Let it be known right up front: LeBron James is the MVP. He will win and should win, the Maurice Podoloff Trophy. End of discussion, end of story, end of debate. Well, I guess not end of discussion because I’m going to try and start one. (Or I guess you could look at this as a case for why Kevin Durant should finish as the runner-up. Either way.)
Regardless of LeBron’s fantastic year, it is my duty as a Thunder fan, and even more importantly as Kevin Durant fan, to make a strong case for him as this year’s Most Valuable Player. And honestly, I won’t have to try that hard to make one. Because KD’s resume is pretty darn strong. In a word for the 21-year-old’s season, he’s been outstanding.
First, the most straightforward fact: KD has led an incredible, unbelievable, improbable turnaround for the Thunder. As it stands today, the team has gone from 23 wins, to 49 in a season. The Celtics tied the record for greatest single season turnaround in 2008 with a 36-win improvement. But that was with blowing up the roster, adding two Hall of Famers and starting fresh. Oklahoma City sits with a chance for a 27 or 28 game increase with virtually the exact same roster. Added was three rookies and two veterans that never play. To me, that’s the strongest part of Durant’s case.
He’s elevated a young team – the youngest in fact – to the playoffs. He’s taken his team to a higher place. It’s what the great players do. As Durant has rapidly improved, so has his team. No player’s direct improvement has so greatly affected his team. Russell Westbrook might have a better case than Durant for Most Improved, but because of KD’s commitment to the defensive end, along with shouldering the load as the primary rebounder and scorer, he’s been Reason No. 1 for OKC’s unexpected rise. Consider this: Last year, KD’s adjusted plus/minus was -8.62. This year? He’s skyrocketed to a +17.58. Yep, that’s the biggest improvement in the league and a 26.2-point swing. Heavens.
Obviously there’s the argument of “If you took LeBron off the Cavs, where would they be?” They wouldn’t be that great. LeBron does it all for Cleveland. But in the same respect, so does Durant. If you subtracted KD from the Thunder, this team would maybe be sitting in the 20s. Russell Westbrook would still be answering questions about whether or not he was a point guard, Scott Brooks might be on the hot seat and Sam Presti’s genius status might be taking a hit. Jeff Green probably wouldn’t have had two open looks at 3 against Boston last week because KD required so much attention. So that argument surely works two ways. LeBron was good last year and his team was good. But KD’s team stunk. They’ve won more games THIS YEAR than they have Durant’s previous two seasons. So like I said, Durant’s team has made an incredible rise in the standings and the direct relation to that has been because of him.
But the reality is, that doesn’t matter that much to people. What matters is that LeBron scores AND creates. It’s what separates him from everybody. He’s a point guard wrapped in a linebacker’s body. Most label Durant as a scorer only. And it’s true – KD isn’t near the creator and distributor LeBron is. But a lot of that is because Durant doesn’t have to be. He has a team built around him that’s made for KD to score. Westbrook creates. Durant scores. It’s a simple formula. But that doesn’t mean Durant isn’t as valuable to the Thunder as LeBron is to the Cavs. We all know KD isn’t “just a scorer” as some blowhards like to say. He rebounds, he defends, he scores, he creates, he helps teammates get looks and he leads. No team loves each other as much as the Thunder and that comes directly from Durant. He sets the tone and the example and his mates walk in step behind him.
How valuable is KD to this team? The best way I thought I could summarize it was with this crude, likely disagreeable graph.
Durant is the centerpiece. He’s the middle. Everyone has their role on this team, but he’s THE scorer, THE rebounder and has become a better-than-good-but-not-great defensive player. The mark to qualify yourself for MVP candidacy is 50 wins and OKC has a legit shot at that. The Thunder needs just one more win for 50. And besides that, OKC battled for the Northwest Division title all season which happens to be the toughest division in basketball and will finish the season just three or four games out of second in the West. If that doesn’t qualify you for MVP candidacy, then, well, insert some kind of slightly witty quip here to illustrate that truth.
The other top MVP candidates find the middle hole in the Venn Diagram too. LeBron is his team’s best defender, leading scoring and leading rebounder. Dwight Howard scores, rebounds and defends. And Kevin Durant is everything to his team. He’s the leading rebounder, leading scorer, leading stealer, second in blocks, third in assists and leads the team in minutes played. His PER is a strong 26.17 which is third in the league and a six-point improvement from last year. He’s become a well-rounded small forward and he’s not close to his ceiling as a player yet.
A few other stats: He leads the league in 30-10 games with 17. He’s had 25 double-doubles this year. He’s averaging 30.1 points per game, which again leads the league. He’s averaging 7.6 rebounds a game, which puts him in the top 30. He’s had seven 40-point games and had scored 45 three times this year. He’s even averaging a full block a game this year. And he’s led the Thunder in scoring 73 times this year out of 80 games. He’s scored 25 points or more 71 times this year, which is the most since Michael Jordan did it 76 times in 1987-88. He’s shooting 47.5 percent from the floor, 36 percent from 3 and 89.8 percent from the stripe for a true shooting percentage of 60.5 percent which is flat out amazing. I could go on and on and on but know this: He’s been awesome.
I wish I was a better writer/basketball mind to really make a great case of Kevin Durant. Because he deserves serious consideration. It’s a foregone conclusion that LeBron will win, but if KD doesn’t at least come in a semi-close second, I’ll be upset. He’s meant absolutely everything to his team, he leads the league in scoring and because of his commitment over the summer to get stronger and become a better defender, he has his group on the cusp of 50 wins. His value to the Thunder is really immeasurable. Without him, who knows what things would look like. Not just on the scoreboard, but the chemistry in the locker room, the culture of the team and the overall togetherness these guys have bonded. Durant leads the way on all of that and without him, I don’t know if we’d feel so great about things.
Again, Durant isn’t winning this award. LeBron James is the best player on the best team. It’s an obvious choice. But at the age of 21 and in his third year, Kevin Durant has made The Leap. He’s in the discussion for MVP and we all know this isn’t the first time this will happen. Actually, I expect to be having this conversation for 10 or 12 more straight years.