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Guest Post: LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and why we’re the real winners

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Ed. Note: Evans Clinchy is a Bostonian and active member of the hoops blogosphere. He’s covered the Celtics for five seasons, with his writing appearing on CelticsBlogNESN, and SI (among other places). You can follow him, his thoughts, and his writing on Twitter. He wrote this piece at the conclusion of the 2013-14 NBA season.

So the NBA season has drawn to a close, and it’s time for the MVP ballots to be passed forward – not that there’s to be any suspense this year. Barring some sort of nuclear holocaust-type event between now and early May, the award will undoubtedly go to Kevin Durant for the first time, with LeBron James finishing second. That’s where this is heading.

Durant’s honor not only looks certain now, but the story has appeared all season to be building toward this outcome. The Oklahoma City star was firing away to open the year, then was brilliant from Christmas to Presidents’ Day in the absence of Russell Westbrook, assuming a greater playmaking role and continuing to score prolifically. Then Westbrook came back, the Thunder skipped zero beats, and Durant simply scored 25-plus points in 41 consecutive games, tearing apart NBA defenses one by one until season’s end.

Durant will win MVP. At this point, he’s the clear choice. That doesn’t mean…

  1. …that he’s necessarily been any better this season or is inherently “more valuable” than James or anyone else, or
  2. …that we’ll learn anything from seeing this trophy presentation that we didn’t already know.

Durant has been awesome this season. There is no doubt about that. And if you want to write at great length about how fantastic he’s been this year and how deserving he is of his first MVP, then by all means, have at it. But don’t think for a second we couldn’t just as easily gush about LeBron if it were more convenient.

Take the same two seasons, productivity-wise, but swap the players’ narratives. Let’s say, hypothetically, that Durant had won four MVPs in the last five years and voters were a bit fatigued with it, while LeBron was younger and a bit better-liked and considered “due” for his first award. Is there any disputing that LeBron would win? We would gush about his efficiency (he shoots a full 6 percent better!) and ability to guard all five positions well. Regardless of which season were really truly better, we’d find away to direct the award in the direction we wanted.

Which is easy in either case, really, because both players have had wonderful seasons that could, in a vacuum, be considered worthy of an MVP trophy. But of course, only one can win. Even if you think that one player only warrants a 50.01 percent share of the award and the other guy deserves 49.99 percent, you have to pick one guy first and the other second, and there’s no room for any shades of gray. There is A Winner and A Loser. One guy gets the hardware and the line on his Wikipedia page, both of which last until either we as a society forget what Wikipedia is or the sun burns out (whichever comes first) and the other guy doesn’t. It really is that binary.

Which of course it shouldn’t be. There should be a way to commemorate both players’ storybook seasons, to remember them both forever. Lord knows they’ve both earned that. But it doesn’t work that way. We’re an awards-obsessed culture now. The ranked ballot is the simplest, cuttest-and-driest way to sum up the season, any season, even one that deserves a better eulogy than that. We put numbers and tiers on people because it’s easier. We put Durant on our ballots, and James right up there with him, and we babble about whether Blake Griffin and James Harden and Joakim Noah deserve to be “in the conversation.” Of course, the great irony is that those words are rarely followed by any conversing at all. We just move on to the next ranking for the next award, and no one seems to mind.

It’s really, really hard to say profound things about athletes, especially given how many people today are armed with Twitter accounts and Tumblr pages to megaphone their opinions to the world. With all the noise out there, it’s difficult to say anything that’s really, truly heard, so for the most part, we tend to give up. We do the award power rankings thing instead, and it’s a copout.

Admittedly, this is the mother of all first world problems, and it’s kind of a silly thing to fret about. But I do think it’s a bit unfair to LeBron, whose performance this season basically gets summarily dismissed because it didn’t measure up, in whatever way, to Durant’s. There has to be a better, more nuanced way to talk about this stuff – one that allows for the proper amount of respect to LeBron, who’s still the best overall player our game has seen since Jordan retired. But how do we say anything about LeBron after 11 years of gushing? How can we speak anymore without repeating ourselves?

Whenever I struggle for words to say about a great player like James, I remind myself that it happens to the very best of us. I think back to when David Foster Wallace – the greatest writer of a generation, basically the LeBron James of the English language – tried to profile Roger Federer in the New York Times. His “description” doubled as an admission that he didn’t have one:

A top athlete’s beauty is next to impossible to describe directly. Or to evoke. Federer’s forehand is a great liquid whip, his backhand a one-hander that he can drive flat, load with topspin, or slice – the slice with such snap that the ball turns shapes in the air and skids on the grass to maybe ankle height. His serve has world-class pace and a degree of placement and variety no one else comes close to; the service motion is lithe and uneccentric, distinctive (on TV) only in a certain eel-like all-body snap at the moment of impact. His anticipation and court sense are otherworldly, and his footwork is the best in the game – as a child, he was also a soccer prodigy. All this is true, and yet none of it really explains anything or evokes the experience of watching this man play. Of witnessing, firsthand, the beauty and genius of his game. You more have to come at the aesthetic stuff obliquely, to talk around it, or – as Aquinas did with his own ineffable subject – to try to define it in terms of what it is not.

In other words, it’s extremely difficult to sum up, simply through effective prose, what makes the greats great. The physical attributes are great, but they might not tell the whole story. You can talk about LeBron’s athleticism and Durant’s practically unguardable jump shot all you want, but eventually you find yourself spinning in circles. What really sets those guys apart from their closest competitors? We say the gap between the league’s No. 2 and No. 3 is wide, but what is it really made of? Small increments, some of them hardly tangible or perceptible.

Regardless of what happens as the MVP ballots are turned in this week, I think it’s important that we revere both Durant and James. It’s our civic duty as fans. Like Wallace said, we can try to define this race in terms of what the players are not – James coasts on defense too much to win MVP, or Durant isn’t a good enough passer, or what have you – but that wouldn’t do anyone any good.

I love both of these players, and I don’t see how anyone could not. I love how Durant is scoring at a volume and efficiency the league hasn’t seen in decades, how he’s carrying the Thunder through yet another season of title contention. But I also still love LeBron, no matter how fatiguing it might be. 

He still finds ways to surprise you, even after all these years. He still goes into unconscious shooting hot streaks that make you wonder whether he’ll ever miss again. He still displays court vision that teeters on the brink of the superhuman.

Forget the awards – the real winner here is us. Two of the best players ever are competing right before our eyes, and we’re fortunate enough to bear witness.

Hardwood Paroxysm