Updated: Oct 9, 2021
With the Golden State Warriors' season on the line, Kevin Durant knew he had to suit up Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals. He had missed the last nine games with a strained calf suffered in the Western Conference Finals, but with Golden State down 3-1 against the Toronto Raptors, there was no other choice in his mind.
Durant starts off hot, pouring on 11 points in just 12 minutes. Then, two minutes into the second quarter, he brings the basketball up to the right wing. Raptors forward Serge Ibaka, in charge of containing the Slim Reaper that possession, spreads his arms in preparation for whatever he has in store. Durant stares at the basket as he dribbles the ball low and tight to the court with his right, and as he's done for over a decade, explodes into a between-the-legs crossover.
Except this time, something exploded back.
The 10-time All-Star suffered a torn Achilles tendon in his right leg, and could only watch as the Raptors finished off Golden State to claim their first championship in franchise history. That July, Durant left for Brooklyn to join forces with Kyrie Irving, a dear friend just as enigmatic as he. He spent the whole 2019-20 season completing a grueling rehabilitation, relearning how to walk, run, and jump after spending three months on a scooter.
On Dec. 22, 2020, Durant made his first appearance in an NBA game in 18 months against none other than the Warriors. He dropped 22 points in 25 minutes; though on an obvious minutes restriction, it was clear that the Slim Reaper had returned with a vengeance, ready to collect some more souls on the court. Thus began Durant's revenge tour. He set out to prove that he could reach his pre-injury form, and about one-fourth into the season, he's emerged as a serious candidate for MVP.
Incredibly, Durant is enjoying arguably his best statistical season at age 32. His 30.5 points per game are his highest average since, not so coincidentally, his 2013-14 MVP season (32.0). Even with the arrival of the ball-dominant James Harden, KD simply gets his every night. There were genuine (and warranted) concerns about how the trio of Irving, Harden, and Durant could share the ball offensively. The three function best as isolation scorers, so how would they mesh? Would it translate to winning?
The key, strangely enough, has been James Harden transitioning to a purer point guard role. In his seven games with Brooklyn, he's averaged just 24.1 points but an impressive 11.9 assists per game. Through Harden's newfound pass-first mentality, Irving and Durant can focus on doing what they do best: score.
Durant has proven that he hasn't lost a shred of ability this year. But just how profound his impact on the Nets as a whole? When he's on the court, Brooklyn is plus-12.8 per 100 possessions; when he sits, they plummet to minus-7.6. Durant is also averaging 36.7 minutes per game – a testament to how devoted he was in the rehab process for all of 2020.
Some may argue that either Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokić, or LeBron James sit above Durant in the MVP running at this point in the season. Though Embiid has been playing at an insanely productive level, his less-than-stellar bill of health throughout his career gives me pause. Jokić (a center!) is averaging close to a triple-double, but his impressive statistics haven't necessarily translated to team success. And James, in his 18th year in the NBA, is averaging an excellent 25.6/7.8/7.3 line – and the Lakers are 14-5, good for first in the Western Conference. He could be Durant's most viable challenger.
It's no secret that both basketball fans and media love a comeback story. Durant is an interesting case; before that fateful Game 5, he was one of the most consistent forces in the league. That's why his performance this season has been so impressive. He's making people realize that he is inevitable. His 7-foot frame, his "quiet killer" mentality, every mid-range pull up and crossover – no defender can figure him out.
Durant is in a prime position to become MVP in equal parts due to his individual statistics, redemption arc, and team situation. The whole league was turned upside down when James Harden was traded to Brooklyn in a four-team deal, but the Nets are still just 12-8 on the year and fifth in the Eastern Conference. If Durant can maintain his nuclear performance and will Brooklyn to at least third in the East, he'll certainly have a strong case for the league's Most Valuable Player.
(Note: All statistics are accurate as of Wednesday night.)