets 16 points on 40% shooting and has apparently completely revolutionized his game from being a shot jacker. This is ridiculous because he is shooting worse than ever and all that people see is that his team is winning. Kevin Martin doesn’t get near the love in the 6th man debate and he is averaging 15 points on 46% shooting and is killing it from 3. It is almost like their is a conspiracy to diminish Durant’s teammates.

        The point is, the world is insane. Just yesterday Gary Payton said Kobe was currently a better player than Lebron because of his ability to make game winning shots. I guess we are supposed to forget that his team is rarely close enough for that to matter and pretend that Kobe’s regular occurrences of shooting 8 for 24 has nothing to do with them being too far behind. The clutch shooting thing is ridiculous anyway. since 2000 Kobe is 42 of 142 in shots to tie or take the lead in the final 24 seconds. That is 29.6 percent and he is 0 for 4 this season so how is that clutch shooting working for Gary Payton.

        Chew on this Gary. So far this season Kobe has made 11 more shots than Lebron and it only took him 203 attempts to do so. 11 of 203 that’s 5% shooting. Lebron would have to miss every shot in the next 10+ games to be shooting as poorly as Kobe is.