Can a player widely considered one of the two best in basketball and one of the top contenders for the NBA MVP also be underrated?
Ask Kevin Durant.
He's enjoying the finest season of his young career by nearly every measure imaginable. His Oklahoma City Thunder own the best record in the NBA, even after seeing their 12-game winning streak snapped by the Minnesota Timberwolves and despite shedding James Harden just prior to the 2012-13 season. All signs point to a second straight appearance in the NBA Finals for him and his young teammates.
And yet, Durant—a three-time scoring champion/All-Star/All-NBA performer—remains a ways from the center of the hoops Zeitgeist.
Relatively speaking, of course. Carmelo Anthony's improved efficiency on both ends of the floor, and the New York Knicks' subsequent uptick in wins, has landed him atop the early MVP tally in some corners of the league. He might just be keeping the seat warm, though, for LeBron James, who's won three of the last four MVPs and is shouldering a bigger burden than ever for the Miami Heat.
Durant's also been overshadowed at times by teammates, past and present. Russell Westbrook has been praised (sometimes effusively so) for trimming his scoring and turnover numbers and upping his assist totals to more prototypical point-guard levels. James Harden has garnered plenty of pub since his switch to the Houston Rockets, as much for his superstar-caliber play as for his ever-captivating chin coiffure.
Even Kobe Bryant, whose Los Angeles Lakers are currently languishing outside of the same Western Conference playoff picture, has gotten more burn for leading the league in scoring than Durant has for his LeBron-like step toward all-around greatness.
Not that 'Melo, LeBron, Westbrook, Harden and Kobe haven't earned the attention they've been given. They've all performed spectacularly this season and deserve whatever share of the spotlight should shine on them.
Rather, Durant's own accomplishments are that much more worthy of praise. His 33-point, seven-rebound, six-assist, three-steal virtuoso against the T'Wolves (albeit in a losing effort) fell right in line with his seasonlong exploits. To date, Durant has averaged 27.9 points, 8.4 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 1.5 steals—the latter three representing personal bests.
Speaking of which, so too are all of Kevin's shooting percentages. If he continues to tickle the twine at his current pace—52.1 percent from the field, 42.7 percent from three-point range, 90.3 percent from the line—Durant will become just the ninth member of the vaunted 50-40-90 Club.
All of which is to say little of Durant's performance on the defensive end. Like LeBron before him, Durant has evolved from an offensive wizard with little impact on the other end to a lockdown defender who understands how to use his length and athleticism to wreak havoc in that regard.
Durant may not cut an imposing figure, but the guy holds up just fine against opponents who are supposedly bigger and stronger than he is, be they on the perimeter or in the post. Ain't that right, Josh Smith?
The stats support what the game film shows. According to 82games.com, Durant has held opposing power forwards to a combined Player Efficiency Rating of 11.8 and small forwards to an even stingier mark of 8.5. As of Dec. 19, the Thunder allowed 6.4 points per 100 possessions fewer when Durant was on the floor compared to when he was on the bench (per NBA.com). OKC has also done a better job of cleaning the defensive glass, forcing steals and contesting shots with Kevin on the floor.
But as impressive as the numbers are in and of themselves, the context in which they've come makes the entirety of Durant's play that much more astounding. That is, Kevin's improvement on both ends of the floor has come when his team has needed it from him the most. The team parted ways with Harden—the reigning Sixth Man of the Year, a member of Team USA at the 2012 London Olympics and a top-20 talent in the NBA—just days before its defense of the Western Conference crown was set to begin.
General manager Sam Presti did well, bringing back Kevin Martin from Houston in the deal. But while Martin has done well to replace Harden's scoring off the bench, he's hardly made up for the superb playmaking on the perimeter that made James such an integral part of the Thunder's machinery.
As such, the Thunder were viewed no longer as the hands-down favorite to win the West, but instead as but one of several squads that might emerge.
Thanks in no small part to Durant, the Thunder have done more than hold the fort; they've also managed to expand their holdings across the NBA landscape. Their 21-5 mark would be good enough to own home-court advantage throughout the postseason if the campaign were to end today. Their plus-8.8-point differential is tied with that of the Los Angeles Clippers for tops in the NBA. Their recent win streak was indicative of a team that has an identity and understands how to impose it from night to night.
To be sure, the scheduling gods have thus far smiled upon the Thunder. They've played more home games (16) than anyone else in the NBA amongst a slate that, prior to the defeat in Minny, ranked as just the 19th toughest.
Nonetheless, the Thunder check in second in offensive efficiency and ninth in defensive efficiency, and have looked like the best team in the league. In other words, they haven't missed a beat—if anything, they've improved—since bidding one of their young stars adieu.
Some of the credit for that continuation belongs to Westbrook and Serge Ibaka for the way they've stepped up their respective games. The former has become a better facilitator, while the latter is now a legitimate threat on the offensive end.
Realistically, though, Durant is the super glue that's held this team together. He's scoring more efficiently, crashing the boards more effectively, sharing the ball more fluidly and imposing his will on defense more frequently than ever before.
Oh, and he's only 24. And he's improving seemingly every day.
Durant's relative anonymity does make some sense, though. He plays in one of the league's smallest markets. He still disappears in crunch time on occasion. He's known to be a mild-mannered guy off the court and seemingly goes out of his way to avoid controversy on it. He's selfless and humble at every turn. At this point, Kevin's so consistent in his overall greatness on a nightly basis that it's almost to be expected.
Chances are, Durant will be properly recognized by season's end. He'll start the All-Star Game and earn his fourth consecutive selection to the All-NBA first team.
But if he continues to perform at his torrid pace, the Thunder rack up win after win out West and the MVP voters don't give him his due, then the notion of Kevin Durant being underrated might actually carry some weight.
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