J.A. Adande, who lives in L.A., and Israel Gutierrez, who lives in Miami, are teaming up this season for a look at the NBA from two perspectives. Today, they discuss the MVP race.
LeBron James versus Kevin Durant will end up as a better rivalry than Magic Johnson versus Larry Bird. That doesn't mean bigger. No one will duplicate Magic and Bird's roles in restoring the league's two most glamorous franchises to glory, and elevating the prominence of the NBA in the process. But from a purely one-on-one standpoint, this one's better.
LeBron and Durant guard each other more than Bird and Magic did. It's also easier to compare LeBron and Durant because their scoring duties are similar (LeBron's career average is 27.6 points and Durant's is 26.6, while Bird averaged 24.3 points to Magic's 19.5). LeBron and Durant already have a pair of 1-2 finishes in the MVP voting. That happened only once for Bird and Magic, when Bird finished about eight furlongs ahead of Magic in 1984-85.
You can count on LeBron and Durant finishing 1-2 again this season. Only this time the order will change. It's Durant's turn to win the MVP. That has been the case so far and there's no reason to expect it to change by the end of the season.
We'll start with winning, which is the truest reflection of value. Durant's Oklahoma City Thunder have a better record than LeBron's Miami Heat. And you'll notice you haven't heard the discussions about the Thunder cruising or taking nights off or pacing themselves or needing more energy -- all of which we've heard about the Heat. That's a credit to Durant and a reflection on LeBron.
Notice I didn't say blame LeBron. It's not his fault the Heat seem more dependent on him than ever, and he can't be expected to carry them for 48 minutes every night. It's not worth it to burn himself out in January. But I base the MVP on performance, not ability. That show he put on in Los Angeles last week, when he scored 39 points and shut down Kobe Bryant on the defensive end in the final minutes, demonstrated what he's capable of doing. It also isn't an everyday occurrence. LeBron's decision to pick his spots of dominance is the smart play for the long run, it just doesn't enhance his MVP candidacy.
Durant, meanwhile, is becoming more efficient, learning how to get more from less. His scoring average (29.5 points per game) is up from the past two seasons, even though his field goal attempts are down. That's because his shooting percentages are at a career-high rate: 52 percent from the field, 40 percent from 3-point range, 91 percent from the free throw line. He's on track to be the sixth player to join the 50/40/90 club, a VIP area occupied by Steve Nash, Larry Bird, Mark Price, Reggie Miller and Dirk Nowitzki. In other words, this is what happens when the elite shooters are at their best.
At the same time, Durant is doing more than ever before to get his teammates involved. He's averaging a career-high 4.2 assists per game. More than that, he has taken on a greater responsibility for infusing this team with his will. LeBron hasn't had to deal with the major personnel change the Thunder made by trading James Harden. The vibe feels different in the Thunder locker room, as if there's a missing Musketeer. But Durant hasn't let that derail this team.
Finally, never forget that the MVP is a media-voted award, and it's subject to storyline as much as stats. Another MVP award for LeBron would be his fourth in five seasons. The media crave fresh stories. Lucky for them, Durant has given them every reason to write a new one.