The race between LeBron James and Kevin Durant for the NBA Most Valuable Player award seems to be the only one in the NBA this season worth watching, even though there is more than a month left in the season to determine such honors.
The nightly performances of the top two players in the league have become like watching Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle’s race to 61 homers and Babe Ruth’s record in 1961, with each trying to outdo the other to keep pace (yes, I could have said Mark McGwire vs. Sammy Sosa in the summer of 1998, but do we really want to remind ourselves how we were fooled by that fraud?).
LeBron turned in the performance of the year when he scored 61 points against Charlotte. In the month of February, he averaged 30.8 points per game on 57.5 percent shooting, 8.1 rebounds and 6.7 assists. The Sun-Sentinel reported that only one player in the history of the league ever had a month like that – Wilt Chamberlain in February 1966.
Durant responded to LeBron’s 61-point game with 42 against Philadelphia the next night, shooting 70 percent from the field and sitting out the fourth quarter. It was his 10th game of the season scoring 40 or more points.
James had led his Miami Heat to a 43-16 record, with their second best player, Dwyane Wade, missing 16 games. Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder are 46-16, with their second best player, Russell Westbrook, missing 30 games.
Durant leads the NBA in scoring, averaging 31.8 points per game. LeBron is third, averaging 27.2 per game. LeBron is also 14th in the league in assists, averaging 6.4 per game. Durant is averaging 5.5 assists per game, and 7.7 rebounds, while LeBron is pulling down 6.9 rebounds per game.
LeBron has won four NBA MVP awards over his career 11-year career, while Durant hasn’t won any during his seven-year career – because, for the most part, LeBron has been winning them.
This race to the league’s top honor has the feel of that year when Charles Barkley was named the league’s MVP in 1993, in between Michael Jordan’s five MVP honors. It was almost as if voters fatigued of giving it to Jordan, who had won it in each of the previous seasons. That may be in play again this season, as LeBron has garnered the award each of the two previous years.
Barkley was a worthy candidate, but there was little doubt Jordan was the best player in the NBA. Durant is certainly a worthy candidate, but LeBron is, like Jordan, the best player in the league.
All that said, Kevin Durant should win the trophy.
Why? Because it means too much to LeBron James.
LeBron is playing for legacy every night he steps on the court. It just so happens that he recognizes that NBA titles are a required part of a legacy, so he is trying to win them with the Heat. But MVP honors do as well, and LeBron has made it clear his mission is to carve out his legacy – see Mount Rushmore.
Before the NBA All-Star Game media hype, James told us his own idea of an NBA Mount Rushmore – temporarily, at least, until he takes his place on that mountain. He said the mountain as it stands now includes Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson – but he said he would “for sure” be on that Mount Rushmore someday. I guess someone is coming off.
It’s not surprising he left off such greats as Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul Jabbar. After all, when LeBron changed his number from 23 to 6, he said it was because he wanted to pay tribute to Jordan – the ultimate number 23. But he chose 6, the number worn by Julius Erving and Russell, as if either one of them didn’t warrant such tribute.
Russell exposed LeBron during the All-Star Game when he reportedly delivered TNT’s Craig Sager this quote for LeBron, “Hey, thank you for leaving me off your Mount Rushmore. I’m glad you did. Basketball is a team game, it’s not for individual honors. I won back-to-back state championships in high school, back-to-back NCAA championships in college. I won an NBA championship my first year in the league, an NBA championship in my last year, and nine in between. That, Mr. James, is etched in stone.”
Russell won five NBA MVP awards. If LeBron wins one more, he’ll have five.
I don’t know what Durant thinks, but all things being equal, it seems like winning the honor for LeBron has an agenda attached with it. It means way too much to him. For that reason, Kevin Durant should be the MVP of the NBA.
• Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 radio and espn980.com.
• Thom Loverro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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