For the second straight year, the NBA figures to have a back-and-forth MVP race that should come down to the end of the season. Only months after Russell Westbrook and James Harden forced fans to draw lines in the sand, the MVP conversation is heating up again. Harden is the current favorite for the award by a slight margin, racking up absurd stats while the Rockets blow away competition. Hot on his heels is LeBron James, putting together arguably the best season of his career in Year 15. Others drawing consideration include Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kyrie Irving and Stephen Curry.
Curry’s recent ankle injury, which may force him to miss at least two weeks, could drop him out of the race, however. Fortunately for the Warriors, one of his teammates appears ready to take his place: some guy named Kevin Durant.
KD made a bit of a statement in the Dubs’ first game since Curry sprained his ankle. With Draymond Green also out, Durant dominated, posting a triple–double in a 101–87 win over the Hornets on Wednesday. Durant collected 11 rebounds and dished 10 assists to go along with 35 points, and he looked extremely comfortable leading a team missing its two most important players.
Durant certainly seized the moment against Charlotte. He took 28 shots, more than 10 attempts higher than his season average. With Curry in the lineup, Durant sometimes gets lost in the Warriors’ collective dominance, not always standing out as a focal point. The situation was completely reversed against Charlotte. Durant’s full offensive repertoire was on display. He led and finished fast breaks. He operated out of the post. He isolated on the wing. He ran high pick-and-rolls. Basically, Durant scored in pretty much every single way designed for a human being to put a ball in a basket. And he scored over and over again.
When Durant first signed with Golden State, he obviously did so with the idea that his personal accolades would take a backseat to immense team success. Even still, Durant was in the MVP conversation for a chunk of last year, until his late-season injury dropped him out entirely. This year, Curry’s injury opens the door for Durant (25.1 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 5.2 APG) to pile up the stats—and wins—necessary to be a factor come voting time.
Curry could be back by Christmas, but if Durant comes close to reproducing his numbers against Charlotte on a nightly basis for an extended stretch, he can’t be ignored simply because he plays for such a talented team. After all, MVP is an award that often goes to the best player on the best team, and Durant has a chance to solidify himself as that person in Curry’s absence (assuming he stops getting ejected). It also helps Durant’s case that Giannis's Bucks have cooled off, and Kyrie's statistics have settled to a pace not all that different from last season in Cleveland.
The more cautious Golden State is with Curry’s injury—and the team figures to be extremely cautious given his ankle history—the more opportunity Durant will have to add a second MVP to his résumé. Losing Curry could also force the Dubs to play a little bit sharper basketball. It’s no secret Golden State breezes through the first half of most every game before deciding to start trying in the third quarter. Perhaps now the team will play with the slightest sense of urgency.
And if you’re a true hoops fan, the kind who can spot a hesi, pull-up jimbo, then you should be rooting for Durant to make himself an MVP factor. Remember how awesome it was when Russ and Harden tried to outdo each other last season? (Even as some voters clutched their pearls at Russ’s volume shooting.) Now imagine Harden, LeBron and KD deliberately trying to one-up each other down the stretch run of the season. Not bad, right?
Of course, this is part of what we lost when Durant left Oklahoma City. He obviously had an MVP-caliber teammate with him in OKC, but Durant couldn’t afford to coast with the Thunder the way the Warriors have for large stretches of games this season. Put your Durant feelings aside. The NBA is better when circumstances force him to go into assassin mode (unless you're LeBron James trying to slow down a fastbreak late in a Finals game).
So let’s see how Durant, somebody who notoriously dislikes finishing second, continues to respond in the wake of Curry’s injury. Game one was a triple–double. If that proves to be more than just a flash in the pan, Durant will quickly force people to mention his name in any conversation about the MVP award. Now is as good a time as any to start preparing your arguments.