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Kingdom of Kevin: Why Durant is the NBA’s first-half MVP

If it seems like a basketball lifetime ago that Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden all shared the same hardwood, that’s because it was.

It’ll be five years this June since one of the most talented Big 3s we’ve ever seen disbanded before the NBA would truly grasp the potential that Oklahoma City trio had, none having reached his 24th birthday prior to getting the little brother treatment from LeBron James and friends in the 2012 Finals. Harden was shipped to Houston before the following season began, and after four years of not quite getting over the hump together, the Durant/Westbrook duo broke up with the former’s decision to bolt for the Bay Area.

Each finally has a franchise to pilot on his own, and in the case of Westbrook and Harden, that’s being taken quite literally. Jilted at the altar by Durant, Westbrook has channeled his manic on-court energy into a one-man show the league has rarely seen. His 41.1 usage rate is the highest since the league started keeping track in 1997-98 – Michael Jordan’s swan song from relevant hoopdom (sorry, Wizards). The season Kobe averaged 35 for a mediocre Lakers team? The era of Iverson’s “practice” rant? Both positively passive compared to what Russ is doing.

Harden is just three spots behind, using 34.3 percent of the Rockets’ possessions while leading the league in minutes. As he continues to rack up assists in his new role as Houston’s point guard, Harden has touched the ball 5,730 times this season. Only Westbrook (5,504) is within 1,000.

Either has a perfectly good case as the league’s MVP. Westbrook has kept the Thunder firmly in the Western Conference playoff picture by himself. He’s averaging a triple-double. He’s pulling down basically the same number of rebounds per night as DeMarcus Cousins while carrying a team that scores 106.6 points per 100 possession with him on the court and just 97.2 – think last season’s 10-72 Sixers level – when he’s on the bench.

Prior to New Year’s Eve, no player in NBA history had recorded a 50-point triple-double. Before the end of January, Harden had done it twice. Until 2016-17, there had been five seasons in NBA history where a player had averaged double figures in both assists and free-throw attempts – all by Oscar Robertson in the 60s. Westbrook and Harden are on pace to give the Big O company for the first time in a half century.

And neither should be the NBA’s midseason MVP.

Durant left a good situation in Oklahoma City for a historically great one in Golden State, and while there’s not going to be a follow-up 73-win season for the Warriors, make no mistake – this is a better team than the regular-season juggernaut of 2015-16. They’ve been 12.6 points better than their opponents per 100 possessions, a full point above last year’s 9-loss squad and 3.6 ahead of the league’s next-best team (San Antonio) this season. For as incredible as Golden State was last season, the Spurs had a better point differential.

It wouldn’t have taken a fortune teller to figure out that Durant would score less for the Dubs than he did with the Thunder, but he’s still leading Golden State by averaging 25.8 points – just 2.4 fewer than he did last season on 2.2 fewer shots. Durant is producing 1.52 points per field-goal attempt, second best in the league other than the DeAndre Jordan/Rudy Gobert/Dwight Howard troika which rarely takes a shot outside the restricted area.

Who’s the only one ahead of Durant? That would be Harden (1.55), but the Rockets’ star is getting there with a 52.5 effective field-goal percentage. Durant’s at 59.5. His true shooting percentage of 65.2 is the best of his career, better than any non-big other than the Wizards’ Otto Porter.

Durant’s shooting 37.4 percent from 3-point range, which while far from a bad number is his lowest since 2010-11. But consider what he’s doing from inside the arc. As NBA.com’s John Schumann points out, he’s finishing at an elite level both inside the paint and from mid range.

Schumann_graphic

What Durant has done when he drives to the basket separates him from any MVP candidate, LeBron James included. Seventy-five players in the league have driven toward the hoop at least 200 times. The only player scoring more than one point per drive is Durant, and he’s nearly a full quarter of a point (1.14) ahead of No. 2 Tobias Harris. Last season, no one was higher than 0.88 per drive – Durant himself.

Perhaps an even better measure is team points per drive, which takes into account more than just the individual’s finishes. Durant’s head and shoulders above the rest of the league here, too, with a top eight that’s basically a who’s who of NBA megastars.

Drives Team Points Per Drive
1. Kevin Durant (GSW)
235
1.55
2. Chris Paul (LAC) 212 1.36
3. LeBron James (CLE) 490 1.35
4. James Harden (HOU) 628 1.32
5. Stephen Curry (GSW) 336 1.32
6. DeMar DeRozan (TOR) 520 1.31
7. Kyle Lowry (TOR) 565 1.30
8. Jimmy Butler (CHI) 473 1.29

In the two years STATS SportVU data on drives has been fully available, the top finishers were Harden (1.37 in 2014-15) and Curry (1.38 in 2015-16).

Durant is shooting 72.4 percent when meeting resistance at the rim, tops in the league among 108 players with at least 100 contested field goals. Finishing in the restricted area overall? 78.1 percent, 2.7 above LeBron James at No. 2 and miles better than any big (Howard, Jordan, Whiteside, et al) who makes his living inside the few feet around the basket.

It only seemed logical that moving to Golden State’s ball-movement favoring, constant motion offense and leaving behind Oklahoma City’s ISO-heavy sets would decrease Durant’s need to create by himself once a play breaks down. And it has. Durant had the seventh-most ISOs in the league last season, going at his defender 1-on-1 on 9.2 percent of his possessions. That percentage is down to 6.8 with the Warriors – 19th in the NBA – but he’s been even a tick more effective, scoring 1.00 points per ISO after putting up 0.99 with the Thunder. Westbrook (0.90) and Harden (0.88), who ranked first and fourth in total ISOs, are considerably behind.

They’re not as far back of Durant there as they are in transition, however. Let’s start by pointing out that the three teams we’re looking at are the three who most frequent the fast break. Let’s continue by mentioning that there are 36 players in the league, as of the All-Star break, to attempt at least 100 field goals in transition. Durant happens to cash in more often than any of them, averaging 1.34 points per transition bucket while Westbrook (0.99) and Harden (0.97) sit at 31st and 32nd. Part of the reason? Durant rarely coughs up the basketball.

Transition turnover percentage Rank (out of 36 qualifiers)
Durant
9.4
25th
Westbrook 21.1 2nd
Harden 29.2 1st

Neither Durant, Westbrook nor Harden has the reputation as a lockdown defender, and it’s still difficult to find a reliable all-encompassing defensive statistic to go by. ESPN’s defensive real plus-minus, measured in net point differential over 100 offensive and defensive possessions while adjusting for teammates and opponents, has Durant ninth among small forwards (1.89), Westbrook 19th among point guards (-0.09) and Harden 72nd among shooting guards (-1.72), a position he doesn’t even really play. A lot of noise there, too hard to draw a huge conclusion.

But remember how effective Durant is when he drives to the basket? He’s been nearly as good when he’s the one defending the drive. Last season, of the 126 players to stand in front of at least 200 drives, Durant ranked 106th while allowing 1.22 team points per drive. As we inch toward the three-quarters mark of the 2016-17 season, let’s use 150 as a minimum threshold. With the Warriors, Durant is seventh of 117 qualifiers at 1.04.

That’s just one example, but Durant has taken on the challenge of protecting the rim after going from a team that had multiple great defensive options inside to one without any particularly good ones. His 1.7 blocks per game and easily a career best and he’s accounted for 36.4 percent of the Warriors’ blocks overall. He’s defending slightly more post plays per game than he did in OKC and he’s doing it well. Durant’s limiting the player posting him up to 0.40 points per post, ninth best in the NBA of the 60 players to defend at least 75. And consider the company. Marc Gasol is giving up the exact same number. Teammate Draymond Green is at 0.41. Likely defensive player of the year Rudy Gobert is at 0.59. Does that mean Durant is a defender on par with those three overall? No. He’s had roughly two-thirds of the amount of post-up defensive opportunities as Gasol, Green and Gobert. But does it mean Durant can hold his own on key possessions down low against the likes of Kawhi Leonard, Blake Griffin, Kevin Love and James come late May? Quite possibly.

Consider one other part of his game that doesn’t get a ton of credit. The Warriors are the league’s third-best team from behind the 3-point arc, shooting 38.8 percent. Golden State is shooting 41.2 percent on 3s off passes from Draymond Green, 39.9 percent from Curry and 37.7 percent from Andre Iguodala, their first-, second- and fourth-ranked assisters overall. On passes from Durant, they’re shooting 47.9 percent. Curry’s percentage on passes from other Warriors is 40.3, and on Durant dishes it kicks up to 49.5. Klay Thompson goes from a 41.7 percent shooter from deep on passes from non-KD teammates to a 53.7 deadeye when firing off a feed from No. 35.

Westbrook and Harden have been fantastic this season, the NBA’s two most overwhelming forces lifting what are likely lottery teams without them to playoff squads (and, in Houston’s case, home-court advantage) with them. But Westbrook has the ball in his hands more than a quarter of the time he’s on the floor. Harden’s a smidge under the 25 percent mark.

Sure, that’s their job. Ball dominance shouldn’t preclude a player from being the league’s MVP. But Durant is finding a way to take over games while having the ball in his hands just 7.5 percent of the 34 minutes a night he plays. He’s been the best player on a team with the two-time reigning MVP, a team that’s statistically even better than last season’s regular-season behemoth.

Durant won’t lead the league in scoring, rebounding or assists and he won’t turn in lines every night that would make Oscar Robertson blush. The Warriors don’t need him to. What they do need from Durant has been delivered on a higher plane than any other player in the league. And that’s why he’s the NBA’s midseason MVP.

Brett Huston is a Senior Editor at STATS LLC. Contact him at bhuston@stats.com or on Twitter at @BHuston_STATS.

Photos By: AP Photo/George Bridges/Sue Ogrocki/Marcio Jose Sanchez
Illustration By: STATS/Andrew Skweres