When Kevin Durant won the 2013-14 NBA Most Valuable Player award, capturing the Maurice Podoloff Trophy for the first time in his career, it represented not only the greatest individual achievement of a life geared toward basketball excellence, but also the culmination of a five-year journey — beginning with a second-place finish in MVP voting in his breakout 2009-10 campaign — to overtake longtime foil LeBron James as the league's top player. (Even if only in the context of one specific season.) But even as he was being celebrated for his splendid, career-best regular-season performance — and his historic, still-goosebump-inducing acceptance speech — the Oklahoma City Thunder star acknowledged the nature of his changing position within the NBA's firmament.
When you get to the top of the mountain, you don't get much of a breather before having to contend with those who are coming up behind you, looking to knock you off. Obviously, that list starts with the man who returned to Ohio after Durant supplanted him, but KD sees another contender gaining on him — and in this particular case, massive freak-of-nature objects in the rear-view mirror may be closer than they appear. From Jim Eichenhofer of Pelicans.com:
As reported by SLAM magazine in a recent profile of New Orleans forward Anthony Davis, when Davis texted congratulations to Durant on winning league MVP, Durant responded back to Davis that the 21-year-old is headed for the honor someday.
“You on your way to get it,” read Durant’s text message back to Davis.
“It was shocking,” Davis said. “For a guy who knows what it takes to win an MVP award, telling me that I’m on my way, it means he sees something in me. That means a lot, especially from one of the best players in the league right now, if not the best. It just meant a lot. It made me want to work even harder.” [...]
“I know how good he’s going to be,” the four-time NBA scoring champion said, after a USA Basketball practice. “I know how good he is now, but I know how good he’s going to be. He’s an MVP-caliber player. So he’s next. He’s next in line — a guy that has grown so much in just a year. I’m excited to see what he does from here. He’s definitely on pace.”
He might even be ahead of schedule, in fact.
Davis just completed his second professional season after being selected first overall out of Kentucky in the 2012 NBA draft. Of the 19 players who have won Most Valuable Player honors since 1980 (all stats via Basketball-Reference.com's wonderful Player Comparison Finder):
• Only Shaquille O'Neal, Julius Erving, Michael Jordan and David Robinson posted higher Player Efficiency Ratings in their sophomore seasons than Davis' 2013-14 mark;
• Only Robinson, Shaq, Magic Johnson and Tim Duncan contributed more Win Shares per 48 minutes of floor time in Year 2 than Davis, and only Robinson, Shaq, LeBron, Charles Barkley and Larry Bird notched more total Win Shares;
• Only Chuck, the Admiral and Shaq had better True Shooting percentages (which accounts for shooting accuracy on 2-point and 3-point field goals, as well as free throws);
• Only those three, Hakeem Olajuwon and Moses Malone grabbed a higher share of available rebounds;
• Nobody blocked a higher share of opponents' field goal attempts or turned the ball over less frequently than Davis; and
• Only Shaq, Robinson and Magic had a higher individual efficiency differential — the difference between the estimated amount of points you produced per 100 possessions and the estimated amount of points you allowed per 100.
Caveats abound, of course. Metrics like PER and Win Shares are far from be-all-end-all evaluations of success. Some future MVPs (Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash) were blocked by established veterans from starting spots on their respective teams, limiting them to solely reserve roles in their second seasons. Some (Magic, Michael Jordan) lost large swaths of their second years to injuries.
Such statistical comparisons don't take into account the significant contributions made by players shouldering larger playmaking responsibilities (LeBron, Magic, Nash, Bird, Derrick Rose, Allen Iverson). They also don't factor in postseason success, of which Davis has none, and which is obviously a pretty big feather in the caps of guys who won titles (Duncan, Bird, Magic) or played in the Finals (Hakeem, Shaq) by the end of Year 2. These are admittedly imperfect measuring sticks.
Still, though, they point toward the larger notion that Durant's all-too-eagerly espousing — that even while toiling for a New Orleans squad that has yet to sniff a playoff berth, Davis has already, at just 21 years old, shown the brand of play-by-play production on both ends of the floor that merits consideration in the context of all-timers.
As Davis, who has taken aim at lofty targets since the earliest days of his career, fills out both his frame (he's looking pretty huge at Team USA workouts in Las Vegas, and has reportedly bulked up to 240 pounds after being listed at 220 last season) and his game (he's reportedly spent his summer expanding his low-post and face-up repertoire while extending his range out to the short-corner 3-point line), that production only figures to increase ... and the frequency with which you hear his name in that conversation will only continue to grow.
This summer represents a pretty significant milestone in that growth, as Davis will be leaned on — especially in the absence of Blake Griffin and Kevin Love — to play a major role for the U.S. men's national team at next month's FIBA World Cup. Davis will line up not only next to Durant in the American frontcourt, but also as one of the team's leaders after building some equity within the national program as a member of the squad that won gold at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. The 2010 FIBA World Championship served as a springboard to superstardom for the likes of Durant and Rose, who followed up a gold medal in Turkey by averaging 25 points and 7.7 assists per game for Tom Thibodeau's Chicago Bulls en route to becoming the youngest player ever named the NBA's Most Valuable Player; Davis will look to follow in their footsteps.
Rose, born Oct. 4, 1988, was 22 years and 191 days old on the final day of the 2010-11 regular season. Davis, born March 11, 1993, will be 22 years and 35 days old on the final day of a '14-'15 campaign in which the Pelicans appear to making a playoffs-or-bust push after swinging a big offseason trade for defensive stalwart Omer Asik. Something to keep in the back of your mind as the summer wears on, and Davis' advancement — in skill, in stature, in experience and in impact — continues apace.
"He’s just growing every single day," Durant said. "He’s moving up the ladder every single day. It’s scary. Scary.”
Especially if you're presently the dude at the top of the ladder.
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