Counting on greatness: Appreciating the astonishing MVP climb of Kevin Durant - Sports Illustrated

Counting on greatness: Appreciating the astonishing MVP climb of Kevin Durant

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Kevin Durant earned 119 first-place MVP votes out of a possible 125. (Greg Nelson/SI)

Kevin Durant; J.R. Smith

In considering the exploits of a transcendent basketball player, there comes a point at which all we can do is count. A complicated game is reduced to a raw tally not because we enjoy being reductive, but rather because our means of understanding excellence remains rather limited. It can be seen plainly. It can be awed. Eventually, though, it begs to be understood in a way that largely escapes us. Logic has never fared well in coming to terms with the supernatural, so we count to make some sense of that which makes so little.

This is where we now find Kevin Durant, who on Tuesday was named the NBA's Most Valuable Player. The 25-year-old Thunder forward's talents have been appreciated for a long while, but this may be the first season in which the basketball world has actually been at a loss in approaching his extraordinary performance.

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That it's difficult to grasp the offerings of a player who sets himself apart so fully is the reason why we chalk up every one of Durant's 2,593 points, third most in a season over the last 25 years. It's why we tracked his 41 consecutive games with 25 points or more, the third-longest streak in NBA history. It's why we marvel at his utterly LeBronian assist marks, his near-50-40-90 shooting season despite registering a league-high usage rate and his team's record in the absence of its second star. Durant has evolved to the point where his incredible statistical output is his most accessible quality as a player; otherwise, his command of the game borders on mystical.

He's close to 7 feet but has the control as a ball handler to break down multiple layers of defense. Durant's accuracy as a shooter is uncanny, his form unfurled so quickly as to disguise the fact that miles of wingspan went into its production. He's amazingly quick -- so much so that he moonlights defending a few different positions when he can spare the energy, and that any appropriately sized defender put in front of him is at the mercy of his drives. He accomplishes all this while acting as the primary threat in a sometimes stunted offense, elevating Oklahoma City to remarkable efficiency.

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Durant is a shooter, a finisher, a creator, a facilitator, a rebounder, a defender and a superstar by any conceivable definition. This is so, fundamentally, for reasons we can observe but not fully explain. Durant's smart decision-making with the ball could itself be the subject of a dissertation, though even the most illuminative analysis fails to clarify how the multitudes of Durant's game are even possible in the first place. By the understood logic of basketball, there should not be a player so tall, so quick and so skilled in ways that dwarf other stars of his stature or speed. Yet Durant exists and thrives, even if all that he is and does is boiled down to cold, measurable matters of fact so that we might more comfortably engage them.

Kevin Durant

Basketball can (and should) be parsed for its strategy, as the juggling of variables in coverage, tendency and offensive design help decide the tilt between winning and losing. Players like Durant, though, carve out room among the tactics for wonder. It's telling that, in the race for an award that so often boils down to competing definitions of "value," Durant won in a landslide, earning 119 of 125 first-place votes. Refreshingly, voters didn't get caught up in what it means to be valuable. They were simply caught up on Durant, whose superiority this season rang through in all he delivered. What was a potentially close race between Durant and LeBron James in March had been all but decided by season's end. The difference between them could be seen on tape. It could be quantified. It could be understood.

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That difference is small enough that a sensible case for James could still be made, but not without accepting the fact that the reigning MVP wasn't operating with the same characteristic abandon. For LeBron, this was a season of surviving Dwyane Wade's periodic absences and biding time. He did so expertly. In the process, however, he let his defense slip and afforded Durant an opportunity to make up ground.

Let it be clear that Durant was the one largely responsible for the fact that he and James are now the NBA's 1A and 1B. So much has been made of LeBron's "coasting" and not enough of Durant's continuous climb against an impossible slope. Already he was one of the league's finest -- a worthy second to the best basketball player on the planet -- yet Durant found no satisfaction in silver. There's an air of effortlessness to Durant's game that obscures his commitment to process. He makes the game look so easy by approaching it with discipline and gravity, as few in the league are more committed to getting better at getting better.

It's that side of Durant that we can comprehend -- the hours in the gym, the countless film sessions, the obvious weight training. This is the currency of professional improvement and it's evident that Durant has invested. His current station, though, always comes back to his standing impossibility. He shares that quality with James, which is in itself an unmistakable indicator of his belonging: Durant, like LeBron, is so good and unique that he defies the natural boundaries of what a basketball player can be. We attempt to appreciate that as best we can, but when all else fails, we count.

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