LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant for 2013-14 NBA MVP: It's anybody's race, just like it always was
If the 2013-14 NBA season had ended at the All-Star break, the people who vote on such things probably would have picked Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant as this season's Most Valuable Player. Few right-thinking individuals would've offered a sideways glare at that choice; as Our Fearless Leader wrote in late January, Durant had stepped up and staked his claim to the honor with a ludicrous January that saw him average 36 points, six rebounds, six assists, and 2.5 combined blocks and steals per game while shooting a scorching 55 percent from the floor, 44 percent from 3-point range and 89 percent from the foul line — all-time-great levels of across-the-board productivity and efficiency.
Durant led an Oklahoma City team missing injured All-NBA point guard Russell Westbrook to a 12-4 record in the first month of 2014, turning in late-game heroics and capping it all off by snapping his 12-game 30-point scoring streak because he needed only three quarters to incinerate the Brooklyn Nets. He was insane, and he was leading the charge for the best team in the NBA's (far) superior conference; if the vote had taken place during All-Star Weekend in New Orleans, KD would be finding room on his mantel for his first career Podoloff.
There is a reason, though, that you don't vote at All-Star Weekend. Here it is:
Well, really, that's only partly true.
The MVP race isn't all of a sudden a hotly contested fight to the finish because LeBron James scored 61 points on 33 shots on Monday night against what was the sixth-stingiest defense in the NBA. (The Charlotte Bobcats now rank seventh in points allowed per possession, which is still better than 23 other NBA teams, including the Los Angeles Clippers, Houston Rockets, Memphis Grizzlies and James' Miami Heat; this is something you should remember when people slough off LeBron's career-high because they think it came against air. These ain't the Bobcats you remember.) Sure, it helps, but really, the MVP race is a hotly contested fight to the finish because we've got two historic talents performing at the peak of their abilities every other night and, most importantly, we're not finished.
If you did this dance a month into the season, you might've heard about how Paul George, LaMarcus Aldridge or Kevin Love deserved the honors. If you did it on New Year's Day, LeBron (25.5 points, 6.9 rebounds, 6.6 assists in 36 minutes a night on 59 percent shooting and a 41.5 percent mark from 3-point land) might get the nod over Durant (28.8 points, 8.5 rebounds, 4.8 assists on 49.4/42.1/87.9 shooting in 38 minutes per). After Durant's monstrous January, it looked like a wrap; after LeBron's post-All-Star tear (37.4 points, 7.2 rebounds, five assists, two steals in 36.2 minutes per game, shooting 68 percent from the field and 52 percent from deep), though, the answer changes. And when folks realize today that Durant's been putting up nearly 33-8-7 since the start of February, albeit in a cold snap from long-distance (just 30.5 percent from 3-point land over his last 12 games) amid the Thunder's 2-3 post-All-Star slide, the answer will probably start to look more the open question it really is.
Durant and James have once again separated themselves from the pack; after James' Monday explosion, they not only rank first and second in Player Efficiency Rating, but also stand as the only two players in the league with ratings topping 30. (PER is an admittedly imperfect statistic, but it's still pretty useful in terms of game-in/game-out comparisons of apples-to-apples production across eras.) Eight players in the history of the league have finished seasons with a PER of 30 or more — James (four times), Michael Jordan (four times), Wilt Chamberlain (three times), Shaquille O'Neal (three times), David Robinson, Tracy McGrady, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul (once each).
The only time multiple players have ever topped 30 in the same season was 2008-09, when James (a league-best 31.7 with the Cleveland Cavaliers), eventual teammate Wade (30.4 with the Heat) and Paul (30.0 on the dot with the New Orleans Hornets) turned the trick. Not only are Durant and James on pace to become just the second pair to pull that off in league history, but after James' 61, they're separated by all of seven-hundredths of a point: 30.44 for KD, 30.37 for LeBron. Monster performances could flip their positions in those rankings on any given night, and given the way we're watching the horse race these days, they'd likely juggle our mythical MVP votes, too.
And it's not like we haven't seen these guys go off and respond to one another in short order in the recent past — if you'll think all the way back to the second week of February, you'll recall that one night after LeBron went for 36-13-9 and hit a wild game-winning 3 to beat the Golden State Warriors, Durant put up 43-12-7 and scored 19 in the fourth quarter to beat the Los Angeles Lakers. They've been doing this "can you top this?" thing for a while, most notably in the mano a mano "Rucker Park" showdown that came at the peak of Durant's rise to the top of the MVP ladder ... which James answered three weeks later by scoring 33 points in 33 1/2 minutes before Serge Ibaka broke James' nose and unleashed a brand new supervillain on the NBA.
This is less about ebbs and flows and more about one peak being left behind in pursuit of new heights; Durant's 54 points against the Warriors seemed pretty freakin' high until LeBron's 61 showed us a new summit, and now it's KD's serve with an opportunity to break back. The most exciting thing about James' 61 — beyond, y'know, SIXTY-ONE POINTS — is that Durant gets to respond. And then LeBron does. And so on, and so on.
The Heat have 25 games left, and the Thunder have 22; both teams are in the throes of nip-and-tuck races atop their conferences, with Oklahoma City's Western lead over the San Antonio Spurs down to just 1 1/2 games entering Tuesday's action, and Miami trailing the Indiana Pacers by only two games for the top spot in the East. There will be high-leverage moments for both players down the stretch, chances for LeBron to reaffirm that the King stay the King and chances for KD to play Jaime Lannister, and plenty will come with the world watching; eight of OKC's final 22 will be nationally televised, as will 11 of Miami's last 25. The next six weeks, not the past four months, will determine who deserves the MVP, in what's likely to be the closest vote since Nash over Shaq in 2005.
That's as it should be, and how it always should be; if we treat this stuff like politics, calling races before all precincts have reported, we miss out on the opportunity to appreciate truly transcendent moments sparking up in unexpected circumstances, like a random Monday night against Charlotte. With 43 days left in the regular season, the two greatest players in the game have created a circumstance where all we know is that we don't know nothing. Monday night didn't really change that ... and that's fine.
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