The NBA and its statistics have an odd relationship. Few fans of the league could rattle off the number behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time points record. The methods and cheap tactics used by the Philadelphia Warriors to rack up Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game were almost offensive to the game itself. And two of the most recent high points-per-game seasons (Kobe Bryant’s 35-point run in 2006, Michael Jordan’s 37-point season in 1987) weren’t really regarded as very good things. Rather, they were thought of an unfortunate necessity – a very good player working on a very poor team.
That’s why it takes number crunchers and statistical outlets to remind us when very good players are doing very good things in ways that are generally helping the teams win. Kevin Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder have the second-best record in the NBA, in spite of Russell Westbrook missing more than 30 games and in spite of Kendrick Perkins sitting out for all of March. He also has scored at least 25 points in 39 consecutive games, after his team’s win over the top-ranked San Antonio Spurs on Thursday. That's one short of Michael Jordan's 40-game run in 1986-87, when he averaged those somewhat-fabled 37 points per game.
Of course, Jordan was working in a different era, in a different context. His second- and third-leading scorers were Charles Oakley and John Paxson, two players this avid young Bulls watcher can tell you that coach Doug Collins rarely ran plays for. Chicago’s possessions-per-game count was the league’s slowest that year, 23rd of 23 teams, but it nearly mirrors to the digit Oklahoma City’s 2013-14 possessions-per-game count, which is ranked ninth of 30 teams. The Bulls failed to crack .500 that year, they were swept out of the first round by Boston in a series that didn’t feature Michael Jordan scoring 63 points in a contest, while the Thunder rank as championship contenders.
Michael Jordan was ridiculously efficient that year, but he also shot nearly 28 times a game. Kevin Durant isn’t even shooting 21 times per game to get his league-leading 32 points a contest, and he’s taking efficiency to otherworldly levels. The man registers an assist on 25 percent of the possessions he uses up. His True Shooting Percentage is above 64 percent. He nails more than half his shots from the field, more than 40 percent of his bombs from long range and more than 87 percent of his free throws.
He’s also scored 25 points per game or more in 39 consecutive contests. And he’ll match Jordan on Friday night, should his Thunder need him to light things up against Houston.
Of course, 25 points isn’t truly “lighting things up” for a player who averages nearly 31 a contest, but it’s that relative mark that should leave onlookers astonished at just how great Durant has been this year. It’s true LeBron James has slightly stepped back this season – his points per game have remained steady but his assist and rebound totals and percentages have dropped, with his turnovers spiking – but in any other year he is a landslide MVP winner.
Kevin Durant is one full step ahead of LeBron this season, though. It’s not that MVP voters have become sick of LeBron James. It’s that Kevin Durant grew sick of being Number Two.
(The guy is 25, by the way. He’ll turn 26 in the month before the 2014-15 season starts, and it’s possible he’s far from peaking, which is frightening. Whatever number Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ended with should probably be quaking in its Converses.)
Many of these consecutive game records are arbitrary, and in a team sport like basketball, piling up the stats isn’t always productive or conducive to winning. The Thunder are worse when Westbrook isn’t around and healthy, but they’re far from a crummy team, and Durant isn’t having to play hero every night just to keep this crew competitive.
This is just something that happened, which makes the streak all the more remarkable. Even the greats go sour at some point, missing a quarter after an ankle sprain, losing some time because of foul trouble, not needing to press the action and pile up the points because of lousy competition, or just plain not having it on a particular night.
For Kevin Durant to score 25 points per game for nearly half of an NBA season without hiccup? For a great team? With that nearly unprecedented level of usage and efficiency? This is standout stuff, even in a league that doesn’t exactly lend itself to statistical lore, or things to remember forever culled from the back of trading cards or your father’s hand-me-down anecdotes. Sure, it took a statistics company to look up the numbers and inform us, but we’re all better for knowing this about Kevin Durant.
And he’s going to only get better. Frightening.
- - - - - - -