Kevin Durant has taken his game to new heights as the Oklahoma City Thunder continue to sit atop the Western Conference. But is his season enough to keep LeBron James from a third straight MVP award? Our scribes discuss KD's chances of dethroning the King.
1. In five words, describe Kevin Durant's performance this season.
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: He's taking the next step. Mostly that means he understands the game better and knows exactly what to do with the ball and when to do it. The most noticeable difference is his assists average of 4.9 per game -- the highest of his career.
Amin Elhassan, ESPN Insider: Magnificent. Transcendent. Better than ever. Durant has taken what we've accepted as routine (phenomenal in and of itself) and improved upon it, with career highs in PER, rebound percentage and assist percentage while playing the fewest minutes per game since his rookie season, all while powering the Thunder to the second-best record in the league without the consistent presence of Russell Westbrook.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss, TrueHoop: He steps up when needed. His performance against Minnesota was a great game and a great example. Without Westbrook and with 21 minutes of a mostly useless Kendrick Perkins, KD pulled out the victory with 48 points and some incisive passing. At certain times, Durant can morph into a largely successful one-man team.
Tom Sunnergren, Hoop76: Better, somehow, than ever before. The NBA's top scorer is setting career marks in rebounds, assists, steals and points per minute, leading the league in wins produced, win shares and PER, and has his Thunder, again, atop the rugged West. This is the best basketball he's ever played -- and Durant, you might have heard, has played some pretty good ball.
Michael Wallace, ESPN.com: The best of his career. Durant admitted that losing Westbrook in the playoffs last season was the sort of shock he wasn't completely prepared to deal with. This time around, Durant is leaving nothing to chance. He has improved every facet of his game. But the biggest change has been with his leadership and tenacity. He is done with playing second fiddle in the NBA.
2. In five words, describe LeBron James' performance this season.
Adande: He is carrying the Heat. Dwyane Wade has missed almost as many games as Westbrook (Wade 8, Westbrook 9 -- although Westbrook will pull away in this category over the next few weeks), yet the Heat are only one game behind the Thunder and 1½ back in the chase for the No. 1 overall seed with a better record through 34 games than they had last season. LeBron won't let them rest on their rings.
Elhassan: Conservative. Efficient. Still the best. James has unlocked "the secret" and has reached a plane of consciousness most never approach. Despite averaging career lows in minutes and field goal attempts per game, he has zeroed in with a surgical accuracy and focus, with the goal of making it to the playoffs with as much in the tank as possible. He is currently posting the second-highest field goal percentage (58.8) of any player with at least 100 3-point attempts in history (behind Charles Barkley's 59.4 mark in 1986-87).
Strauss: No need to push it. The Heat are coasting, and there's nothing wrong with that. They didn't come up with this 82-game schedule. They didn't ask for the East to be so horrible. They're right to conserve energy. LeBron has been brilliant, but it seems as though he's reflexively so, as opposed to pushing himself past old limits.
Sunnergren: Tuning his instrument, thinking June. LeBron has been brilliant this season, but you get the sense that, at 29, he's saving himself for the playoffs. While his league-leading 66.9 true shooting percentage is the best he's ever managed, LeBron is at or near career-worst marks in hustle stats like steals, blocks and rebounds and is posting his lowest usage rate since his rookie season.
Wallace: Raising greatness to another level. Just when you thought LeBron had reached the peak of his powers, he bursts through another ceiling. He knows what kind of season Durant and Paul George are having. So how does LeBron respond? By threatening to shoot a ridiculous 60 percent from the field and setting the pace for the best start in franchise history.
3. Should and will previous results factor into this season's MVP race?
(James has won four MVP awards. Durant has finished second in the voting to James three times.)
Adande: It should be based on this season and this season alone, but you know the past will come into play. It's inevitable when you have the media voting for an award. Reporters are invested in finding the best story, and Durant winning the MVP is a better story than LeBron winning it; another MVP for LeBron wouldn't qualify as news.
Elhassan: Should they? Probably not. The MVP should go to the very best player in the NBA, provided he didn't mail it in. Will they? Historically we've seen it happen where voters get tired of giving it to the odds-on favorite and decide to hand out consolation MVP awards. I have a strong feeling this is one of those years.
Strauss: Should? No. Will? Probably. It's natural to crave a new story after hearing the old one again and again. This is as much the reason for Derrick Rose's MVP as Rose's performance was. Still, we shouldn't close ourselves off to the idea that Durant might actually deserve the 2014 honor. He is statistically better than LeBron so far this season.
Sunnergren: They shouldn't, but they always do. People like a good story -- sportswriters especially -- and "LeBron wins MVP again; sky still blue" doesn't quite pack the narrative pop of "Kevin Durant supplants James as league's top player." See Barkley in 1992-93 and Rose in 2010-11 for particularly egregious examples of MVP fatigue biasing the voting. None of this is to say Durant, if honored, would be unworthy.
Wallace: Should they? No. Will they? Of course they will. Voters will have to find a reason to give this award to someone other than LeBron. Durant's best bet is to distance himself from George, LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Love and Tony Parker and make this a clear two-man race. Then he could pick up blocks of votes he might not have otherwise received.
4. Would a healthy Westbrook help or hurt Durant's MVP chances?
Adande: Hurt. The belief that a healthy Westbrook is the difference between the Thunder being a championship contender or just another playoff team is a measure of Westbrook's value, not Durant's. But if Durant can keep the Thunder among the league's elite while Westbrook is out, it pads his résumé. Until Westbrook returns, there can be no debate about who drives this team. That's beneficial to Durant.
Elhassan: Hurt, but not because I think Durant's numbers would suffer that much. Rather, everyone is viewing Durant's performance through the lens of the Thunder's win-loss record. "Wow, despite not having Westbrook, they're still one of the best teams!" Westbrook's return would give voters an out as far as the source of OKC's success.
Strauss: Hurt. The loss of Westbrook might hinder Oklahoma City's season, but it helps the Durant story arc. With Westbrook healthy, a great Durant season is just a great Durant season. With Westbrook out, it's the compelling narrative of Durant carrying his team. The latter story is fresh and stands a better chance of dethroning the King.
Sunnergren: Hurt. Here's the thing: In a league dominated by two- and three-superstar teams, it looks pretty darn impressive to go at it alone, which Durant has shown he's more than capable of doing. KD has been better without Westbrook this season and might have been better last year, too. (Remember his outlandish 30.8 point, 9 rebound, 6.3 assist per game 2012-13 postseason? That happened.) Westbrook's absence hurts the team but probably improves the odds its superstar takes home hardware.
Wallace: Help. At least on the surface. But it depends on whether Durant can keep up this torrid pace he's been on the past couple of weeks since Westbrook left the lineup. There's no question the Thunder are a better team with Westbrook healthy, but Durant is forced to become a more versatile player in his absence. But it works only if Durant keeps OKC atop the West.
5. Who do you think is the MVP at the moment?
Adande: I'd go with Durant. Then again, I had Durant as the MVP at this stage last season. That was before the Heat went on a 27-game winning streak that included a 10-point victory at Oklahoma City. So Durant is far from a lock. Hope he enjoys this moment, at least. He's earned it.
Elhassan: I'll give you his work address: 601 Biscayne Blvd., Miami, Fla.
Strauss: Durant. I believe LeBron to be the better player, but Durant is having a better season. You can't go on which guy you think is best; you have to go with which guy is playing best.
Sunnergren: Durant. The 25-year-old has been, statistically, the best player in basketball in 2013-14 by the reckoning of all the publicly available advanced metrics, all while carrying his team to the best record in the West -- and just a half-game behind the Pacers for the top mark in the sport -- despite the absence of his No. 2. He's earned it.
Wallace: LeBron. If you remove each top candidate from his team, the Thunder probably take the steepest fall. But for as much as Durant has dominated in OKC, George has impressed in Indy and Love has produced in Minnesota, I just haven't seen enough yet to convince me that LeBron has loosened his grip on the hardware. But it's still early.
ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network
J.A. Adande and Michael Wallace are NBA writers for ESPN.com. Amin Elhassan writes for ESPN Insider. Ethan Sherwood Strauss contributes to TrueHoop. Tom Sunnergren writes for the TrueHoop Network.
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