This is the year Kevin Durant transforms from being a perennial number two into the best. The Oklahoma City Thunder look at the moment like the best team in the NBA, and for the first time after a few frustrating second-place finishes in the voting process, the regular season MVP award seems to be heading his way.
As good as LeBron James might be this season for the Miami Heat when he’s actually trying, Durant is playing in a completely different level. He’s averaging 31.5 points, 7.8 rebounds and 5.5 assists, which is no wonder considering his usage rate is the highest in the NBA (32.7% according to BR), and the highest it’s been for him in his 7-year NBA career. It’s been extremely true since Russell Westbrook was shut down, something that has lasted until the All-Star break and might carry on a while longer.
Is this the season everything comes together? Durant admits it would mean a lot to him. He has spoken in the past about being tired of being second in a great number of things, but this might be the year it changes. Things can still happen from now until the MVP voting takes place, but it’s going to take a massive effort from LeBron James to retain the award with Durant looking as unstoppable as he does now, while the Thunder look more complete than ever even without their second best player.
And while Durant is being used, a lot, it’s not hurting his efficiency. He is hitting 51.1% of his shots, 41% of his shots from beyond the arc and 88.2% from the line. That 50-40-90 club is waiting for him to become only the second player in NBA history with two appearances, as a slight improvement in his free throw shooting will land him there for the second consecutive time. At least that is something LeBron James isn’t going to do this season, and probably never will.
The real test, however, is going to be in the playoffs. Last year Durant, without Westbrook, crumbled under the burden of having to do everything for the Thunder. This season he seems a lot more comfortable with it. Maybe it’s because his supporting cast knows a lot better what to do. Serge Ibaka is his usual self, but Reggie Jackson seems a lot more comfortable playing a big role, while Jeremy Lamb is getting the opportunity unlike last season. Last year the Memphis Grizzlies had no problem taking over that series as an exhausted Durant fell apart near the end. This season feels and looks completely different.
The Thunder aren’t perfect, and Durant himself isn’t either, despite not scoring less than 26 points in a game since January 5, usually ending up with 30 or a lot more. Their ability to play against the small-ball has improved but it’s still and issue, and at some point it will be interesting to see which team figures out that Durant isn’t that great when he’s forced to start plays from the left side of the basket. He might debunk that myth, but the playoffs are time for more adjustments and in-depth preparation that make things harder even for the best players.
Right now things look promising. However, as much as Durant wants that MVP award, he knows that in toady’s NBA, individual achievements and stats don’t help you build a legacy – championships do, and an MVP without a title at the end of the rainbow isn’t going to help him fulfill his ambitions and end his frustrations.