The NBA MVP Debate

The individual postseason awards have started to filter out in the NBA, but the big one remains unannounced, and that’s the Most Valuable Player honor. TheSportsNotebook takes a look at the landscape and casts a vote…

LeBron James and Kevin Durant are the overwhelming favorites to win the award, and some might think me overly generous in putting Durant onto the list. The political reality of the NBA vote is that indeed, one of these two men—and probably LeBron—will win the MVP. But should that be so? Before jumping into a LeBron vs. Durant debate, let’s at least give some honorable mention to others and see if we’re missing anyone…

*The most notable exception is Kobe Bryant, who averaged 28ppg and helped a Los Angeles Laker team win the Pacific Division in the face of a spirited challenge from the local rival Clippers. The Lakers may have Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol to suck up defenders underneath, but there was little else, including on the bench. Until a late-season injury kept him out for a few games, Bryant had been leading the league in minutes. He meets a lot of MVP criteria, but the problem is that he shoots just 43 percent from the floor, while the two top dogs are both 50-plus.

*Rajon Rondo and Paul Pierce shouldn’t be serious candidates, but they both deserve some honorable mention. Rondo, with the one pair of fresh legs in the Celtic core led the NBA in assists and chipped in 12 ppg. To be an MVP though, you have to either hit the three-ball, which he can’t do, or average a triple-double.  Pierce averaged 19 a night, but took too long to get started, as he came to the shortened season out of shape. The Pierce we are watching right now is playing like an MVP. The one we saw during the course of the regular season was awfully good, but not at that level.

*Josh Smith, the power forward in Atlanta, deserves more credit than he gets in these conversations. With Al Horford lost for much of the year, Smith had to shoulder the load inside and did so the tune of 19 points, 10 rebounds and a couple blocked shots. To take the next step to MVP material I would like to see him either produce more assists—by reversing the ball quickly for open looks from three-point range, or to have the ability to step out and hit the trey himself.

*Finally, Dirk Nowitzki started the season like Pierce—out of shape and out of gear, but give Dirk credit for bouncing back, scoring 22 ppg and helping the Mavericks survive what turned out to be another tough playoff chase in the Western Conference.

Now let’s get down to business. The LeBron vs. Durant battle is as it should be. Both shoot the ball, hitting better than 50 percent, with James slightly higher at 53 percent. Durant though, his a three-point edge in hitting from behind the arc. Rebounding is roughly equivalent. You can argue for James that his supporting cast isn’t as strong, and that Dwayne Wade was playing hurt a lot of the year. You can argue for Durant that after Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City isn’t loaded with scorers either. This point can be further built on by pointing out that no one doubts Wade’s ability to take a game over in the crunch, while plenty have doubts about Westbrook due to his inconsistency—and that therefore, who to deny the ball from down the stretch is no secret when you defend the Thunder.

The debate looks very close right now, but there’s one fact I can’t get beyond. LeBron played a lot of minutes, ranking 11th in the NBA. But Durant played even more—in fact, the OkC star played more minutes than anyone. Isn’t the most important part of being valuable to your team being on the floor? No one was on the floor more than Durant.

TheSportsNotebook casts its MVP vote for Kevin Durant. As offensive players, he and LeBron are basically equivalent. But Durant has a greater burden at crunch time and logged more minutes, so for that reason he gets the nod.