After a long reign and practically a monopoly of Most Valuable Player Awards by LeBron James, it seems that the widely regarded "second-best" player in the game, Kevin Durant, may finally get over the proverbial hump this season and take home the hardware.
|Photo by: Getty Images|
However, it's rare to see someone take home league MVP honors whose team didn't finish in first place in their respective conference. In fact, it has only happened three times in the last 20 years. Each time it happened, the MVP was awarded to a player on a team with the second-best record (James 2011-12, Steve Nash 2005-06, and Tim Duncan 2001-02) and only because there wasn't a player who stood out on those top-seeded teams.
Kevin Durant clearly stands out on his team, though, and I will tell you why he is going to be this season's Most Valuable Player.
Let's start with the basics. To the average basketball fan, the main statistical categories are points, rebounds, and assists. Durant is starting to be more than just the best scorer in the game today, as he has taken his play to another level by getting his teammates involved as well. He is averaging an NBA-leading 31.2 points, 7.6 rebounds, and a career-high 5.5 assists per game. His biggest competitor for the award this season, reigning four-time MVP LeBron James, is also having a solid year, averaging 26.1 points, 6.9 rebounds, and 6.6 assists per game. Not too shabby. However, I think it's safe to say KD is the front-runner in overall numbers.
Of course, you cannot simply use just these three statistical categories to decide which player is worthy of the award, but when you look at the advanced metrics, it becomes clear that KD is the man to beat.
In this sports era of "moneyball" and high-tech computer software, we can delve into the numbers to further analyze players beyond just the normal stats. One major category used to determine a player's value is PER (Player Efficiency Rating), which measures per-minute production. Durant leads the league at 30.9, while LBJ trails at 28.6. Usage Rate Percentage is the estimate a percentage of team plays used by a player while he was on the floor. In layman's terms, this is essentially a measure of how much a team may rely on a certain player. Durant's 32.1% is also among the league leaders, and more than his counterpart in question.
Perhaps the most telling stat of them all would be Win Shares. This is an estimate of how many wins a player contributes to his team, similar to WAR (Wins Against Replacement) in baseball. Durant's Win Share is 13.0, compared to LeBron's 9.7. Theoretically, KD would single-handedly account for one-third of OKC's total wins.
Beyond the individual stats, what I find just as incredible is what Durant has done with his team in the absence of his sidekick, Russell Westbrook.
The dynamic point guard has missed the last 25 games with a knee injury, but Durant has put the club on his back and continued to pile up the wins. The Thunder recently went on a 10-game winning streak against some of the league's top squads, while Durant himself had an amazing 12-game streak of 30+ point performances. The team has impressively gone 20-8 with Westbrook out of the lineup. Granted, OKC is 21-4 with Westbrook on the floor, but they have continued to play extremely well in his absence.
The Heat, on the other hand, have not fared so well with LeBron's sidekick, Dwyane Wade, missing in action. They are only 7-6 when Wade does not suit up, compared to 28-8 when he plays. It might not be fair to say that Wade is as valuable to his team as LeBron is since we don't know for a fact how Miami would do without King James, but the bottom line is that the Heat not doing so hot without Wade this year diminishes LeBron's value.
The one game that put Durant over the top and at the head of the MVP candidacy this season was when the Thunder went into Miami in late January and humbled the defending champions. In that game, the 25-year-old went off against LeBron with 33 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 assists. James had a nice game himself (34-3-3), but the fact that OKC embarrassed Miami on their home floor coupled with the memorable big shots Durant hit with LeBron in his face, helped solidify his case for being the Most Valuable Player this season.
There are still roughly 30 games remaining, and anything can happen between now and the end of the season. That said, a major injury is probably the only thing that can stop Durant from winning the MVP Award. The Heat overtaking the Pacers at the top of the Eastern Conference or the Thunder giving away the 1-seed might make things closer, but I don't envision it happening.
The Reaper is no longer coming. He's here.