Kevin Durant: The MVP burden
The Maurice Podoloff NBA Most Valuable Player trophy – named after the first commissioner (or president of the league) – weighs around 10 pounds/4.5 kgs. That isn’t very heavy at all, especially for strong NBA players, and especially the players strong enough to win this award. But the burden of the trophy weighs much heavier than it’s actual weight; the burden of being an NBA MVP can be devastating, and it can shape or break the shoulders of even the most established of basketball superstars.
Last week, the basketball world crowned Oklahoma City Thunder’s Kevin Durant the 2013/14 NBA MVP, and he held up the prestigious award for the first time in his young career. At just 25, Durant already has the achievements in his cabinet that most NBA players wouldn’t be able to collect in their lifetime. He’s been an All Star five times, been named to the All NBA First Team four times (soon to be five), has been the NBA’s scoring champion four times in the past five years, was a Rookie of the Year, and was the MVP of USA’s gold medal winning team in the 2010 FIBA World Championship. The MVP award is the icing on a cake made up of those achievements. But more than a reward, this trophy is a challenge; a call for Durant to now rise up to the level of other greats in NBA history.
Some of the greatest players of all time have had their hands wrapped around the NBA’s MVP trophy. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, LeBron James, Moses Malone, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson are amongst the leaders of the exclusive club where Durant is now the most recent member. But except the MVP award, all the above names have another thing in common – championships. And for all of them, with the exception of Malone, multiple championships.
No matter how much we celebrate the best individual performer of the NBA’s regular season, the harsh truth is that all of his celebrated performances ultimately happened in just the regular season. The playoffs are a whole different ball-game and each of the 28 different players to have won the award in the 57 years before Durant knew that regular season greatness went out the window when the playoffs began.
Several years ago, I wrote about the ‘MVP Curse’, a very real factor which has hexed the NBA’s Most Valuable Players regularly since Michael Jordan’s second retirement from the Bulls back in 1998. Ever since then, there have been only four instances of the regular season MVP going on to lift the championship trophy in the same season, and win the Finals MVP award (a double pick-up that I call the Super MVP). Shaquille O’Neal did it in 2000, Tim Duncan in 2003, and LeBron James in 2012 and 2013. In the other 11 seasons, the MVPs failed to win a championship, and only in two other instances (Allen Iverson in 2001, Kobe Bryant in 2008) did the MVP even make the NBA Finals.
This season, Durant has broken LeBron’s hold on the MVP trophy, but the latter still has a clearer path – at the time of writing, at least – to a title than the former.
Winning 119 of the possible 125 first place votes, Durant left no doubt in the eyes of fans and basketball analysts alike, that he was indeed the league’s Most Valuable Player this season. Durant played at a historically great level over the past six months. He led the league in scoring for the fourth time in five years and led the Thunder to the NBA’s second-best record. In the process, he had two 50-point games, 14 40-point games, and 17 games with at least 30 points and 10 rebounds.
The memorable season started with a 48-point outburst on opening night against the Utah Jazz. Durant pushed it into a higher gear, carrying the team with superfluous performances, in the 27 games without Russell Westbrook where he averaged 35 points, 7.5 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game while leading his team to a 20-7 record. He dropped a career-high 54 on the Golden State Warriors and finished with 51 against the Toronto Raptors.
He became a better defensive player than ever before. With the game on the line, he solidified his place as one of the most clutch finishers in the league, with huge end-game performances against the Blazers, Hawks, Raptors and more. He outplayed LeBron for a big win in Miami. He bettered Michael Jordan’s streak by scoring 25 or more points in 41 consecutive games. He finished the season with a career-high 32 ppg to go with a career-high in assists (5.5 apg) and also grabbed 7.4 rebounds per game. He shot 50.3% from the field, 39.1% from 3-point range and 87.3% from the free throw line, leading all players in free throws made (703) and attempted (805). He also had a league-best PIE (Player Impact Estimate) of 20.6 percent.
But Durant will probably be the first to admit that all of this would matter very little in the big picture if OKC aren’t able to close out the Los Angeles Clippers in Round 2, win the Conference Finals for their second Finals appearance in the Durant era, and bring the city it’s first-ever championship.
At 25, Durant is in a similar stage of his career as LeBron James was when he won his first MVP award as a 24-year-old member of the Cleveland Cavaliers. In 2009 and 2010, LeBron won two MVP awards while putting up historic numbers for the Cavs, similar to the way Durant has this year. But in both instances, LeBron’s goal to ultimately win the elusive NBA title was stopped short. For LeBron, this was because the team around him was never good enough beyond his own talents to mount a real title challenge. For Durant, the roadblock comes a little lesser from his own team (he has championship caliber teammates for sure), but more from the Conference he plays in: a tough-as-nails West where almost every series is as challenging as an NBA Final.
Durant made it clear a few years ago that he was tired of finishing second, and with the MVP award this season, he has proven that he can finally step out of LeBron’s shadow and be crowned the NBA’s best regular season player. But the shadow of LeBron continues to hover above him. By the time these playoffs are over, will Durant be the ‘Cavaliers MVP LeBron’, who had individual accolades but no titles, or the ‘Heat MVP LeBron’, who has won back-to-back MVPs and titles? Will Durant fizzle out in the playoffs in the greatest year of his career so far, or will he go all the way and cap it with his first championship?
In one sense, Kevin Durant’s MVP award is the end result and a fitting conclusion to what has been a fantastic season. But the burden of the award now challenges him to aim higher, and to make this the beginning – and not the end – of a lot more success ahead.
How well the newly minted MVP handles that burden, much like how it has for one LeBron James, will ultimately decide how Durant goes down in NBA folklore.