I think we can all agree that LeBron James and Kevin Durant are leading the 2012-13 NBA MVP race, just as they did during the lockout-shortened season in 2011-12. They're regarded by most as the two best basketball players on the planet, and their teams—Durant's Oklahoma City Thunder and LeBron's Miami Heat—are the odds-on favorites to represent their respective conferences in the 2013 NBA Finals.
In some ways, deciding between the two is akin to splitting hairs, though James tends to get the benefit of the doubt. After all, he's the reigning MVP (and has been in three of the last four seasons) and, more importantly, a champion. No longer can the anti-LeBron crowd claim that he's not the most valuable now that he's proven himself a winner.
But there's an argument to be made—and a convincing one, at that—that KD has been the MVP through the first half of the current campaign.
To be sure, both players are enjoying transcendent seasons, particularly on the offensive end. LeBron has thus far scored 26.4 points per game, which would rank as the lowest of his pro career since his Rookie of the Year campaign in 2003-04. James, though, is taking fewer shots than he ever has (18.5 per game) and is converting them at a higher rate (.551 from the floor, .389 from three) than ever before.
Still, as great as LeBron is and has been in this regard, scoring remains Durant's realm. He's claimed the last three scoring titles and is well on his way to a fourth with a league-leading 29.5 points per game. Kevin, too, is attempting fewer shots—18.3 per game, the second-lowest mark of his career—while hitting them at the highest rate that he has in five-and-a-half seasons as a pro.
In fact, as Grantland's Zach Lowe recently broke down, KD is in the midst of one of the all-time great offensive seasons in NBA history. With his shooting percentages (.521 from the floor, .417 from three, .912 from the free-throw line), Durant is on track to become just the eighth member of the vaunted 50-40-90 Club, alongside the likes of Larry Bird, Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki.
Durant, though, is piling up his numbers while taking far more free throws than any 50-40-90 member and attempting more field goals and using more possessions (via shot, turnover or foul drawn) than anyone other than Larry Legend. Moreover, Durant's Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of 29.3 would be the highest of any tied to a 50-40-90 campaign in the history of the league, per Basketball Reference.
Even so, KD's PER isn't the best in basketball right now. As it happens, LeBron is on pace to lead the NBA in PER for the sixth consecutive season. According to Basketball Reference, only Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain could make such a lofty claim. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar still holds the all-time mark of nine PER-leading seasons in his pantheonic career, but he never ranked as the NBA's most efficient offensive force for more than five straight seasons.
KD has his own historical connection with Wilt and MJ in sight. He'll share exclusive company with those two as the only players to win four straight scoring titles if Kevin hangs onto his existing lead in that regard.
As far as PER is concerned, Durant has yet to top the charts, but he's getting closer every year. KD's PER places him second—what would be his highest finish so far—behind only LeBron's 30.5.
Which makes sense, considering the other categories in which LeBron holds an edge over Durant. James averages more rebounds (8.1, to Durant's 7.5), more assists (7.1, to Durant's 4.4), just as many steals (1.6) and fewer turnovers (2.8, to Durant's 3.3), despite playing fewer minutes per game (38.5, to Durant's 39.7) and posting a usage rate (29.9) that's only slightly above KD's (29.7).
LeBron also gets bonus points on the other end for not only being one of the best (if not the best) defenders in the NBA, but also for having demonstrated a remarkable ability to lock down all five positions on the court.
To his credit, Durant has come a long way in this regard in 2012-13. He may not have the sheer strength and bulk that LeBron uses so brilliantly, but KD has learned how to use his height, length and quickness to his advantage against opponents of all shapes and sizes.
Believe it or not, some of the numbers actually suggest that Durant is a more effective defender, and not just because he averages more blocks per game (1.3) than does LeBron (0.9). According to 82games.com, Durant has done a better job of containing opposing small forwards and power forwards than has LeBron. On a per-48-minute basis, "threes" and "fours" both score fewer points, shoot worse percentages from the field, turn the ball over more, commit more fouls and register lower PERs against Durant than they do against LeBron.
On a bigger scale, Durant's Thunder are sixth in the NBA in defensive efficiency, allowing 100 points per 100 possessions. LeBron's Heat, on the other hand, check in at 12th with 101.8 points per 100 possessions surrendered. That gap actually shrinks, however slightly, when comparing Durant's individual defensive rating (100.2 points per 100 possessions) to LeBron's (101 points per 100 possessions).
They're also neck-and-neck as far as overall (and oversimplified) impact is concerned. According to NBA.com, the Thunder are 13.9 points better with Durant on the court, while the Heat are 14 points better with LeBron not on the bench.
There's a bit more separation to be found when comparing how each fares under pressure. Per 48 minutes of "clutch time," which 82games.com defines as "4th quarter or overtime, less than 5 minutes left, neither team ahead by more than 5 points," Durant scores more points (52.4 to LeBron's 34.0) and shoots a higher percentage from the field (.524 to LeBron's .455) than does James. However, LeBron boasts better totals in assists (25 to six) and rebounds (17 to eight).
It's here, amidst such a close contest, that the particulars of each player's team become important. For example, one might reasonably expect LeBron to boast a better PER than Durant not only because he's inherently a better passer and rebounder, but also because his role in Miami demands as much. He leads the Heat in nearly every statistical category aside from free-throw percentage and blocks because that's what Miami demands of him to win.
Durant, on the other hand, isn't OKC's top assist man, though he has improved considerably in that regard, as SI.com's Rob Mahoney noted back in November. More importantly, the Thunder don't need KD to play the point so often because Russell Westbrook is around to do that—and at an All-Star level, no less. If not for Westbrook, Durant would lead the Thunder in nearly every major statistical category, but has to cede the team's assist and steals crown to his trusty sidekick as is.
And who currently comes off the bench in Miami.
But while James' supporting cast has presumably improved, Durant's has lightened on talent this season. The Thunder traded James Harden, the reigning Sixth Man of the Year and a 2013 All-Star, to the Houston Rockets on the eve of the season. In essentially swapping Harden for Kevin Martin (and young players and picks), OKC gave up a ton in terms of ball-handling, distribution and overall dynamism. As a result, many expected OKC to take a step back, at least in the immediate aftermath.
Yet, as it turns out, the Thunder haven't missed a beat. Martin has done exactly what the team expected he would (i.e. shoot), Westbrook has cut down on his shooting a bit in favor of being a facilitator and Serge Ibaka has emerged as a legitimate offensive threat, particularly in the pick-and-pop.
But of all the players who've stepped up in Harden's absence, nobody has done more to fill in the gaps than Durant. He's handling and passing the ball more than he ever has, and is still scoring at a Durant-like rate despite sacrificing some of his shots for his team's sake.
Moreover, he's no longer the quiet, mild-mannered scorer that he once was. The Durant of old has since been "replaced" by a meaner, edgier KD, one who plays with a Fiona Gallagher-sized chip on his shoulder from night to night.
As a result, the Thunder now boast the best record in the NBA at 34-10—a full three games better than Miami's mark of 28-12. This despite the fact that OKC has had to slog its way through a tougher schedule while coping with the departure of a remarkable talent.
Would Miami be the best team in the East without, say, Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh? That may be a bit extreme, especially since those two guys start while Harden came off the bench in OKC once upon a time.
But what if Ray Allen were suddenly removed from the Heat's bench? How might they fare then?
Of course, there's no way to know definitively how Miami might do with a Harden-sized hole carved into the middle of its squad. What we do know, though, is that OKC lost a superstar, but still owns a better record and a far superior point differential (plus-8.8 for the Thunder vs. plus-5.9 for the Heat) than does Miami.
And that Durant has been the catalyst behind that sustained excellence.
Again, the MVP race is a tight one between the game's two pre-eminent talents. Both players have performed brilliantly through the first three months of the 2012-13 season. At this point, a straight split of the award would probably be fitting.
But if Durant's Thunder continue to dominate stiffer competition to the extent that they have thus far and if they finish with a markedly better win total at season's end, then an MVP vote for KD would hardly be miscast.
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