Column: Kevin Durant is all the way back

Oklahoma City Thunder's Kevin Durant (35) drives to the basket between Golden State Warriors' Harrison Barnes, left, and Shaun Livingston during the second half of an NBA basketball game Thursday, March 3, 2016, in Oakland, Calif. Golden State won 121-106. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

When Kevin Durant won the NBA Most Valuable Player award in 2014, it looked like the first of many.

The hottest debate in basketball was whether Durant or LeBron James was the best player on the planet and the Oklahoma City Thunder, Durant’s team, were perennial title contenders. Two years later Durant might be the best we’ve ever seen him, but why aren’t we talking about him as an MVP again?

After back-to-back 81-game seasons, Durant suffered a Jones fracture in his right foot in October 2014. He missed the first 17 games of the season and then underwent another surgery on his right foot in March after playing only 27 games.

Russell Westbrook took the keys to the Thunder offense and has taken the league by storm since. The more explosive and polarizing Westbrook has stolen the spotlight from Durant, who has always been a more reserved superstar.

In the season Durant missed he became the second most popular player on his team and an ultra-skilled Thunder team went from Western Conference favorites to massive underdogs beneath Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors. Curry vs. Westbrook became the most intriguing conference showdown for fans and Durant remained without a truly captivating counterpart.

Besides a minor hamstring injury, Durant has been healthy this season and his production is back at an elite level. The 27-year-old forward is averaging 28.1 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 4.8 assists in 36.2 minutes per game this season.

His per-minute numbers are not far off from his MVP season and you could make the argument they are even better. His rebounding has improved since 2014, he’s blocking more shots, and his overall scoring efficiency has improved. He scores about two points less per 36 minutes now, but that is no great surprise when you consider how much more Westbrook has the ball in his hands now.

Whether or not he is the best player on his team is not a debate that seems particularly important to the seven-time all-star. The fact of the matter is that Durant is back at the top of his game and deserves more admiration than he has been getting this season. Curry is launching his way to a well-deserved second straight MVP, but Durant has to be part of the conversation.

If anything, Durant’s foot injury needs to serve as a reminder to embrace the one-of-a-kind talent that the 6-foot-9 athletic specimen brings to the table. There has never been a player with Durant’s mixture of size, athleticism, and shooting ability.

This rare mixture is also the reason Durant should have the ball in his hands for the vast majority of end-of-clock situations. Nobody in the NBA has the same ability to get quality looks from almost anywhere on the floor.

At 44-20, the Thunder are having a quality season and still have the ultimate goal of knocking off the Warriors or Spurs to reach the NBA Finals. It won’t be an easy task, but it is not impossible when Durant and Westbrook are firing on all cylinders.

While a lot of fans see the Thunder as Westbrook’s team now, it is Durant that needs to be the best player in the series in order to beat either of those Western Conference powerhouses, especially the Warriors.

Durant has the size and skill to terrorize any lineup the Warriors can throw at him. The way to beat the Warriors is to slow the game down, something that Westbrook either can’t do or simply chooses not to do. Nobody is going to run-and-gun their way to a conference title over Golden State.

Don’t forget that the Thunder are still operating with a new head coach this season. It wouldn’t be a shock to see Billy Donovan focus on boosting Durant’s usage rate come playoff time.

Donovan has to know that his team needs to mix things up if they have a chance to not only beat the Warriors once, but four times. They took the Warriors to overtime on Feb. 27 behind 37 points, 12 rebounds, and five assists from Durant, but it still wasn’t enough. Curry scored 46, including the dagger in overtime. Durant took 26 shots to Westbrook’s 29. He also went 7-11 from three-point range, while Westbrook went 0-6.

There’s no question that both players need to perform at the highest level to take down the defending champs, but all signs indicate that Durant is healthy and ready to take on a larger load to put his team over the top.

How do you get your name back in NBA MVP conversations? Knock off one of the best teams in NBA history in the Western Conference Finals. I’m not saying it’s going to happen this year, and they still have the Spurs to worry about, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility with a healthy and confident Durant leading the way.


Aaron Esposito is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at aaron.esposito@uconn.edu.