At CBSSports.com today, I wrote on Kevin Durant and what seemed to derail his golden path to the MVP.
Kevin Durant had already accomplished the hard part. He had the buzz.
The first step in winning basketball most prestigious individual award is building that buzz. With a fantastic season where he became the youngest scoring champion in history, led his surprising Thunder to 50 wins, placed second behind LeBron for MVP and then put a young Team USA squad on his back in Turkey for the first World Championship gold medal in 16 years, Durant had everyone talking.
In fact, coming into the season, Durant was the overwhelming pick by NBA general managers to win the MVP. Most fans were taking him, especially with the way LeBron James damaged his image and his importance by going to Miami to join Dwyane Wade.
But all that buzz is actually what sort of betrayed Durant. Expectations for him were taken to an entirely new level. He averaged 30.1 points per game on awesome percentages last season, so the assumption was he’d top that this year.
He didn’t. But it’s not like he was bad, or even average. He was terrific. He’s about to win his second straight scoring title averaging 27.8 points per game on 46 percent shooting. That’s not all that bad, you know. Really, the only difference from this year and last year’s scoring numbers is that Durant took almost 150 fewer free throws. Give him 135 more makes from the stripe and he averages 29.6 ppg, much closer to on par with last season.
Most importantly though, his team has gone from fun 50-win upstart to a 55-win legitimate contender in the Western Conference. In terms of resume, Durant has a solid one. Probably an MVP-worthy one.
Bur for some reason, he just sort of got overlooked. Most don’t even have Durant in their top five. It’s likely he’ll finish sixth, behind Dirk Nowitzki. Maybe it was because of his semi-slow start. Maybe it’s because teammate Russell Westbrook stole some of the spotlight. Maybe it’s because he didn’t reach the bar set for him in the offseason, because he didn’t live up to the hype. Whatever the case, he sort of was forgotten, despite having a season almost on par to the campaign that had him as runner-up to LeBron.
That’s the thing about being the favorite though. People expect things. Durant was expected to take his game to another level and despite his team being better with Durant still doing very good things, he wasn’t as good as we thought. That made all the difference.
When he was showered with all that offseason praise for announcing his extension on Twitter, for winning gold and for being the frontrunner for MVP, there was some worry that it might have an effect on Durant. Some wondered if it was possible for it all to get in his head a bit. But KD said it well back in September at the Thunder’s media day.
“I feel like the same guy I was in high school. I’ve got a car and a driver’s license, but other than that, it’s the same.” And a giant house, and a shoe, and millions of dollars… but let’s not get picky here because I see his point.
When he was asked about NBA GMs picking him as the preseason MVP he said, “I mean, it’s cool but it doesn’t really mean too much.” Don’t let him fool you entirely — he would very much have liked to win. But it was never his focus.
Durant said a month ago that the media tends to gravitate toward the new guy. He was that guy last season leading a surprise team to the postseason. This year, it’s Derrick Rose. Having that fresh face really is a pretty big advantage. Rose wasn’t pegged by anyone as a preseason MVP candidate. So his awesome season seemed to come out of nowhere, making it feel like he really elevated his level of play this year (which he has of course). Durant, on the other hand, appeared to regress. How can a guy be an MVP when he wasn’t as good as last year?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing for Kevin Durant here. He’s not this season’s MVP. But I also don’t think he really did anything to entirely remove his name from the discussion.
Winning the MVP really was never on Durant’s mind though. Before the season he said, “I don’t set individual goals like that. The only goals I set for myself is to try to have a better season than I did last year. That’s about it. I don’t have to score more points, or get more rebounds or get more assists. But if I got better throughout the season is how I determine if I had a better season than last year.”
Well, he didn’t score more points or get more rebounds or get more assists. But his team went from novelty future winner to a contender right now. His team went from good to very, very good. From scary to downright terrifying. Somehow, I think that’s the goal Durant had all along. So he can live with his name slipping from the MVP talk.
And before you get too wrapped up in thinking Durant had a “down” year or disappointed in some way by not fulfilling all the hype, remember this: He’s only 22 years old. He’s just finishing up his fourth season in the NBA. He still has a lot, and I mean a lot, of time left. His MVP will come, but like he said, that’s not really what he’s thinking about.