Since we are now 30 games into the season and rapidly approaching the midpoint, early MVP discussion has picked up. Not surprisingly, LeBron James, the king of the realm and PER maestro, still leads. Kevin Durant trails him just as he did a year ago, but the gap is closing. The gap is closing not because LeBron is having an off-year, but because Durant is gaining ground in all of the skills that LeBron is better at. As a result, LeBron's still league-wide leading PER rating of 30.0 is within striking range of Durant, who is posting a career-best 28.2. After those two, the drop-off is substantial. Yes, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony will garner some attention, but at the end of the day, the MVP will be decided between the two best players on the planet.
Which leads to my question - is it possible for the best player in basketball to be supplanted in the MVP race by another guy who is having a better year? Also, if this is possible, would that second best player even want the added MVP attention? See Charles Barkley and David Robinson for the answer to that latter question.
In any event, here is what some of the leading NBA writers are saying in the new year about Durant's chances:
This is a race, for now, between James and Durant, the two finest players in the league. And we have to start here: James is just better, even as Durant has closed the gap with what may end up as one of the greatest shooting seasons in league history — a 50/40/90 tour of NBA destruction. Durant is no. 2 in Player Efficiency Rating, and he has made incremental progress in every aspect of his game. He's increased both his assist totals3 and the quality of his assists, threading some smart passes out of the pick-and-roll and occasionally whipping one-handed cross-court lasers that make you rewind your DVR to make sure it was Durant.
He's also a better defender than he was last year, both one-on-one and as a helper. Opposing small forwards have recorded a laughable PER of just 7.9 with Durant on the court, and like the rest of his young Thunder brethren, he's moving to the right place at the right time more often away from the ball as he gains experience.
But the gap between James and Durant on defense and in terms of passing is still significant, and Durant's superior shooting doesn't make up for it. James has the edge by nearly two full points in PER, and after another clutch performance in Orlando on New Year's Eve, he's cracked the 30 mark in that category - something only seven players have ever done over a full season in 16 separate player seasons.
The Durant-backers can't lean on the "clutch" argument anymore, either. Both have shot well in the last five minutes of close games, with James going 18-of-38 over 66 qualifying minutes and Durant a scorching 19-of-36 in 63 such minutes, per NBA.com's stats database...
Both Oklahoma City and Miami have ranked among the three or four best "clutch" teams so far. The sample sizes are tiny, and relying on such tiny sample sizes is generally bad in handing out awards that honor a season's work. But in this case, they don't sway things either way...
Basically: LeBron James is the best player in the world, and the best player should usually win MVP.
This season is setting up an unusual scenario in which Durant may well unseat the league's best player in the MVP race without the aid of narrative fireworks. Having already made "the leap," most would expect Durant to ride out the rest of his 20s, making subtle improvements to his game with corresponding boosts in his production. But KD's evolution has been anything but subtle. His improved help defense is punctuated with weak-side blocks, his court vision now invokes comparison to his only basketball superior in Miami and he's somehow an even smoother creator off the dribble than he was previously.
But Durant and the Thunder -- despite a great start after the departure of Sixth Man Award winner James Harden -- have been almost completely eclipsed by the Knicks' shiny success, the Lakers-inspired schadenfreude and the Heat's occasional malaise. Durant may have years of feel-good coverage working in his favor, but in the most impressive season of his career he's been oddly under-covered. That quiet isn't likely to last, but in today's world of minute-to-minute reporting it's almost refreshing to see Durant very quietly close the gap on three-time winner LeBron James to the point where he makes for a credible MVP choice.
Jovan Buha: LeBron James. While Kevin Durant and Chris Paul are worthy adversaries, LeBron is simply the best player in basketball. The notion that anyone else could be MVP is silly; people are just tired of voting for the same guy. Though Durant may close in on LeBron soon, it's an Eddy Curry-sized gap as it stands.
Jim Cavan: LeBron James. Durantula has asserted himself as the Association's clear-cut No. 2, and an eventual usurping of the King's throne might well broach reality in due time. But LeBron's improved shooting, steadfast production and indispensable leadership ring loud enough to echo a booming mantra: Not yet.
Patrick Hayes: LeBron James. With apologies to Durant, who is very close, James is currently the best player in the league, will be in 2013 and probably will be for at least 2014 and 2015, too.
Kevin Pelton: Kevin Durant. This feels like his year. With his improvement as a rebounder, defender and playmaker, Durant's all-around game no longer pales in comparison to LeBron's. Statistically, KD has been the most valuable player so far this season. Despite the threat of Chris Paul, the annual summer Durant MVP hype will finally translate into an actual trophy this spring.
Kyle Weidie: LeBron James. Is there any other answer? As long as he keeps his effective field goal percentage around 58 percent (now 58.1) and his assist percentage at about 30 percent (now 33.3), he'll be the world's best player for 2013 and beyond.
I will personally go on record to say that I don't really care if Durant ever wins an MVP, and in fact I think it might suit him better to be the hunter instead of the hunted. As long as Durant is chasing LeBron, Durant will continue to improve as a player. As long as that improvement happens, OKC is in the hunt to win championships, which is the only scorecard worth keeping for the game's best players.