Using advanced metrics to analyze the LeBron-KD MVP debate

As the NBA rides out the All-Star break, the best team resides in Oklahoma City. Based on a first half for the ages, the best player might as well.

With all due respect to LeBron James, it’s easy to gawk at Kevin Durant’s numbers and understand why the debate about the best player alive has a second very viable entrant. By the most obvious statistics, the Thunder star is turning in one of the best offensive campaigns in NBA history.

As SportVU has shown, he is by the more subtle ones, too.

There have been eight individual seasons in which a player has averaged 31 points, seven rebounds and five assists in the NBA’s 67-year lifespan, the most recent being James’ 2005-06 campaign in Cleveland. Durant is on pace to record the ninth. Of that elite group, Durant is the best free-throw shooter of the bunch (88.2 percent) and is knocking down 41 percent of his 3s, giving him an unparalleled efficiency that’s making the MVP debate juicier with each successive 40-point night (eight and counting).

Of course, the fact that there’s even a legitimate argument about which player is having the better year is far more of a credit to Durant than a knock against the King. No one in league history has matched James’ current averages (26.5-7.0-6.6) while shooting such a high percentage (57.1) over the course of a full season. The closest was James himself one year ago.

"I think it’s almost a situation where you have 1A and 1B, because both give you so many different things out on the court," Minnesota’s Kevin Love said.

Points, rebounds and assists may wind up being the measuring sticks in the MVP race, but in 2014 the league has a lot more data to digest. When the NBA announced in October that it had expanded its partnership with STATS LLC to install SportVU player tracking technology in all 29 of its arenas, an opportunity was created to further understand the breadth and depth of a player like Durant’s dominance.

Speed, distance, touches, secondary assists, rebounding opportunities and countless other data points are now part of the vernacular of basketball coaches and fans alike as they routinely slice and dice players’ shooting percentages on drives, catch-and-shoots and pull-ups with the click of a button.

With equipment in just 15 stadiums last season, Durant was tracked for 59 games and James only 19, offering a rather incomplete picture of what’s become the league’s best individual rivalry. But with every venue now canvassed with six optical tracking cameras to create an equal and comprehensive analytical playing field, how do the game’s top two stars stack up?

Using bare minimum requirements of 20 games played and 15 minutes per game, a number of SportVU’s most significant categories favor Durant.

Perhaps most impressively, he leads the league in points per touch, averaging 0.47 every time he receives the ball. Yet for a player as offensively deadly as he is, Durant doesn’t handle the rock quite as often as you’d think. Even with Russell Westbrook missing the last 27 games, Durant is a surprising 14th among non-point guards in touches per contest at 67.5. While it’s not too stunning to see him behind the likes of Love (86.9), Blake Griffin (80.3) or James (76.0), he also trails Josh McRoberts (76.8), Joakim Noah (76.4) and Gordon Hayward (71.1).

Durant is 15th in the league in touches per field-goal attempt (3.3) and trails only Dwight Howard and Mason Plumlee in touches per free-throw attempt (6.9). James, on the other hand, shoots every 4.5 times he gets the ball and gets to the line once every 9.9 touches – a reflection of the fact that he often plays the role of floor general in addition to his scoring responsibilities.

It’s no stretch to say James is the more gifted passer, but a Durant dish is actually more likely to result in an assist. While 13.0 percent of James’ passes wind up leading to points, 14.4 percent of Durant’s end up with the Thunder getting a basket. Of the 26 players in the league averaging at least five assists, Durant’s assist-to-pass percentage trails only point guards Stephen Curry (15.6), Chris Paul (15.4) and Ty Lawson (15.2).

If it’s rebounds you’re after, you can’t do any better than the long arms of Durant and James. Durant grabs an available board 74.8 percent of the time when within 3 1/2 feet of one, tops among 296 qualifiers. Directly behind him: James at 73.4.

One area where James has Durant – and everyone else – beat, however, is in getting to the hoop and finishing. Drives are defined in SportVU as any touch that starts at least 20 feet from the rim and is dribbled within 10 feet of the basket (excluding fast breaks). James’ 63.1 percent shooting on such journeys is tops in the league among players with at least three drives per game. He’s also first among non-point guards by creating 8.8 team points per contest on drives.

Durant isn’t far behind, shooting 58.2 percent while his drives produce 8.0 points per game for the Thunder.

Yet perhaps even more impressive is what happens at the rim when James is met with resistance. The four-time MVP has driven toward the basket and encountered one defender 212 times, eighth-most in the NBA. He’s scored on 163 of those shots, a 76.9 percent success rate that’s far and away the best in the league among anyone with 100 field-goal attempts. Durant is sixth at 68.0 percent.

Giving help to James’ defender on the backside? Good luck making much of a difference. James is still converting 72.0 percent of the time he finds a second defender at the rim, easily better than anyone with at least 50 attempts. Again no slouch, Durant is shooting 62.7 percent in similar circumstances.

A look at shot charts further illustrates James’ dominance near the rim. Not only is he leading the league (minimum 150 attempts) by shooting 75.1 percent inside eight feet, but All-Star teammates Chris Bosh (68.4) and Dwyane Wade (66.5) are second and fourth, respectively, thanks partly to James’ penetration. Durant is sixth (65.0), two spots ahead of teammate Serge Ibaka (64.4).

But if there’s an area where Durant’s aggressiveness gives him a big edge on James, it’s his ability to simply rise and fire. He’s shooting 45.1 percent on pull-up jumpers – any shot outside 10 feet in which the player took at least one dribble – to rank behind only Dirk Nowitzki and Tony Parker among players attempting at least three per game. Durant’s been even better from beyond the arc, hitting 46.3 percent of his pull-up 3s, best in the league among 29 players who average at least 1.5.

"Never seen somebody his height shoot the ball the way he’s capable of shooting the ball," Knicks star Carmelo Anthony said.

James is connecting on just 37.4 percent of his overall pull-ups and 31.0 percent from long distance.

James predicted in a recent interview that he believes he’ll wind up going down as one of the top four players in league history. Given his amazing numbers and recent titles, it’s hard to argue with him.

But with his alpha dog status at least somewhat in question, James certainly isn’t ignoring the here and now.

"LeBron for a few years has known Kevin Durant has been coming as a player," Wade said. "He wants to be the best, one of the greatest of all-time and he knows that this young guy is coming and he’s trying to protect his turf."

In an MVP race that should only get better between now and April, Durant is making sure James has his work cut out for him.