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MVP race takes interesting turn

It's easy to forget that, only a few months ago, Kevin Durant was the overwhelming favorite to win the 2010-11 Most Valuable Player award.

In an NBA.com poll heading into the season, 28 NBA general managers were asked to pick the player most likely to win the NBA's highest individual honor. A whopping 67 percent of the field chose Durant, who, at the time, was a mere 21 years old.

Perhaps more notable was the fact that only one voter picked LeBron James to bring home the award for a third consecutive season. The majority of the league execs believed it was Durant's time.

But James isn't ready to pass the torch just yet. His impressive campaign has put the anointment of Durant on hold.

For the fourth consecutive season, James is averaging at least 25 points, seven rebounds and seven assists per game. Only four players in NBA history have accomplished the feat in any one season. James is on track to do it again, despite having to share the ball with two other superstars, six-time All-Star Dwyane Wade and five-time All-Star Chris Bosh. Furthermore, James' 26 player efficiency rating (PER) leads all NBA players.

Earlier this season, James went on record to say his MVP chances "went out the window" when he signed with Miami this summer. And on Wednesday, James said he wasn't surprised to see Durant garner so much preseason love for MVP.

"It doesn't matter to me," James said. "Team success comes with individual accolades. I think GMs and coaches have their own opinions. That doesn't stop me from going out and being the best player on the court every night. Or trying to be the best player on the court every night."

On Sunday, Durant will make it especially difficult for James to be the best on the floor. The two are set to face off in Oklahoma City for the league's first nationally televised Sunday matinee.

And when it comes to being the best, James and Durant are no strangers. Last season, they shared the top two spots in MVP voting and battled toe-to-toe down the stretch for the scoring title. In the end, James won the MVP while Durant led the league in points per game.

As professional basketball players, James and Durant have shared the court on five separate occasions (six if we count last season's All-Star game). Durant is still searching for his first regular-season victory against James, as Durant's teams have lost by an average of 15 points to James-led squads. The last time they met, James swatted away Durant's potential game-tying shot in the closing seconds of the game as the Cavaliers won 100-99 last January.

The two stars are designated as small forwards on the floor, so one could call them basketball brethren. But to group them in the same category suggests they employ similar styles as basketball players.

They do not.

And James will admit as much.

"He's an unbelievable talent," James said. "I love his game. He's been doing some great things for the Oklahoma City Thunder team. But we're totally different players."

For all their proximities on league leaderboards, the two players represent a contrast as modern small forwards.

We'll start with the way they put the ball in the basket. James scores by going through his defender. Durant, on the other hand, scores by going over his defender. James barrels through the lane, aggressively looking to initiate contact. Durant finesses his way to the rim, strategically baiting defenders to catch them off balance. In this sense, they are free throw artists -- each, coincidentally enough, averages 8.9 free throws per game, the league's highest rate for forwards -- but they employ different means to the same end.

The two developed their skills at different paces. When Durant entered the league after his freshman year at the University of Texas, his exceptional asset was his jump shot. With his wiry arms and elevated form, Durant could shoot the ball over the tallest NBA players with remarkable efficiency. Coupled with his quickness, Durant was instantly a defender's nightmare on the perimeter.

Conversely, when James came into the league as an 18-year-old, the jump shot was his Achilles heel. When the ball left his hands in his rookie year, it was uncertain whether it would swish through the net or miss the basket entirely. But eight years later, James has limited the air balls to a minimum. In fact, if you compare James' 3-point percentage to Durant's this season, you may be surprised who holds the higher mark (hint: it's James).

Durant is a pure scorer in the sense that his primary function on the floor is to put points on the board. And because of his length, no one can effortlessly create and deliver anywhere on the court quite like Durant. According to Hoopdata.com, he's one of five players to average one made field goal in each of the five shooting zones on the court this season (at rim, less than 10 feet, 10-15 feet, 16-23 feet and behind the 3-point line).

And because of James' size and vision, no one can create and deliver the ball anywhere on the court quite like LeBron. Whether it's a full-court outlet pass or a behind-the-back post entry, James has wowed audiences with his creativity and effectiveness with the ball ever since he stepped foot in the league. Durant has yet to develop this facet of his game, but point guard Russell Westbrook's presence has something to do with that.

James He's an unbelievable talent. I love his game. He's been doing some great things for the Oklahoma City Thunder team. But we're totally different players.

-- LeBron James

But the greatest gap between the two players may reside on the defensive end of the floor. James' unrivaled combination of strength and speed enables him to guard any position on the court, even if it's only in an emergency situation.

When asked to articulate the differences between James and Durant, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra immediately spoke about his player's versatility.

"We're seeing the full skill set of a two-time MVP this year," Spoelstra said. "A guy who is playing multiple positions, being asked to play different positions from game to game and sometimes within the same game. He's played all five positions for us this season so far and that's not easy to do. You have to have an incredible IQ for the game to be able to jump around from position to position without it messing up with your confidence and rhythm for the game."

When compared to James, what Durant lacks in defense and vision, he makes up in youth. As amazing as Durant has been in the NBA, the truth remains that he is still 22 years old -- or the same age of many college seniors.

And he's still getting better.

"Kevin's game has improved so dramatically over the years," Spoelstra said. "He doesn't have many weaknesses now that you can point to." Since his rookie season, Durant skyrocketed through the league and expectations had never caught up to him.

Until this summer.

With Team USA gold, MVP predictions and Durant's team plastered on magazine covers, perhaps we expected too much too early. It's silly to consider his league-leading 28.6 points per game a disappointment after he averaged 30.1 in 2009-10.

But with his name surprisingly absent from MVP discussions, it's easy to forget his youth. Meanwhile, LeBron is barely 26.

"It's a great battle," Spoelstra said. "Fans will get their money's worth this Sunday."