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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