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LeBron James Trails Kevin Durant In MVP Hype Before Heat-Thunder Game Tonight

For the past 20-odd months or so, the question of who is the best basketball player in the world was an easy one to answer: LeBron James. The 4-time MVP and 2-time Finals MVP has been coasting along in the prime of his career with nobody appearing to challenge his seemingly inexorable apogee as a player. Except, occasional murmurings that Kevin Durant was the superior offensive player, even if LeBron was better overall, have crescendoed recently during Durant’s hot streak of 11 straight 30-point games. LeBron’s dominance has shifted over the last month, and now KD is in the driver’s seat for the NBA MVP as their two teams prepare to face off for the first time this season tonight.

James is aware of the altered MVP landscape even as he shoots a career-best 58 percent from the floor this season. Perhaps it’s his career-low 36.9 minutes per game, career-low assists and rebounds per game, or a somewhat lackadaisical defensive start — for LeBron, at least — to the season after the Heat captured their second straight title last June, but Durant’s numbers have surged past LeBron’s and we’re not just talking scoring, either.

Brian Windhorst pointed out the differences in his piece for ESPN yesterday where he detailed how Durant has become the front-runner for the league MVP this year. In that piece, Windhorst mentions how James is well aware of the hype that’s surrounded Durant’s January-to-remember.

But James is attempting a career-low 16.4 shots per game this year. Combine that with the decrease in playing time, and for the first time in LeBron’s career, one where he’s complained often about shouldering such a huge role, he’s actively complaining about his lack of shots, and said Tuesday “I don’t like playing less, I don’t feel like I need to play less. Don’t ever put it out there that LeBron wants to play less.”

This augments the reports earlier this month that James was “jealous” of all of Durant’s scoring attempts, even as Durant accurately pointed out that James “can do whatever he wants.” Early on in his Miami tenure, James complained behind-the-scenes about all the responsibility he had on both sides of the court, and who can forget how much he had to do to make the Cavs contenders every year with a subpar lineup of cobbled-together role players.

Now LeBron’s headlining the 2-time defending champs with two other all-stars buttressing his excellence in Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. Meanwhile, Durant has been on a rampage this year even though his fellow All-Star, Russell Westbrook, has sat out 21 games with multiple knee surgeries.

Durant is winning praise all over the league for his various thunderclaps against opposing defenses. He dropped a career-high against Stephen Curry and the Dubs; he’s shown a new-found ability to distribute when teams load-up on him, and he’s dropping 40 points seemingly every night while hitting clutch shots to keep the Thunder at the top with a Western Conference-leading 36-10 mark through the season’s midway point.

Some — like Bulls.com scribe Sam Smith, and Sports Illustrated‘s Ian Thomsen — have even started comparing Durant to Michael Jordan.

Click to find out what James and Durant think of their rival and friend and the battle for the MVP…

While James might not concede the MVP to Durant so-far this season, he does appreciate how tough a defensive assignment it’ll be during their sporadic one-on-one match-ups tonight. Of Durant, he told ESPN, “Individually, he can’t be stopped by any 1-on-1 player. There’s nobody that can guard him 1-on-1.”

James continued to heap praise on KD in Brian Windhorst’s piece today:

“He’s one of the toughest covers, between him and [Carmelo Anthony], those are the toughest covers for me individually,” James said. “It’s a game within a game. You want to win but you also want to win your own matchup. I like going against the best. I wish I could go against him every night.”

When you look at their production side-by-side this season, per basketball-reference.com, Durant leads in nearly every category, including basic metrics like points, rebounds, steals and blocks per game and more advanced computation like defensive/offensive win share, overall win shares per 48 minutes and PER (player efficiency rating).

A common complaint about Durant, at least in terms of the inevitable LeBron comparison, has been his defense. But Royce Young recently outlined the shrinking discrepancy in their defensive acumen for the Daily Thunder, and showed that LeBron trails KD in defensive win shares, blocks, steals and on/off numbers — the Heat are actually giving up more points possession with LeBron on the court, than when he sits — while KD still continues his otherworldly scoring prowess.

Durant himself, feels he’s become not just a scorer, but a real two-way player that can score and defend. He told Windhorst on Wednesday,

“I’m a two-way player; that is how I look at it. I play both ends of the floor whether you think so or not. Ask my coaches or my teammates, they rely on me on the defensive end. If you want to be a good player you have to do it on both ends, and I’ve realized that over the last few years. And I think I’m doing a better job on the defensive end.”

Durant’s not lying, either, as the numbers will show. As Royce pointed out in his piece, Durant’s individual one-on-one defense, per Synergy Sports, points towards a more dominant Durant on the defensive end. He only gives up 0.79 PPP (points per possession) on plays where his opponent shoots the ball, gets fouled or turns it over, while James is giving up 0.86. In an isolation setting, Durant is even better, giving up just 0.48 PPP (good for sixth in the league) and James sits at 0.92 PPP.

Find out what KD thinks of all the LeBron comparisons and his new status as the MVP pace-setter.

KD has become such a favorite that we find ourselves debating his new nickname, Slim Reaper. Durant wrote in a Twitter Q&A, that he prefers the simple initials, KD, and more recently reiterated his dislike for the new moniker to Courtney Fallon of NBC 6 News:

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Isn’t it just like the humble Durant to shy away from a nickname because it’s a little too dark for his liking? It stands to reason, then that if there’s anyone that can deflate all the compliments for Durant’s play and his status out-in-front for the MVP award this season, it’s Durant himself:

“You guys pump that up,” he said. “Fans pump that up more than the players, I think. Every day is a process for me. I’m just trying to work every single day to get better. And at the end of the year, I guess, we’ll see where we’re at. But every single day, I just try not to look past it and just keep working and see where we are. I try not to worry about that because I can’t control none of that. All I can control is how I play, how I approach the game and how I prepare and the rest will take care of itself.”

Durant even downplayed his rivalry with James:

“To be honest, I’m going to be totally real, like, I don’t go in every day, when I go into the gym and work on my game, I don’t have a LeBron picture [on the ball], or I don’t have his name in my mind when I’m going in there and working,” Durant said. “It’s all about trying to get better for myself. And I know how I feel about myself. I know the confidence I have in myself, but also I want to compete against the best, and I want to go out there and prove myself against the best.

[…]

“Everybody wants to see the one-on-one matchup. I know that’s the big thing. But we’re going to match up together, so I’m sure you guys are going to get what you want. But at the end of the day, it’s all about the Thunder versus the Heat, and it’s going to be fun playing against them.”

MVP voters will look at tonight’s first meeting between James’ Heat and Durant’s Thunder as a possible watershed moment that could ultimately make the MVP Durant’s to lose, or turn it into a toss-up if James dominates the game and their various one-on-one battles. But it’s still so early in the season, nobody can foresee what happens two months down the road.

The question of which player is better: Kevin Durant or LeBron James, might need to be shelved until this season is over and a team has been been crowned the 2014 champion. But right now LeBron’s only real rival in the game is starting to draw even, or even pull ahead of him in the eyes of NBA fans, and tonight we’ll get to see the next chapter in the continuing narrative of just who is the best player in the NBA today.

Who plays better tonight: LeBron or Durant?

Follow Spencer on Twitter at @countcenci.

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