Kevin Durant is part of an NBA Big 3 once more after the Brooklyn Nets traded for James Harden last week to pair with Kyrie Irving as Durant's running mates. Irving will play tonight after missing two weeks' worth of games for reasons still unknown, but the early returns on the Harden/Durant pairing are predictably very positive. The two have combined for more points as teammates in a two-game span than anyone since Wilt Chamberlain and a guy named York Larese.
The Nets, as the kids say, are going to be a problem for any team with championship aspirations this season. Unless it all falls apart due to the flammable personalities put together, but that will be the unspoken caveat for this Big 3 all season. In what has become a side story to the Brooklyn main event, Durant also looks just like his old self after not playing basketball for a year and a half while rehabbing a ruptured Achilles tendon. He has opened the season scoring 20 points in 11 straight games, with a brief interruption due to coronavirus protocols.
He has been impressive. So impressive, in fact, that Stephen A. Smith is ready to declare Durant's MVP win now. Along with the unofficial Comeback Player of the Year crown, of course.
Brief aside: this is the fun version of Stephen A. Smith. Arguing in favor of a guy whose game he likes without getting too heated about anything. One of those segments where you can clearly see this man loves his job and is extremely happy doing it.
Anywho. Durant would win the NBA Comeback Player of the Year award easily if it still existed. Why'd they take that away? It's a fun narrative award. They should bring it back. Most Valuable Player, though? That's going to be tough for Durant to win as the year goes on.
As Smith points out, Durant's statistics right now are absurd. The one-time MVP is averaging a cool 30 points per game while shooting 54 percent from the floor and 48 percent from three. His efficiency is silly and he's making it look as easy as he ever has. The Nets are going to win enough games for Durant to qualify in the unspoken "does his team win enough games" category of MVP voting. His current statistical output is good enough for the hardware, and being this kind of player after an Achilles tear is more than enough narrative momentum to earn votes.
But it will be very difficult for Durant to keep up the point production when he, Irving, and Harden are all on the floor. Through two games with Harden, he hasn't sacrificed much at all, scoring 30 and 42 points in those contests. But when Irving comes back, it'll be a different story. He, like Harden, needs the ball in his hands to affect the game as he likes. Durant had a usage percentage of 38 in the first game with Harden and 34 in the second. Those are comparable numbers to the opening of the season lining up next to Irving, when he averaged a usage rating of around 30.
Durant will be unable to average a usage percentage of above 30 when both of his superstar teammates are with him on the floor. He managed it only once in three years with Golden State, and that was next to Klay Thompson, who is not at all ball-dominant. That year (2017-18) was also Durant's first with the Warriors, so it goes to reason they were trying to get him acclimated by giving him the ball. Most importantly there weren't worries of another injury lingering in the back of everybody's mind.
That isn't to say Durant won't be great if he's not handling the ball for a third of the game. Of course he's going to be great. The Nets very well might stroll into the playoffs as a one-seed with a bunch of blowout wins thanks to the sheer talent on the roster. But the problem with having such a stacked team is that the success is as shared along with the blame. Unless Harden or Irving gets hurt and Durant shoulders most of the load, all three will split votes in the MVP race. That's why Durant didn't win an MVP in Golden State despite being what many thought was the best player in the league.
If Durant can up his efficiency even more and score 30 points per game while sharing the ball with Irving and Harden all season, then he will walk away with this award and an argument for the best scoring season in NBA history. But seeing as that is all but impossible for even one of the best players on the planet, someone else will win the hardware this year.