LeBron James Versus Kevin Durant: One More Chapter in the Eternal Debate About MVP CriteriaMost informed NBA observers agree that LeBron James is the best all-around player in the league, an unofficial title that he seized from Kobe Bryant several years ago. However, it seems unlikely that James will win the 2014 MVP award, because popular sentiment heavily favors Kevin Durant, the four-time scoring champion who has finished second in MVP voting in three of the four seasons that James won the award. Durant is posting career-high averages in scoring and assists while leading his Oklahoma City Thunder to the second best record in the NBA; the Thunder are four games ahead of James' Heat with one game remaining on both teams' schedules. Durant has indisputably authored an MVP caliber season and he has been an MVP caliber player for several years but should he win the award over James based primarily on a slight difference in their respective teams' records and some form of voter fatigue regarding James? Or, should the MVP award go to the player who is still the best all-around performer in the league?
The names are different now but the questions are the same ones that have been debated for many years. Michael Jordan was the consensus best all-around player in the league for roughly a decade--though he missed nearly two full seasons while he pursued a pro baseball career--and is widely regarded as the greatest player of all-time but he "only" won five regular season MVP awards. In the late 1980s/early 1990s, Jordan annually battled another greatest player of all-time candidate--Magic Johnson--for MVP honors and then Charles Barkley and Karl Malone each received one MVP during Jordan's prime, supposedly because voters were reluctant to give the trophy to Jordan every single year, a form of "logic" that makes no sense: there is no good reason that one player should not/cannot win eight or 10 MVPs. I much prefer the Rucker League precedent; if I recall the story correctly, even though Connie Hawkins missed most of the season he still made the Rucker League All-Star team because a Rucker League All-Star team simply wasn't authentic if it didn't have Connie Hawkins on it--and it is only a slight exaggeration to say that during the Jordan era an NBA MVP award was not authentic if it went to someone other than Jordan. Obviously, in a more formal league like the NBA a player cannot miss most of the season and still deserve All-Star or MVP consideration but Jordan should have won every regular season MVP from 1988 through 1998, except for 1994 (when he missed the entire season) and 1995 (when he only played 17 games); he was the best all-around player in the league and even though Hall of Famers Johnson, Barkley and Malone had some MVP caliber seasons during that era no knowledgeable observer would have picked any of them ahead of Jordan if all four players were available to be drafted or signed.
Kobe Bryant got an even worse deal than Jordan; at least Jordan still racked up the second most MVPs in pro basketball history, falling just one short of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's record. Bryant was the best all-around player in the NBA for the better part of the 2000s (circa 2003-2009), he proved equally adept at carrying decrepit teams to the playoffs and at leading a solid but not particularly deep Lakers' team to three straight Finals appearances/two straight championships but he only received one regular season MVP (2008). Bryant should have won the 2006 and 2007 MVPs and he also played at an MVP level in 2003 and 2009, though Tim Duncan and LeBron James were slightly better than Bryant in those respective seasons (injuries knocked Bryant out of serious MVP contention in 2004 and 2005, as he missed 17 and 16 games respectively).
According to the popular, media driven storyline, this is Durant's time: he is supposedly having a career year while James is allegedly just coasting and waiting for the playoffs to begin. The reality is that Durant is essentially playing at the same level he has been playing at for several years, with two notable exceptions: he is attempting about three more field goals a game and he is dishing off about one more assist a game, though assists are so subjective that this change may not even be statistically significant or have much to do with an actual increase in playmaking ability. Durant is shooting and passing more often not because his skill set has changed but rather but because the Thunder's other All-NBA First Team caliber player--Russell Westbrook--missed almost half of the season due to injury, forcing Durant to shoulder a bigger load. Durant's field goal percentage, three point field goal percentage, free throw percentage, rebounding average, steals average and blocked shots average are all lower than they were last season.
What about the "coasting" James? James has been remarkably consistent since he joined the Heat four years ago, averaging between 26.7 and 27.1 ppg, between 6.9 and 8.0 rpg and between 6.2 and 7.3 apg. He has increased his field goal percentage for seven straight years (including 2013-14), his free throw percentage annually hovers around .750 and this season he has posted the second best three point shooting percentage of his career. There is no discernible evidence that James is taking it easy or that he is declining. The "stat gurus" claim that James' defense has fallen off but while it is true that James' shotblocking--always an overrated part of his game (his best seasonal total is 93, five fewer than the best seasonal total posted by that noted high flyer Larry Bird)--has decreased to a ridiculously low level for a player with his athletic gifts (.3 bpg) James is still the multi-positional anchor for a defense that ranks fifth in points allowed.
LeBron James and Kevin Durant have been the two best players in the NBA for several years and figure to remain the two best players for a few more years. In any given year, either player could deservedly win the MVP award--but James is the more physically imposing player at both ends of the court, a better inside scorer, a better passer and a better/more versatile defender. James used to be the better rebounder but Durant has closed the gap in that department. I doubt that any GM or coach would prefer to have Durant over James but because of the storyline that the media has relentlessly crafted throughout this season Durant will win the 2014 MVP. Honoring Durant will not likely turn out as badly as presenting Dirk Nowitzki the 2007 MVP hardware in a broom closet at an undisclosed location and perhaps Durant will soon have his day in the Finals' sun much like Nowitzki eventually did but I will always say that the MVP award should go to the league's best all-around player (unless there is a big man like Shaquille O'Neal whose physical dominance trumps the best all-around player's versatility) regardless of storylines, "advanced basketball statistics" and any form of voter fatigue directed against multiple MVP winners.
posted by David Friedman @ 5:03 PM