SB Nation

Paul Flannery | January 26, 2014

Sunday Shootaround

Kevin Durant has taken over

Kevin Durant has taken over

Kevin Durant has the numbers -- good lord, the numbers. Durant has numbers so big they resemble one of his overstretched arms raining down jump shots and casting a dark shadow over the rest of the league. 31 points a game. 7.7 rebounds. 5.1 assists. A 50/41/88 shooting line that translates to a .640 True Shooting Percentage and a player efficiency rating over 30 for the first time in his career.

Durant has the team record and it’s the best in the West. Better than the Spurs. Better than the Blazers. Better than the Warriors, Rockets and Clippers. And he’s doing it without Russell Westbrook, meaning that on a team that features three other starters who don’t create their own shot he’s basically on his own out there. No wonder he’s using almost a third of Oklahoma City’s possessions, and did we mention that .640 True Shooting Percentage?

Also, have you watched the guy play? Durant is doing absurd things to his opponents that leaves them shaking their heads and writers failing to come up with enough verbs and adjectives to accurately describe what they’re watching.

54 points against Golden State on 28 shots.
30 points on only 15 shots in just 32 minutes against the Kings.
46 against the Blazers and enough end-of-game threes to have everyone speaking in tongues.
36 against the Spurs on San Antonio’s home court.

"After every game I’ve been getting at least 30, 40 texts," Durant said as the Thunder pulled into Boston on Friday. "But I’ve seen Kobe Bryant score 40 points in nine straight games, Michael Jordan have 11 triple doubles out of 12 games, LeBron James have a month where he’s averaged 35 points. Those guys, that’s something to write home about. I try not to worry about myself because there’s so many guys that have done it before I did. I’m just trying to get better."

A frightening thought. Here’s another thought that’s dominating the conversation this week: Is there really an MVP argument at the midway point of the season? Well, yeah. There is.

LeBron James’ numbers are also amazing. It’s not as if James has fallen off dramatically and if he has we’re talking nth of degrees. 26.2 points, 6.7 rebounds, 6.5 assists with an even better True Shooting Percentage of .661 and way more defensive responsibility than Durant.

The record is also strong, just a couple of games behind OKC’s pace. LeBron is doing it without Dwyane Wade with increasing frequency and for a team that’s been without several other key contributors.

Granted, LeBron’s ohmygod moments have seemed to be less and less frequent these days. Maybe it’s because we’ve become numb to the sight of a 270-pound man playing with his staggering combination of agility, force and precision. Also, the Heat have gone into their annual winter funk at exactly the same time as Durant has presented himself to the world as a mythological freak of Jordanian proportions.

Let’s be honest here: If you were riding with one of these two guys to win a championship this year, who would you pick? That’s still LeBron’s trump card, but that’s reserved for the spring. This is about now and right now, today, Kevin Durant has been the MVP of the first half of the season. Barely.

There has been a lot of talk around the league about how disappointing this season has been. Injuries have played havoc with teams from New York to Los Angeles. The East is a joke. Too many teams are worried about the future, which leaves the present gasping for relevancy. That conveniently ignores the great stories in Portland and Indiana, to say nothing of Doc’s Clippers, Dwight Howard’s revival in Houston and the impossible-to-ignore Warriors.

Yet, this season has been kind of a drag. The playoff jockeying out West is interesting to a degree, but as the season reaches the midway point, we’re all kind of hoping to fast forward to April with everyone healthy and ready to play.

Durant and LeBron can change all that. I argued last season that we were bearing witness to nothing short of a golden era in pro basketball, the likes of which we haven’t seen since Bird and Magic were at their apex. Durant’s shooting has been Bird-like, while Bron’s all-around game has always been more Magic than MJ. LeBron has even copped to keeping tabs on Durant’s exploits, much like Bird used to do with Magic.

We were denied that repeat Finals last season and may not get it again this year, but they will come to define the second half of the season. Each night will be a test, not only against their opponents, but also against themselves. LeBron and Durant are the best thing going right now and they have our undivided attention from now until April.

Here’s the Shootaround’s award picks for the midway point of the season.

MVP

1. Kevin Durant
2. LeBron James
3. Chris Paul
4. Paul George
5. Kevin Love/LaMarcus Aldridge/Steph Curry/Dwight Howard

Note: This is obviously a two-person race, but the "in the discussion" candidates are younger and fresher than years past. The new age is coming quickly.

Defensive Player of the Year

1. Roy Hibbert
2. Dwight Howard
3. Andre Iguodala

Note: The easiest pick on the board.

Rookie of the Year

1. Michael Carter-Williams
2. Victor Oladipo
3. Trey Burke

Note: This may be the worst rookie class since the 2000 seasons, but at least the three guards have given us something. It will be interesting to take stock of this draft three or four years down the line when Alex Len, Nerlens Noel and Giannis Antetokounmpo have time to develop.

Coach of the Year

1. Terry Stotts
2. Jeff Hornacek
3. Frank Vogel

Note: You could make a convincing case for any of the three, but we’ll stick with Stotts and his offensive system, which has the Blazers poised to make their first significant playoff run in over a decade.

Sixth Man

1. Manu Ginobili
2. Reggie Jackson
3. Jamal Crawford

Note: Jackson has slid since the quarter mark because he’s taken over Russell Westbrook’s starting spot, but Ginobili needs no help. His minutes are down but his impact has been profound.

Most Improved

1. Paul George

Note: I’ve voiced my objections to this award in the past, but I’m breaking my own self-imposed vow to highlight the one player who has made the leap from fringe star to superstar status. There is no bigger jump a player can make.

OvertimeMore thoughts from the week that was

Disappointment and frustration hung over everything. Another run? Impossible. Not for this group of aging past-their-prime players. What was once fresh and invigorating had become stale and predictable. It would be over soon and then everyone would go their separate ways.

Unless.

Maybe someone could convince Kevin Garnett -- the most stubborn of players -- to give just a little bit more and relent on the one thing that could be called selfish. His position. It’s not like anyone was asking him to play on the wing and shoot threes. No one was even asking him to change his offensive game at all. It was more about defense and what the team needed at the moment. That’s how KG came to play center after resisting the call for 16 years.

Garnett went along with Doc Rivers’ plan because a) he trusted Doc above all others and B) he made it his life’s mission to be about defense and team first and foremost and if this is what he had to do, then he’d do it. Grudgingly.

"I don’t like it to be honest with you," he said when I asked him about it one night during the 2012 season. "I’m a four."

Garnett’s objection to the position were twofold. One, he didn’t want to subject his body to getting banged around by the bigger fives that were left in the league. The true centers like Andrew Bynum used to throw him around like a rag doll. Two, being a center was the antithesis of the versatile player, which was how he saw himself. It always struck me that he was hung up on the aesthetic nature of his game, but as KG liked to say, "It’s what it is."

"I have a lot of confidence in myself when it comes to playing basketball and positions are just numbers to me," Garnett said that night. "But if it comes to preference, I enjoy the four. There’s a lot more versatility in the four. The five, you’re kind of stuck in mud and cement and things are as written. Not a lot of variation in the five position."

"You’re kind of stuck in mud and cement and things are as written." -Kevin Garnett on playing center

With Garnett at the five, the Celtics rewrote their story’s coda and made it all the way to the seventh game of the conference finals. If their 2010 run to the Finals was unexpected, literally no one thought they could come within a game of beating the Miami Heat in 2012 with a rejuvenated KG at center bringing the plus/minus statistic to the masses.

Now in Brooklyn, Garnett is playing the five again because Brook Lopez is out for the season and the Nets are desperate. They staked everything on acquiring Garnett and Paul Pierce and by the start of the new year all they had to show for it was one very expensive bill. Oh, and four losses in five games without Lopez, including an embarrassing Christmas Day defeat.

But in 2014, the Nets have won nine of 10 games and are suddenly, oddly, back in playoff contention. Garnett is playing just 22 minutes a game and averaging a pedestrian 7 points and 7 rebounds with an unsightly 41 percent shooting line. But since the start of the new year he’s shooting over 70 percent and the Nets are unbeaten in the eight games he’s played.

Friend of the Shootaround, Devin Kharpertian, has all the details over at The Brooklyn Game, and it rings eerily similar to his transition with the Celtics. Once again it comes down to a familiar refrain: When KG is on the court playing the five, the Nets are one of the best defensive teams in the league. When he’s not, neither are they.

This can’t be the way he envisioned his career to end. In Brooklyn of all places, playing a position he resisted since he was first playing ball. But it’s also perfect in a sense. Garnett may have never wanted to be a center, but he always saw himself as a role player and he’s once again adapting to circumstances and making his team better.

Viewers GuideWhat we'll be watching this week

MONDAY Raptors at Nets

We start this week with the first of two potential playoff spoilers. The first is in Brooklyn, where the Nets are getting it together after their disastrous start. As long as KG can keep this up, there’s no reason for anybody to want to mess with the Nets in the postseason.

TUESDAY Grizzlies at Blazers

Spoiler Alert, II: Talked to Chris Herrington for this week’s podcast and he made a point that I very much agree with: The Grizzlies are built to be a playoff team. The frontline is a matchup nightmare, Tony Allen is capable of shutting down a top wing scorer and they’ve been tested in the postseason. I can’t imagine any team a top seed would rather play less in the West. Now all they have to do is make it.

WEDNESDAY Thunder at Heat

We don’t have to hype this at all, right? This is the reason we watch.

THURSDAY Clippers at Warriors

The last time these two teams met -- on Christmas Day, no less -- Blake Griffin accused the Warriors of playing "cowardly basketball" after he was ejected and Andrew Bogut was given a flagrant-1 foul. Griffin was vindicated to a degree after the league overturned his ejection after the fact. Can we expect more shenanigans? Unclear, but any excuse to use the word shenanigans is a good thing.

FRIDAY Kings at Mavericks

Let’s check in on Rudy Gay, shall we? In his first 20 games with the Kings, Gay is averaging 21 points, which would be a career-high, on 15.2 attempts, which would be a career low since his rookie season. Gay has also recorded a True Shooting percentage over .600, which would far and away stand as a career best, and a 20.8 PER, which would be the first time he’s ever cracked the 20 barrier. Rudy Gay has had nothing short of a revival in Sacramento and we can prove it. See? Metrics can be your friend. Get healthy Rudy, the rest of your career awaits.

SATURDAY Bulls at Pelicans

Why are the Pelicans so bad defensively? They have one of the league’s great young big men in Anthony Davis, and -- before he got hurt -- a tough on the ball defender in Jrue Holiday. Yet, the Pells have fallen all the way to dead last in defensive rating. Scheme matters and so does effort. Just look at the Bulls gamely hanging in the playoff chase on the strength of their top-notch defense. Take note, Pelicans, if you want to make a move in the West you have to give it up on the defensive end.

SUNDAY Magic at Celtics

It’s the only game on the schedule, so enjoy.

The ListNBA players in some made up category

LeBron James has won four of the last five MVPs but aside from the year he didn’t win in 2011, he’s never really been involved in a close race. Kevin Durant came the closest in 2011-12, but LeBron still won by a hefty margin. James fell victim to two things in 2011: An off season by his standards and a huge backlash from The Decision. Here’s a list of memorable MVP races that were more defined by narrative and voter fatigue than production.

2004-05: The first of Steve Nash’s two MVPs and both have been disputed with the hindsight of history and better metrics. Nash was something of a late bloomer who became an unlikely superstar after he was given the keys to Mike D’Antoni’s Seven Seconds or Less attack, which was revolutionary at the time. There’s no question that Nash and the Suns were the story of that season, but the best player was a dead heat between Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett. That was basically the case throughout the mid Aughts.

2001: No one was a bigger story than Allen Iverson in 2001. You could feel his energy as he led a 76ers team that featured Eric Snow, Aaron McKie and George Lynch to the best record in the East and a spot in the Finals. Like Nash a few years later and Derrick Rose a decade after, Iverson’s MVP looks a little more suspect with the benefit of history. Shaquille O’Neal was in the midst of his run as the most dominant player in the league, but he only won the MVP once.

1993 and '97: Otherwise known as the years Michael Jordan didn’t win. Charles Barkley claimed the award in 1993 and he was awesome. He just wasn’t as good as Jordan, who somehow finished third behind Hakeem Olajuwon. Karl Malone was also fantastic in 1997. He just wasn’t better than Jordan, an inconvenient fact that was reinforced in the Finals.

1988: Jordan averaged 35 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists with a .603 True Shooting percentage in what was arguably his greatest individual season. The fact that there is an argument is testament to Jordan’s greatness. What made this momentous was it was Jordan’s first MVP and interrupted the Larry Bird/Magic Johnson seven-year run atop the league. It felt like a changing of the guard, but Magic somehow got better with age and won the award in each of the next two seasons.

ICYMIor In Case You Missed It

The MVP so far

Drew Garrison crunches some numbers and declares Kevin Durant the MVP of the first half of the season.

Embiid on top

Our man Jonathan Tjarks debuts his NBA draft big board and while Joel Embiid is no longer a surprising No. 1, there are a number of intriguing names rising into the back end of the lottery.

Best of the rest

Who’s the third-best team in the East? Mike Prada thinks he knows and he has the photographic evidence to back it up. (I’m with Prada, by the way, but you probably already knew that.)

Stern at 30

Tom Ziller’s excellent and exhaustive retrospective covers David Stern’s 30-year reign as commissioner.

Sorry, San Antonio

Prada and I picked All-Star teams. No, I didn’t have any Spurs on my list. Still don’t feel that bad about it.

Say WhatRamblings of NBA players, coaches and GMs

"Swag Mamba? Nah. Nah. I’m Swaggy P, baby. Can’t be no Mamba. I don’t want to be a snake." -- Laker guard Nick Young, being awesome.

Reaction: If nothing else, this season has given us the oddly sweet resurrection of exiled Wizards like Young and Jordan Crawford. That’s … something, anyway.

"I just taste for the first time a smothie..MAN GOD BLESS AMERICA" -- Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, being awesomer.

Reaction: If the 2013 draft were held today, how high would Giannis go: Top three? Higher?

"It’s inevitable. Change is needed." -- Pistons forward Charlie Villanueva after a loss to the Bucks.

Reaction: Villanueva has a point. The Pistons are a mess. It’s just odd that he’s the one making it, considering he’s basically a non-entity this season.

"NBA all star voting process set up well for Iowa high school girls basketball. Offense only & only guards and forwards." -- Rockets GM Daryl Morey.

Reaction: Here’s the thing with the All-Star game. We spend months pondering it, weeks writing deep analysis items and seconds after the game is over no one even remembers what happens. Also, this is a revelation?

"I wouldn’t be surprised if they shed a few tears." Even Kevin? "Yeah, even Kevin." -- OKC center Kendrick Perkins on what he thinks will happen when Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce return to the Garden to play the Celtics.

Reaction: Can we please get one of those all-access things with Pierce and KG when they return to Boston on NBA TV?

This Week in GIFsfurther explanation unnecessary

Mike Callahan and Derek Fisher

Um ...

Michelle Obama

That Miami defense has been a real problem lately.

Paul George Pt. 1

Paul George Pt. 2

This dude is not fair.

Designer: Josh Laincz | Producer: Chris Mottram | Editor: Tom Ziller

About the Author

Paulflannery_sbhed

Paul Flannery writes about the NBA for SBNation.com and teaches journalism at Boston University. He lives in Cambridge, hates to drive and is probably waiting for the Green Line.

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