“I’ve been second my whole life. I was the second best player in high school. I was the second pick in the draft. I’ve been second in MVP voting three times. I came second in the finals. I’m tired of being second. I’m not going to settle for that. I’m done with it.”
Kevin Durant issued this now-infamous statement of defiance to Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated prior to last season’s NBA playoffs. His Oklahoma City Thunder team had finished top of the Western Conference standings, and looked poised for a run back to the NBA Finals—even without the recently departed James Harden.
Fate had other ideas.
In game two of their first-round series with Houston, Rockets guard Patrick Beverley collided with Russell Westbrook, trying to steal the ball at a meaningless juncture of the game. Westbrook tore his right meniscus in the collision and was out for the rest of the playoffs.
While Durant and his teammates closed out the series against Houston without their All-Star point guard, the Memphis Grizzlies were too much to overcome in the second round. They lost in five. No championship for KD. Not even a finals appearance.
LeBron James, the man who Durant has finished second to in the NBA Finals and in the MVP race, would go on to win his second NBA championship later that June.
James is also the man who, up until this season, has set the benchmark for the MVP award so ludicrously high, that putting up a 50-40-90 shooting split is not enough to be considered the best player in the league.
Durant took a lot of unfair criticism for his performance in last season’s Memphis series, but the Maryland native was having one of the best individual seasons of all time up until that point. Only six players have ever shot 50 per cent from the floor, 40 per cent from 3 and 90 per cent from the free-line during the course of a season: Steve Nash, Larry Bird, Dirk Nowitzki, Mark Price, Reggie Miller and, yes, Kevin Durant.
In numerous other NBA eras, Kevin Durant would have been the best player on planet earth—a player with two or three MVP awards already under his belt. He’s a freakish combination of Dirk Nowitzki’s length, height and shooting touch and Dr. J’s athleticism and ability to finish at the rim. But Durant has had the fortune, or misfortune, of coming into his prime at a time when one of the best players to ever play the game, King James, is right in the middle of his.
But the times, they just might be a-changing.
There comes a time in every superstar’s career when he meets his rival—his superior—at a point when he himself is ascending and that other superstar is beginning the inevitable process of decline. Jordan came into his prime as the likes of Magic and Larry slid down from theirs; as Jordan himself descended, Kobe Bryant emerged a superstar.
That’s not to say that LeBron’s decline will be rapid, or even perceptible, for a number of years. But this season Durant has made up a lot of the ground on his Miami rival. Whereas who was number one and number two on the NBA totem pole was fairly clear before, it would now be more accurate to say that we have something more akin to a 1(a) and a 1(b).
James, relative to any other NBA player, is having a fantastic year. But relative to his own absurdly amazing standards, it’s been a down year thus far—particularly on the defensive end. KD, on the other hand, is having one of the best individual seasons we’ve witnessed in the modern era of professional basketball. No hyperbole.
Durant is averaging 31 points per game, which is almost four points better than the guy in second place, Carmelo Anthony. KD’s also putting up seven rebounds and a career-high five assists per contest. Oh, and just like last season, he’s shooting 40 per cent from 3-point range and 51 per cent from the floor, overall.
Want some geekier numbers?
Durant is currently posting a true-shooting percentage—a number that takes into account 3-point and free throw shooting—of 64 per cent. SIXTY-FOUR. His only legitimate rivals in that category are Kyle Korver and, of course, LeBron James. However, Durant maintains the same level of efficiency as Korver and James, all the while attempting almost 20 shots per game. LeBron attempts 16 field goals per game, and Korver just eight. KD is also currently posting a Player Efficiency Rating of 31. That’s number one in the NBA.
But simply looking at the numbers, as impressive as they are, doesn’t do Durant justice. It’s the context in which he’s putting up these numbers that ultimately solidifies his status as the leading MVP candidate this season.
Russell Westbrook, a top-15 player in his own right, has missed 26 games this season. But the Thunder are 40-11, and sit comfortably atop the Western Conference standings. In other words, thanks to KD, the team hasn’t missed a beat without their All-Star point-guard. Durant, night after night, has put the team on his back and led them to victory—a 54-point performance here, a 48-point performance there. Just a few days ago his streak of 12 consecutive games scoring 30 points or more ended with a 26-point performance in a blowout win over the Brooklyn Nets. Ho-hum.
In the absence of Westbrook, some of OKC’s young guns—namely Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb—have stepped up and played well. But Durant has kept the Thunder machine humming. All that’s not to say that the Thunder are better off without Westbrook, however. That notion is plainly absurd. OKC will absolutely need Westbrook if they want to win an NBA title. The message to be inferred from the Thunder’s performances in Westbrook’s absence is not that they’re better off without him, but that Durant is playing basketball at a ridiculously high level this season.
He should be rewarded.
In 1993, Charles Barkley had a fantastic season and was voted MVP. It was a case of voter fatigue, however. People got sick of voting for Jordan and they wanted to reward someone else. That could factor into the voting process this season as well. The voters may not want to reward LeBron with a fifth MVP award, and KD would, of course, be the likely candidate.
But giving Durant the MVP because of voter fatigue would not do his performance justice. Right now Durant deserves to win MVP because he’s playing like an MVP. His numbers, and the context in which he is putting them up, is MVP-worthy.
Of course, ultimately Durant would tell you that he’d trade in a lifetime of MVP awards for one NBA championship, and his team are as much of a threat as anyone to win that coveted piece of silverware. That remains the ultimate goal. But whether or not his team has finished first or second by the season’s end, Durant should, by that point, have rid himself of a sequence of individual second-place finishes.
Expect to see Durant’s name at the top of the list when it comes to the NBA’s MVP.