Debating William & Mary, sports and culture since 2011. Updated every Wednesday.

Most Valuable Player(s)

In Basketball on April 11, 2012 at 4:44 pm

No one over the age of 10 likes to re-watch a movie.

There are exceptions, of course. If you sit me down in front of a television and “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” or “Pulp Fiction” is on, it’s a Men’s Warehouse guarantee that my overall productivity for the day will be cut in half (like Zed!)[1].

The level of enjoyment people receive after the first viewing has a short half-life. The most compelling element of any good comedy, drama or thriller is unpredictability. And while that suspense is a function of high-quality writing, acting and directing, it is also the only thing that keeps us in our seats for movies like “The Fast and the Furious,” which had none of the above.

The same unpredictability is true in sports. Any team can beat any other team on any given day.

But there is one key difference.

When the same group of actors, directors and writers reconvene to replicate the magic that transpired during the first film, it’s called a sequel, and it’s rarely as good the first go-round. For every “Godfather, pt. II”, there are seven rehashes like “Ocean’s 12” or “The Hangover, pt. II” that replicate the original — minus the surprises.

With sports, the same group of players could face each other an infinite number of times, but there would always be an incalculable number of intangibles to make the outcome unpredictable. The best we can do in sports is make educated guesses based on statistics — but even those can’t account for out-of-nowhere phenoms like Jeremy Lin[2], except in hindsight, when a sabermetrician will justify that success with backdated metrics.

This is why the college basketball fanatic in your office NCAA tournament pool never wins, and why the guy who made his picks at random does. By their very nature, athletic events rely — to a certain extent — on luck, fate, God or Tim Tebow. And that’s why we enjoy them.

Suspense is what makes the games exciting. It’s what keeps us from tuning out. But it also allows us to attach narratives to a quarter, a game or a season.

Like authors plotting a novel, analysts foist arcs and archetypes upon certain athletes based upon their personalities, origins and talent, or alternatively, as projections of the analysts themselves (something of which no one from Crim Del Harris has ever been guilty). It makes for better copy, and it adds another layer of mythology to the men and women we celebrate. Furthermore, it allows us to create (and inflate) conflicts.

Which brings us to Kevin Durant and LeBron James, the two best players in the NBA.

Last week’s game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Miami Heat was important for a number of reasons. Firstly, it was a matchup of the teams favored to win the Eastern and Western Conferences. Secondly, Durant and teammates Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka had gone buck wild on James and the Heat only two weeks before, setting the stage for a rematch. Thirdly, and most importantly, it offered James a chance to reclaim the throne as this season’s consensus most valuable player from Durant, who had staged the basketball equivalent of Sherman’s March to the Sea since winning the MVP award at the All-Star Game.

The game was marketed like a small-scale Ali-Frazier II. In Part I, Durant contributed one of the most astounding efforts of his career, shooting over 50 percent for 28 points along with 9 rebounds and 8 assists. James, on the other hand, was almost a non-entity (by his standards), dropping 17 points and 7 assists in an effort that included 4 turnovers, which notched him a +/- of -10 on the night.

James has been dogged, with reason, by the well-worn perception that he fails to show up in the clutch. He left the Cavaliers after a disappointing series against the Boston Celtics in the 2010 Eastern Conference semi-finals, when he appeared to quit on his team during Game 5. Coupled with his disappointing performance in the 2011 NBA Finals, as well as his failure to capitalize on his own hot hand during the 2012 All-Star Game, he is considered by many to be empty calories.

Since the All-Star Game, his box scores have remained impressive. However, he appears to lack the drive to swing games in crunch time — a perception exacerbated by his first attempt against the Thunder.

Durant, in the meantime, was being celebrated as the second coming of Larry Bird. His lowest per-game point total in the period between the All-Star Game and his second match-up with the Heat was 18 points. In that same six-week period, he shot below 40 percent from the field only four times[3]. Perhaps most importantly, the Thunder had won six of its last seven games going into Miami, a run that included Durant’s first matchup against the Heat.

Up until the rematch, LeBron had failed (in the eyes of observers) to substantiate his self-anointed “King James” moniker. By making himself out to be his team’s best player — but only its second or third option in the fourth quarter — he revealed what we all assumed to be a weakness: The same man who fervently craved the attention of South Beach, of being part of a superteam, also shrank in moments when that spotlight would be most warranted.

His role as the league’s most dominant player had been put in question. The issues that had festered since 2010 were being replayed on a loop. And after flirting with redemption in the first half of the season[4], the narrative had changed on him once again. In the run-up to the rematch James was cast in a familiar role as the heel.

However, while we’re quick to celebrate Durant’s effectiveness in clutchsituations, we forget similarmoments in James’s career. There are many valid reasons to dislike LeBron[5]. Reconfiguring his game to adapt to a different team is not one of them.

In that respect, Durant and James have more in common than the media would like to recognize.

Both emerged from humble beginnings and joined the NBA while still in their teens. James arrived as the number one overall pick out of St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, Durant was picked second four years later after one season at the University of Texas. Both were recognized early on as the powerhouses of their respective draft classes. And both elevated otherwise mediocre teams to new heights in short periods of time.

Durant plays on a team that is absolutely loaded with young talent. He has evolved from early in his career, preferring the role of distributor while also being the primary scorer, which allows his trigger-happy point guard Westbrook to remain an explosive scoring threat. Although older, James plays the same role for an equally (or more) talented Heat squad. In that capacity, his leadership has led Miami to (as of April 11) the second best record in the Eastern Conference.

Statistically, LeBron is the stronger player. James is averaging 26.9 points, 6.4 assists and 7.9 rebounds per game this year. He also has a 30.6 player efficiency rating that would put this season in the top-12 ever recorded. Durant’s numbers are stunning as well, but considerably less impressive: 27.6 points, 3.5 assists and 7.9 rebounds per game with a 26.4 PER.

Those facts, and those moments, laid the foundation for the narrative arc that created the suspense that made this sequel worth watching — and gave it the dramatic weight to be the most re-watchable matchup of his career.

After an intensely physical first three quarters, James forced a crucial turnover from Durant in the fourth, which pushed the momentum decidedly in the Heat’s favor. His defensive presence in the final minutes made it impossible for the Thunder to reclaim an advantage, and he was instrumental in preventing Durant’s two failed shots. On the night, he scored 34 points on 10-of-20 shooting, picking up 7 rebounds, 10 assists and 4 rebounds along the way.

Durant, on the other hand, gave up a career-high 9 turnovers.

To those had predicted the Thunder would end Miami’s streak of 16-straight home game victories, LeBron had answered his critics. Was it expected? No. Will the team’s next game follow the same pattern? Of course not. Will people watch it? Definitely.

Shortly after the game, ESPN analyst Chris Broussard tweeted: “MVP race neck-and-neck after LeBron’s outstanding game tonight. Race to the finish btwn LJ and KD[.]”

At the end of the season, writers will point to the games in which this pair squared off and analyze it based on who was more likable, using vague terms like “dominance” and “ability to win”. We’ll use their statistics to predict playoff success, knowing that either player is capable of throwing up a dud every once in awhile. In the end though, there won’t be a clear answer.

And even though the MVP votes will have been long tallied by then, that race may include a trip to the Finals for both.

I hope we get to see it again. It really wasn’t bad for a sequel.


[1] Other repeat offenders: “Inglourious Basterds”, Will Ferrell, “Zoolander”, “Field of Dreams”, Scorcese-De Niro, Scorcese-DiCaprio, “The Sandlot”, “A Prophet” and “Roadhouse.” I will never not watch “Roadhouse”.

[2] RIP Jeremy Lin’s left meniscus.

[3] All of which occurred in the week following the break.

[4] His early stats were ridiculous. His opening day effort against the Dallas Mavericks set the tone in the first weeks of the season: 37 points, 10 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 steals, 2 blocks — with 3 turnovers. His efforts against other first-half opponents like Chicago, San Antonio and Indiana were also jaw-dropping.

[5] And I do dislike him. “The Decision” was still tactless. I wonder how much of the jockeying around this year’s MVP race has to do with that, especially after Durant’s quiet announcement of his contract with the Thunder via Tweet.

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