LeBron James has been the NBA’s Most Valuable Player in four of the last five seasons, and many would have said he was on pace to win the award again about a month ago.
Then Kevin Durant happened.
The debate about where these two stand as best in the NBA has almost always been a clear-cut James one, Durant two. That’s no slight against Durant, it’s just that LeBron is arguably the best all-around player that this league has; one that might actually go down as one of the best basketball players of all time when all is said and done. Durant, as absolutely great as he’s been in his six seasons, simply hadn’t reached that level before now. It’s been a matter of timing more than anything. If it weren’t for James, KD would almost certainly be the NBA’s top dog.
The thing is, we can’t help but measure greatness in hardware like MVP trophies and championship rings (of which, Kevin Durant has a whopping zero). We have recognized Durant as a phenomenal offensive player on a very good team, but he has yet to shake the second-best monkey off his back that has been there his whole career and, in turn, hasn’t been able to bask in the accolades of being number one.
He was the second pick in the 2007 NBA Draft, behind center Greg Oden. He has finished second in MVP voting three separate times. He has come second in the NBA Finals, losing to LeBron and the Heat in 2012.
This year, more than ever before, KD is making an undeniable case to be considered the league’s best, if not at least 1B to LeBron’s 1A. The comparison between the two is shifting to become more like Bird versus Magic than Jordan versus everyone else. That is to say, we might have reached the point where there is no obvious best out of the two. If anything, KD has surpassed James as the frontrunner for the MVP award this particular season. At least that’s the popular opinion right now.
Because of Durant’s otherworldly play of late, you will find countless articles, videos, and tweets out there today to that effect. Paul George and LaMarcus Aldridge have been playing inspired ball all season, pushing their names into the conversation as well, but this is clearly a two-man race between megastars Durant and James. Lots of people are currently saying it's KD's to lose, but do the numbers back it up?
Measuring an MVP
Any debate about who is the league MVP for any given season first needs clarification of what the award actually means. Some people contend that the honor should simply be given to the league’s best player for that year. That’s all well and good in theory, but if that were the case, Jordan would’ve won just about every one in the '90s, Kobe a bunch in the early- to mid-aughts, then LeBron all the way from roughly 2008 up until now. Where’s the fun in that? What would we all argue about then?
Another popular selection method, and arguably the most used and universally accepted, has to do with how important the player is to his team. How well would a team do without their MVP candidate? How much better is the team when he’s on the floor? How does he impact the other players around him? What kind of impact would he have if he were on another team? How much does his team’s win-loss record reflect on his abilities?
For our purposes, our nERD metric does a good job of combining all these factors. It measures the effect a player has on his team through usage rate, offensive rating, defensive rating, and time on the floor. The resulting number is the product of a series of regressions that transforms a player’s efficiency level into actual production measured in estimated wins that the player would be responsible for over a full season.
Simply put, a player’s nERD is meant to give an estimate of how many games above or below .500 a league-average team would ultimately be with a given player as one of its starters. Some might say that this is exactly the type of stat that could determine the MVP (or East and West All-Stars, if that's your thing).
Just look at the last 14 recipients of the MVP Award to get an idea of how predictive the stat has been in the past:
In 8 of the last 14 seasons, the player with the best nERD won the MVP Award. If you take out the Iverson and Nash seasons (which have been heavily scrutinized as being more story-based than statical), you’ll notice that all of the 11 remaining players had at least a top-7 nERD the year they won.
Without going too deep into it, a case could easily be made that the award in every one of the seasons that someone other than the top-ranked player won could’ve easily gone to the nERD leader instead. The 2011 award, for example, probably would’ve gone to LeBron James in his first year in Miami instead of Derrick Rose, had it not been for all the hate regarding “The Decision” and the taking of talents elsewhere.
This Year’s Race
If we attempted to predict this year’s MVP based on nERD, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion. Durant currently ranks first, clocking in with an otherworldly nERD of 30.8. Meanwhile, LeBron James sits in second at a respectable (albeit much lower) 18.9.
To give you some perspective, Durant’s 30.8 would be the highest over the last 15 years worth of data if it holds up until the end of the season, while the 11.9-point difference between first and second place is easily the largest differential we’ve ever had. The next highest was the 7.4 points that separated Dirk Nowitzki (22.7) and LeBron James (15.3) in 2007 (a year in which Dirk won MVP with 83 of a possible 129 first-place votes). This also marks the first time in six seasons that someone other than James has led the league in nERD, assuming that KD is able to hold on for the rest of the year. When you consider that, it becomes even harder to deny that a shift is taking place.
Durant’s monster year has been largely fueled by a month for the ages. Over his last eleven games, dating back to January 7th, Durant has been superlative, with averages of 38.5 points, 6.3 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.0 block, and 2.7 three-pointers per game, while shooting a ridiculous split of .546 from the field, .417 from downtown, and .875 from the line.
During this stretch, he has not once dipped below 30 points total for a game, has had individual scoring totals of 48, 54, and 46 (three of the four highest totals of any player this season), hit a game winner, and posted a triple double. By scoring 30 or more points in 11 straight games, he holds a streak that has only occurred 22 other times in NBA history. Even more impressive, KD’s field goal percentage of .546 during said streak is fourth highest of that group, trailing only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal, and Moses Malone (none of which, one should note, are jump shooters like Durantula).
Meanwhile, the Thunder have gone 9-3 over that span, winning eight straight and nine of their last 10. They have barely missed a step without Russell Westbrook, their second-best player and a top-10 talent in the league. We all knew that KD would have to shoulder more of the load without Russ around, but no one expected him to be this good. We’re basically running out of positive adjectives to describe Durant and this impressive run. If he keeps this going, we might have to open a whole new section in the thesaurus just for him. It’s ridiculous.
A Look at the Numbers
While Durant’s numbers over this 11-game stretch have been mighty impressive and have made everyone take notice, they only tell a quarter of the story. Durant’s played 45 games so far this year (sitting only once), and his full-season numbers are certainly nothing to scoff at. The gap between him and LeBron used to be considered quite wide (with the exception of scoring, of course), but it’s hard to look at their two basic stat lines this year and see many clear advantages for LBJ.
LeBron has largely been considered better than Durant in distributing the ball and on defense over the years. When looking at raw numbers this year, however, Durant seems to be closing that gap. Apart from averaging career highs in scoring categories like points, threes, and field goal percentage (as if he really needed to get better at those things), KD is also averaging a career best in assists and steals. Just looking at those lines side by side, LeBron’s only real advantages over KD are field goal percentage and assists, and those differences are becoming more and more marginal. KD also notably gets the edge in both defensive categories (steals and blocks).
We all know that the basic statistical categories only tell a portion of the story, so let’s take a look at some more advanced metrics:
LeBron’s advantages are even harder to find here. Yes, his effective field goal percentage is quite a bit better than KD’s, but he’s on pace to have the best season in that category of any non-center in NBA history. Cut Durant some slack.
Where the gap seems less gaping is in the true shooting percentage (a number that takes into account two-pointers, three-pointers, and free throws) and in the fact that Durant's 31.1 player efficiency rating bests LeBron's 28.7. In fact, at his current pace, Durant would rank in the top-10 all-time in PER (among many MVP seasons).
There has been a lot of attention paid to LeBron’s bid to have an unprecedented 60/40 split on field-goal and three-point percentage on the season, but it’s causing us to overlook the fact that KD has a legitimate shot at his second straight 50/40/90 campaign (the last number being free-throw percentage). Reaching that point in a single season has only ever been accomplished 12 times, and only two players have ever done it in back-to-seasons (or more than once for that matter): Larry Bird and Steve Nash. Those two players have a combined five MVP awards. Just sayin’.
Every other advanced statistic there belongs to KD. The offensive rating isn’t a huge surprise, given that KD is widely considered the best offensive player in the league. The true evolution of his game is seen in the fact that he handily beats LeBron in defensive rating and defensive win shares. Yes, those stats are known for being mostly team based, but no one has ever called the Miami Heat a soft defensive team.
The Thunder have risen to have the third best defensive efficiency rating in the league this season (99.1), while the Heat are 12th (102.4). Kevin Durant plays 38.1 minutes per game for the Thunder and is obviously a large part of his team’s elite defensive rating. It’s not like we can call him a defensive liability, even if he’s not considered in the upper echelon of defenders like LeBron.
Either way, the fact that KD is currently seventh in the NBA in defensive win shares might put him in the conversation for his first All-Defensive Team. He’ll have a ways to go to catch up to LeBron’s five straight nominations to the first team, but it’s worth mentioning that LeBron was only named to that team for the first time at 24 and KD is only 25. The scary thing in all of this is that Durant likely hasn’t even entered his prime yet and his ceiling might even be a few years away.
Finally, his 8.8 offensive win shares and 11.8 total win shares both lead the entire NBA, while LeBron’s trailing on both lists in second place. To get an idea of how big KD’s numbers might be in that respect, his .330 win shares per 48 minutes is on pace to be the second-best of all-time, trailing only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s 1971-72 season (an MVP year, incidentally). In fact, everyone else in that top 10 (Kareem, Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan, and LeBron) has won at least four MVP awards. KD is certainly due for his.
What They’re Working With
The Slim Reaper and King James both play on excellent basketball teams. The Thunder are currently fourth on our NBA Team Rankings with a nERD of 70.7, while the Heat are sixth with 67.8. Both have an All-NBA sidekick (Westbrook for KD and Dwyane Wade for LeBron). Both players also have an underrated big man functioning as the team’s third option (Serge Ibaka and Chris Bosh respectively).
Where KD’s run might be considered more impressive is that his team plays in a much more loaded and difficult Western Conference. He has led his team to a better record than the Heat (36-10 versus 32-12), despite having the seventh-highest strength of schedule in the whole NBA at .513, compared to the Heat’s league-easiest .475.
Many people are pointing at the absence of Russell Westbrook from the Thunder lineup as the number one reason for Kevin Durant’s elevated play, with some even absurdly using it as evidence that Westbrook should be traded. First of all, Durant has stepped up without Westbrook, but it’s been out of necessity. We’re all in awe of his elevated play, but we all know that Durant needs Westbrook if he ever wants to win a championship. Every Jordan needs his Scottie Pippen, as it were, and history has shown us as much over and over again.
Secondly, Westbrook has missed 44 percent of the games KD has played this season. That’s certainly a lot, but it shouldn’t be overlooked that LeBron has played 28 percent of his games this season without Wade as well. The margin is notable, but not as big as some might think. Durant’s situation has given him the opportunity to thrive, but LeBron has not been without a similar chance. The only difference is that one player is rising above and beyond expectations, while the other is performing at status quo or even slightly below what we’ve come to expect (of course, any talk of LeBron falling off is simply an example of how spoiled we are to be witnessing one of the best players of all time perform in the stratosphere year in and year out - they’re both insanely good, let’s not lose sight of that).
For all the talk that’s already going into naming this year’s MVP at this point in the season, there might not be a better opportunity to gain clarity and insight into the situation than to watch the two players go head to head. The Thunder head to Miami tonight for the first of two matchups this season between the two former Finals opponents and all eyes will be on the small forward matchup.
A lot has changed in the two years since these two players competed for the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy in 2012, namely LeBron’s been fitted for two championship rings and Durant has endured an additional two years of being called second best. The debate about who’s better has reached its most fevered pitch ever and tonight’s matchup will be full of questions.
Will LeBron react to all the talk by putting everything he’s got into outdueling Durant on the offensive end or by making it his personal mission to shut down the prolific scorer with his tenacious defense? Will Durant use this opportunity to prove that the hype is real by sticking it to one of the league’s best defenders, thus cementing his status as pretty much unguardable? When all is said and done and the smoke settles, who will emerge looking like the best player on the planet?
Regardless of what the answers to these questions end up being, not a single basketball fan should be looking anywhere else than at this potential finals rematch this evening. If the MVP vote were today, the numbers and narrative would clearly favor Durant as the winner over James. There is still a lot of season left to be played, however, and LeBron has never been one to bow out quietly. The journey for Durant to prove that he deserves to be in the conversation and LeBron’s bid to keep it all to himself will be on full display in just a few short hours.