Two extraordinary developments from Monday Night at Verizon Center: The watered-down, five-win Wizards beat another NBA finalist. And in even more of an anomaly, Kevin Durant’s team lost to someone below .500.
The latter will be buried, of course, because this is the NBA and outside of your local market just four teams seem to have any headline value — Kobe’s, LeBron’s, Carmelo’s and now Chris Paul’s. (Maybe Kevin Garnett’s club, too.)
Meanwhile, in a year we now forget the once-loaded Lakers were supposed to threaten a 70-win season and become the lone hope to stop a Heat-peat, Durant is having a better year than everyone.
A half-game back of the Clippers for the league’s best record, the Thunder has been devoid of drama or losing streaks since moving James Harden, one of the top 15 players in the league, to Houston. The Wizards are the only team currently with a losing record to beat Oklahoma City this season.
Almost-midseason most valuable player awards mean nothing, but if anyone is making the best claim to win his first trophy now it’s the District’s own. In fact, if Durant were to win he would be the first Washington-area recipient ever. Neither Elgin Baylor nor Dave Bing, as great as they were, won an MVP.
I hate that sports is now dissected in essentially two ways – human-interest angles and algorithms. And I’ve yet to see any team’s use of sabermetrics lead to a world championship of any kind; data still can’t get to the line with 10 seconds left. But while watching another effortless Durant 24-foot jump shot swish through in the game’s final minute Monday night, I have to give it up to the Moneyball crowd on this one:
Durant’s numbers tell the story of why he is having the best season in pro basketball – heck, one of the greatest seasons of any shooter ever in the NBA.
Do you know how many players have finished a season shooting 50 percent from the field, 90 percent from the free throw line and 40 percent from behind the three-point line since 1979-80, the first year three-pointers were counted? Five.
Steve Nash. Larry Bird. Mark Price. Reggie Miller. Dirk Nowitzki. That’s it. That’s the list. And Nash and Bird are the only players to do it more than one season. Durant is now on pace to become No. 6 in the .50/.40/.90 club.
Third in scoring, he takes two fewer shots per game than LeBron and Carmelo, the other two genuine MVP candidates. He’s also averaging career highs in assists, steals and blocks. As good a season as Anthony is having, Durant is a better defender; he plays both ends of the court as well as anyone outside of LeBron.
And clutch, so clutch.
As John Thompson Jr. said last year while assessing Durant’s talent to Baylor and other great players from the District, “It’s not how many he scores; it’s when he scores.”
A time-tested hoophead argument is what player you would want to take the last shot at the end of a tie game. For years I said Larry. Then I came around to Michael. I actually settled on Reggie Miller, post-Jordan, before Kobe took up permanent residence.
But as Kobe winds down, Durant and Anthony are next up to take the mantle and right now I would take Durant, whom I asked what the toughest challenge was in winning the West again Monday night.
“Playing up to our standard every night, he said. “No matter who we play, we know what we have to do – we have to hold a team under 43 percent [shooting], we got to outrebound them, we got to get 20 assists. Playing up to our standards is tough to do every night. We set a high standard here. And every guy coming in has to know what we’re doing it for.
“But I like where we are. You know, we’ve been fighting all season. We’re defending Western Conference champions so everyone has been giving us their best.”
He ambled sheepishly through the Verizon corridors after leaving the locker room, his stick-man Gilligan frame still belying his toughness on the floor.
“Hey Barry Farm,” said a smiling woman behind a barricade, referencing Southeast Washington’s outdoor Goodman League where Durant has been the big draw the past several summers.
Standing behind her were maybe 50 people – relatives, friends of Durant, who all wanted their ball signed or picture taken with KD. It’s not much of a homecoming – “Back-to-back [games], so I didn’t get enough time,” he said – but it will do for now.
Somewhere, Kobe is crestfallen that the Lakers have lost every big man on his can’t-believe-we’re-15-and-18 club. LeBron and Dwyane Wade are learning how to conserve their aging bodies for another playoff grind while doing enough to assert their dominance in the East. Carmelo is probably still chasing Garnett down a hall at Madison Square Garden.
All Durant does is line up his deadeye shot better than anyone in basketball, lead a team that almost wins 80 percent of its games and try to fend off the old (San Antonio) and the new (Clippers) before Kobe’s guys get completely healthy.
Hard to believe, but the best scorer the last few years in the NBA has evolved into the best player. And because he plays in the middle of the country in a small market and his team isn’t a daily passion play, Kevin Durant is unfortunately almost taken for granted.
For previous columns by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.