For the last few years, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James have been paired together as the two premier players in the National Basketball Association. The question was always asked: Who was better?
Supporters of King James point to his out-of-this-world athletic ability. James is 6′ 8″ and built more like a linebacker than a basketball player. Despite his size, he is one of the fastest players and is a nightmare to guard on the fast break. Of course, athleticism does not count for everything. James also has an unbelievably high basketball IQ. He always finds the open teammate and he often puts himself in perfect position to either block a shot or steal the ball. So when you put that all together, you get a player who has won back-to-back MVP awards. Even with all of his accolades and awards, James is still missing perhaps the most important item of all: an NBA championship ring.
Back during the 2003-2004 season, Kobe Bryant had hit the lowest point in his career. His sexual assault scandal destroyed his public image and his reputation as a player. He was already known as a selfish player who could not co-exist with Shaquille O’Neal. However, Kobe never stopped producing. With his vast array of offensive weapons, he willed himself to the top. He finally got the monkey off his back by winning the NBA title over the Orlando Magic in the 2009 Finals and then winning it again the following year over the Boston Celtics. While LeBron James may be the most talented player in the NBA, he has never succeeded on the ultimate stage of the NBA Finals. Kobe Bryant is considered the best because of his ability to win in the playoffs.
However, a newcomer is joining this powerful duo. There is a skinny player in Oklahoma City who doesn’t get quite the attention that these two other superstars receive. Still, Kevin Durant is ready to take over the NBA. This is not much of a prediction, but Durant will win the MVP award this upcoming season. Here are five reasons why:
1. He was considered a legitimate candidate last year.
Not only did Durant lead the league in scoring last season with 30.1 points per game (the highest average of his career), he also led the Thunder to 50 wins and their first playoff berth in six years. For his efforts, Durant was rewarded with four first-place MVP votes and 609 points overall, placing him second behind LeBron (and conspicuously ahead of Kobe Bryant) in the MVP race.
2. He made “The Leap” this summer at the FIBA World Championship.
In earning tournament MVP and leading Team USA to a gold medal-finish (its first in 16 years), Durant proved he is not only a great player but also a great leader. He addressed his flaws (notably defense and interior scoring) and put the team on his back time after time. He was Coach K’s ace in the hole, the guy who busted all of the misconceptions about America’s “B-Team” not being able to measure up to international competition. And he did it all with a confidence and grace not often found in a 21-year-old player.
3. The Thunder are only going to get better.
If Durant made “The Leap” with Team USA, Russell Westbrook made “The Mini Leap.” He may have come off the bench, but Westbrook was the point guard on the Team USA roster who stood out the most. Not only did he get into the lane at will and finish a multitude of ferocious dunks, he also played crunch time minutes when Derrick Rose struggled.
Westbrook’s development, paired with inevitable breakout seasons from James Harden and Serge Ibaka and the defensive potential of rookie center Cole Aldrich, makes the 50-win Thunder even more dangerous than they were last season.
4. LeBron is now Dwyane Wade’s sidekick in Miami.
No matter the perspective from which you look at it, LeBron significantly lowered his MVP stock by taking his talents to South Beach. In Cleveland, he was The Man. In fact, he was more than The Man. He won two MVP awards there and took them to their first-ever Finals appearance. He was a demigod. In Miami, he is not. In Miami, Dwyane Wade is The Man. He proved it by bringing them a title in 2006 and by routinely leading them into the playoffs after Shaq left. The Heat are his team. LeBron is just a sidekick.
5. Kobe isn’t a serious contender anymore.
Kobe finished third in MVP voting and received zero first-place votes. The year before that, he finished second in MVP voting and received just two first-place votes. This is not to say Kobe isn’t still the most feared, most accomplished player in the NBA. He is. It’s more a reflection on the quality of his teammates and the nagging injuries that have bothered him for years. His will is still strong. If he set his mind to it, Kobe could terrorize the league every night and put up MVP-type numbers. But he doesn’t want to be that player anymore. He’s learned that he’s better when he subjugates himself for the better of the team. As such, he’s not a serious MVP threat anymore. With both Kobe and LeBron out of the way, it’s Durant’s trophy to lose.