The NBA’s regular season isn’t a sprint, it’s a long-distance race of many laps – 66 to be exact this year. And like each year, the league’s finest players stay in front as leading candidates of the Most Valuable Player (MVP) award. A year ago, Derrick Rose ran away with the trophy, taking his Bulls to the league’s best record and leaving the rest of the racers licking his dust.
But this year the race seems to be a whole lot closer, with two men who promise to be running neck-to-neck until the very last day. LeBron James and Kevin Durant are two of the most naturally talented players in the league. They are also on two of the four best teams in the NBA. One runs for the Eastern Conference, one represents the West. Night after night, they have tried to outshine the other. While LeBron has held a slight edge all season, Durant has kept pace and made sure that the race will have a photo finish. The two players, and their two teams – Heat and Thunder – are also being touted for a potential NBA Finals matchup.
Both LeBron and Durant have several years left in their respective primes, and we as basketball fans could be seeing the birth of a new rivalry not just for this season, but for the next several years, the kind of great sporting rivalry that NBA fans hope can potentially evoke memories of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, Messi and Ronaldo, Magic and Bird.
But before we hope for the future, we must focus on the present. There are zero championship rings between LeBron and Durant. LeBron, who has been in the NBA for several more years, does have two MVP awards to his name already. Durant has been improving swiftly every season, and this year promises to make his strongest bid for the MVP trophy. But who should the award go to?
In LeBron’s case… For someone who has already posted the type of regular season statistics that would make Oscar Robertson blush in earlier years, there is little that LeBron could do statistically to outdo himself. But the LeBron machine has kept running in highest gear this season, too. James is averaging 27.1 points (third in the league), 7.9 rebounds, and 6.3 assists per game this season, while shooting a blistering 52.9 percent from the field. He is the most efficient player in the league, with a rating of 29.8, and has developed into a top-five perimeter defender in the NBA. LeBron has had several memorable moments this season, highlighted last month with a 41-point game against the 76ers, the last 17 points of the game (of a total 37) in a win against the Nets, and 34 points and 10 rebounds against Kevin Durant’s Thunder.
LeBron has – along with teammates Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh – helped carry the Heat to a 43-17 record this season (second in the East). Bosh has had an inconsistent year. While Dwyane Wade has been brilliant when on the court, he has already missed 13 games this season and LeBron has helped the Heat to a 12-1 record without him. A year ago, both LeBron and Wade shared the honours of being the most valuable players for the Heat franchise; this season, Lebron has carried the team for great stretches without Wade, and this helps to increase his personal MVP chances.
In Durant’s case… Not to be left far behind, Durant has been on fire all season long, too, averaging 27.8 points (second in NBA) and 7.9 rebounds per game, while shooting 50.1 percent from the field. Though young, Durant has developed into one of the best leaders in the league and has also become the NBA’s most bankable scorer in clutch/late-game moments. Durant is already one of the greatest pure scorers in NBA history and has had several jaw-dropping stat-lines this year, including 51 points and 8 rebounds in a win over the Nuggets, 40 and 17 in a win over the Timberwolves, 44 against the Pacers and 43 on the Timberwolves again a few days ago. He had a great game when the Thunder hosted LeBron and the Heat, helping his squad win with 29 points, 9 rebounds, and 8 assists.
The Thunder have been in the top two of the West all season, and currently hold a 44-17 record, tied for first with the Spurs. Durant has helped the development of Russell Westbrook who has become a superstar in his own right and of another hot scorer in James Harden. In Westbrook in particular, he has had the best second-option in the league on a nightly basis.
Head to Head: What is truly fun about this rivalry is that both players play the same position, and thus, go literally head-to-head as they guard each other in every matchup. LeBron and Durant have faced each other twice this season, with each of them sharing the honours. The Thunder won their home game as Durant outplayed LeBron, and the Heat won theirs only 10 days later with LeBron outplaying Durant this time around. It may not have counted in the bigger scheme of things, but LeBron and Durant also faced other in an entertaining All-Star duel, as Durant (36 pts, 7 rebs) led the West to a victory over LeBron’s (36 pts, 7 rebs, 6 asts) East, and also won the All Star MVP honours.
And so the time for the final verdict beckons. The Thunder have five games left this season and the Heat have six, and this race has been so close that, a few big games between now and April 26th could still add another twist in the MVP tale. Durant has been a better scorer in a better team in a tougher conference. LeBron has been a far better playmaker and has helped his team without getting as much of a consistent assistance from Wade as Durant received from Westbrook. The players and the teams have cancelled each other out head-to-head.
So who is your MVP pick? Who will cross the finish line first? LeBron and Durant are sure to go one and two in the final standings, while Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul, and recently speeding Rajon Rondo probably making up the top five finishers.
But once the playoffs begin, it will be the start of another, far more grueling race. LeBron and Durant may very well see each other again in the last, most exciting leg of this race: the Finals. And if that happens, there will be a couple more battles at stake: the Finals MVP trophy, and of course, the battle for who amongst them gets their first chance to hoist an NBA Championship.