Kevin Durant and LeBron James are the two best basketball players on the planet by a wide margin. For the past few years there's been a competition between the two of them for the Most Valuable Player award, followed by a competition between a a dozen or so other players for the honor of being named the third best player in the world.
Durant was completely amazing last season, when he finished second to James in MVP voting. And he blew away everything he'd done before with his performance this season. On a team widely regarded as having two superstars and little else, Durant carried the Thunder to the second best record in the NBA while his co-star was missing 44 percent of the games. His scoring average of 32 points per game was a career high and almost four points higher than last season. It was also the highest season average for any player since Kobe Bryant averaged over 35 for a mediocre Lakers team eight seasons ago. The fact that Durant scored that much for one of the best teams in the league and did it while scoring hyper-efficiently (KD's 13-14 TSP .635; Kobe's 05-06 TSP .559) is pretty much unheard of.
It's the efficiency that really sets Durant apart as a volume scorer. You have to go back to Adrian Dantley -- a foul drawing machine in his heyday with the Utah Jazz in the early 80s -- for a 30 point per game scorer with a better true shooting percentage. But Dantley played in the post (as did Karl Malone and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who also averaged 30 with a TSP over 60 percent); for perimeter players, there's Durant and Michael Jordan and that's it. And even Jordan never had a season with a TSP of .635.
And while Durant had a season for the ages, James was merely his usual transplendant self. It was always a two-man race, and the combination of voter fatigue (James had won two in a row and four of the last five) and Durant's other-worldly numbers) pretty much guaranteed that Durant would win. But even so, I did not expect him to dominate the vote the way he did, receiving 119 of the 125 first place votes.
The real news for Clipper fans is that Blake Griffin finished third. As we have discussed at length here on Clips Nation, Griffin suffered a backlash at some point following his rookie season. Griffin was so spectacular and so unexpected as a rookie that everyone immediately anointed him the future of the power forward position -- after which followed the inevitable over-correction of pundits declaring him overrated and "just a dunker."
It got so bad that during the off-season, among a panel of five ESPN writers, not one of them called him the best power forward in the NBA. More astounding still, not one of them even predicted that he'd be the best power forward in the NBA in five season. In ESPNRank over the summer he came in at 14. Among the players ranked ahead of him: Paul George, Kyrie Irving, James Harden, Dwight Howard and Marc Gasol. Um, yeah.
It's the third consecutive season that a Clipper has finished in the top four in MVP voting -- Chris Paul finished fourth last season and third the season before that. Moreover, Paul finished seventh in this year's voting, giving the Clippers two players in the top ten, the first time teammates have finished so high in the MVP race since LeBron and Dwyane Wade finished an identical third and seventh in 2011. You have to go back a decade, to Shaq and Kobe on the Lakers, to find teammates who finished higher.
And bear in mind that teammates naturally cannibalize each other's votes. The NBA is releasing the actual votes this season for the first time (a great idea and one that was a long time coming) so we can see that process very clearly. Griffin received one second place vote (Chris Sheridan is the one and only writer who named someone other than Durant and James in the top two), 66 third place votes, 30 fourth and seven fifth. Chris Paul received a total of 13 votes. But Griffin and Paul were named together on just two ballots. Which means that 86 percent of voters included Griffin, and over 10 percent included Paul -- but only two out of 125 included both. Of the 21 voters who left Griffin off their ballot, over half of them included Paul instead.
Which tells you that at least this season, the Clippers' big two was considered better than any other big two in the league. Of course, that is impacted by Russell Westbrook's injury and it's clear that the duo of Durant -- given the level at which he's currently playing -- plus a healthy Westbrook is in the conversation, but those are the two big twos worth mentioning in the NBA at present (which is why this Clippers-Thunder series could be so great, though the Clippers took it to them in Game 1). What's amazing about the Paul-Griffin pairing is that it's far from clear which one is the better player -- either one can legitimately lay claim to the title of third best player in the league.
The scary thing about Griffin being third in MVP voting -- and this is what I've been saying about Griffin for several years now -- is that he still has plenty of headroom. The backlashers kept pointing out the things he did poorly (without acknowledging his production), and there are still plenty of areas for improvement. The fact is that Griffin does many things incredibly well, yest still has lots of room for improvement, and also happens to be a tireless worker who wants to get better. He has steadily improved over the course of four seasons, despite the fact that everyone seems to think this season happened overnight. He'll be better still next year -- and for several years to come.
I used to say that Griffin hadn't even scratched the surface of his talent. Now he has; but only just.