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RACE TO THE MVP
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With Kevin Durant leading the charge, the Thunder are defying some conventional NBA wisdom.
Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images

Unconventional rise of Thunder puts Durant in MVP discussion

By Frank Hughes, for NBA.com
Posted Nov 30 2009 10:12AM

From Bird to Magic to Michael to Kobe, the paradigm for success in the NBA over the past three decades has always been to have a solid core of veteran players in the prime of their careers, add a touch of youthful exuberance and a dash of wizened mentoring and hope that the stars align properly for a championship run.

Some teams have tried in the past to completely dismantle what they have in place, rebuild from the ground up and hope that the cunning intelligence of their organization (ahem, Jerry Krause) is enough to make them moderately successful.

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Inevitably, that formula fails.

Usually it fails because the player around whom the organization is building turns out to be a bum. Or, because young players simply don't know how to play the game properly and by the time they figure it out they have lost so many games that they don't know how to win. Or, egos, salaries and every other element that is not easily quantified gets it fingers stuck in the hinges of a door that can never quite open.

It's precisely because of that general rule of thumb that The Race is following the arc of the Oklahoma City Thunder with such fascination. (Well, that, and because The Race covered the Seattle SuperSonics for 12 years and was absolutely stunned to see a team with such rich history be permitted to relocate with such an ungracious exit -- as if there is such a thing.)

It's not so much that The Race is rooting against the success of the Thunder. It's more that The Race is flummoxed that if the season were to end today, Oklahoma City would be the eighth seed in the West, a pretty incredible achievement given its youth.

By extension, that means that the Thunder is doing something right. And as it relates to the Race to the MVP, it means that Kevin Durant must suddenly be included among the names mentioned -- which cannot be an easy thing for Portland GM Kevin Pritchard to hear, despite the recent success of Greg Oden. After all, it was Pritchard who made Oden the No. 1 overall pick in 2007 (while Durant landed in the Sonics'/Thunder's lap as the No. 2 overall choice).

Now, there are two views of Durant: The first is that he is not that good a player or leader, a high-volume shooter whose 27 points per game is inflated because he averages more than 20 shots per, an argument augmented by his 3.1-3.2 assist-to-turnover ratio.

The other view, to which The Race is beginning to ascribe, is that Durant is the future of the NBA, his young teammates' success possible only because Durant's undeniable talents garner so much attention.

The most impressive thing about Durant's numbers is that they continue to increase -- and one wonders where his ultimate apex lies.

His rookie season, Durant averaged 20.3 points, 4.4 rebounds and 2.4 assists. Last season, he was at 25.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.8 assists. And this season, he is at a robust 27.1 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3.1 assists.

The Thunder is 8-7 and appear as if it is ready to be a contender in most games, no small feat for a team that suffered through 62 losses in Durant's rookie season and 59 last season. Just remaining a .500 team would mean it will show an 18-game improvement.

This is not to say the Thunder is the next great NBA dynasty. History also suggests that things tend to fall apart somewhat easily when young (read: mentally fragile) teams enjoy early success. Just ask the Utah Jazz how quickly things can go awry.

But the fact that Oklahoma City appears to be on the precipice of success is something that needs to be acknowledged, if for no other reason than it has already overcome its biggest obstacle: History.

1. LeBron James, Cavaliers (11-4)
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153829.76.98.01.50.7.524.364.787
Last Week's Rank - 6
You knew it was eventually going to come to this. It took four weeks, but The King has made it to the top of the Race, pushing aside Steve Nash. It's not that Nash did anything wrong; it's that James did everything so right. And The Race wonders if LeBron will ever give up the top spot for the remaining, well, five months of the season. He got here by averaging 35.5 points, 7.6 assists and 8.0 rebounds while making 55 percent of his shots in three victories last week -- all, The Race notices, without Shaquille O'Neal in the lineup due to injury, thank you very much. Perhaps O'Neal's return is the only way LeBron gives somebody else a chance in The Race. We should know more about that on Wednesday, when the Cavaliers face O'Neal's former team, the Phoenix Suns.

2. Kobe Bryant, Lakers (11-3)
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1437.930.15.23.62.10.2.488.188.857
Last Week's Rank - 2
Hmmm, LeBron and Kobe at the top of The Race. Who could have predicted that? Only a prehistoric troglodyte could have missed on that two-horse finish. The only surprise is it took so long for them to be standing side-by-side. Alas, Kobe's 30-point, 5.5-assist, 5.5-rebound week that garnered two more victories for the defending world champs has righted the NBA makeup. With Pau Gasol back as his wingman, it can only get Kobe more opportunities to pile up stats.

3. Steve Nash, Suns (12-4)
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1532.716.72.511.90.30.2.529.453.936
Last Week's Rank - 1
Nash reminds The Race of Raphael: An exceptional artist in his own right, but always overshadowed by da Vinci and Michelangelo (you are responsible for connecting the dots). Nash had 20 points and nine assists in one game last week, and 11 points and 16 assists in another. Both games were wins, by the way. He shot 75 percent from the field. And it still wasn't enough to keep him from losing his top spot. Should be interesting to see how Nash fares in that game against Cleveland and O'Neal since Nash has been pretty vocal about what a mistake it was for GM Steve Kerr to abandon the team's uptempo philosophy and pursue the lumbering big man.

4. Dirk Nowitzki, Mavericks (11-4)
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1538.526.98.92.81.21.6.457.353.891
Last Week's Rank - 5
Nowitzki is playing out of his mind right now, averaging 27 points and nine rebounds while leading the Mavericks to six victories in their last seven games. In the same way that The Race thinks Kevin Durant may one day revolutionize his position, Nowitzki has already done that for a 7-footer. Hubie Brown the other day said the German is the best jump shooting big man in the history of the game. On top of that, he can put the ball on the floor and runs so well. He's got a big game on Saturday night against Cleveland that should be an interesting matchup.

5. Carmelo Anthony, Nuggets (11-4)
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1535.929.76.13.51.70.3.484.333.853
Last Week's Rank - 4
The Race had to raise an eyebrow when Anthony fawned over Allen Iverson's retirement announcement. It was our impression that Anthony was only too happy to see Iverson depart Denver, which has allowed Anthony to become a premier scorer in the league. He is averaging 29.7 a game on 48.4 percent shooting, and, because of his strength, size and skills, has perhaps the widest array of scoring mechanisms in the game.

6. Dwyane Wade, Heat (9-5)
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1438.627.84.95.32.11.3.428.288.787
Last Week's Rank - 7
The Race would like to think that the Wade "shot" that Michael Beasley put back to beat the Orlando Magic the other day was actually a "pass" by Wade, given his extreme skill. Though, given his 6-for-22 shooting night, it may just have been an airball. Still, the guy usually delivers, the reason he is averaging 28 points and 5.3 rebounds a game, carrying the Heat in the East.

7. Paul Pierce, Celtics (11-4)
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1535.820.15.04.11.10.5.510.484.843
Last Week's Rank -
The Race was starting to wonder what to do with Pierce. His numbers are not overpowering but he continues to help the talented Celtics win. Then, in his last two games, Pierce has averaged 30 points, six assists and 7.5 rebounds, putting up very MVP-like numbers to keep him in good standing. The Race is a big proponent of shooting percentage, and Pierce's 51 percent from the field and 48.4 percent from 3-point range means he has a very discerning eye for shot selection.

8. Brandon Roy, Blazers (12-5)
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1736.619.44.25.00.30.2.450.344.787
Last Week's Rank - 9
A scout recently told The Race: "He doesn't really have MVP numbers, but he is my favorite player to watch in the league. He just knows how to play the game. He'll sit back and let his teammates get into the game, but when it is time to take over in the fourth quarter, he does it every time." That is just about spot-on, and why the young Trail Blazers are among the best in the conference.

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1538.922.55.54.71.00.1.445.333.862
Last Week's Rank - 3
Johnson went from the talk of the league last week to almost out of The Race, his Hawks dropping two in a row and Johnson performing at a very average level – his 6-for-18 shooting performance in a loss to New Orleans bringing him back to earth. The Race chooses to look for now at his overall body of work – 22.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, 4.7 assists – and not just a down week while assessing whether he is deserving of the league's highest honor.

10. Kevin Durant, Thunder (8-7)
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1538.627.16.83.11.50.8.450.250.855
Last Week's Rank - NA
The newcomer to The Race, though it is our suspicion that he will have a regular appearance among these candidates in the coming years. The thing that stands out about him is he has incredible length but gets his shot off so quickly coming off screens that defenders have a hard time getting a hand up. Once he adds strength and experience, he'll be very difficult to stop. Plus, he has his team a third of the way to last season's victory total of 23, which should not be overlooked.

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