OKC Thunder News: Kevin Durant Playing Like MVP Frontrunner

Led by the young star trio of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, the Oklahoma City Thunder have surged (no pun intended) to a 17-4 record and are tied with San Antonio for the best record in the NBA. There are many factors to consider when assessing the team's immense success so far this season, but perhaps the most important of all is the improved play of their superstar leader.

Kevin Durant is simply playing the best basketball of his career. The league's reigning scoring champion made a dramatic leap forward during last year's postseason run to the NBA Finals and is keeping that momentum going into this season. What is perhaps more remarkable is that he has improved at nearly every single aspect of his game, which is a scary development for the rest of the NBA. This is why he is a leading candidate to win the 2013 NBA MVP award.

Kevin's most treasured skill is his scoring ability and he is lighting up the scoreboards at a rate never before seen during his career. According to www.Basketball-Reference.com and after 20 games into the 2012-13 regular season, Durant is scoring an average of 27.0 points per game. This is actually a full point below last season's output, but you must look further to witness the true evolution in his scoring this year.

Durant is shooting the ball more efficiently than ever before. He is converting 51.5 percent of his field goal attempts, 45.7 percent of his three-point shot attempts and 90.1 percent of his free throw opportunities. All of those figures are career bests for Kevin and signify an improved shot selection and conversion ability.

As incredible as his shooting and scoring have been, what is perhaps more remarkable is his growth in other aspects of the game. Durant is averaging career high's in rebounding per game (8.6), assists per game (4.4), steals per game (1.5) and blocks per game (1.5). Meanwhile, he is also improving his efficiency by committing fewer turnovers per game (3.3) and fouls per game (1.8) than last season.

What stands out the most from those numbers is the increase in assists. This is a great sign for Thunder fans: their best scorer is also becoming their best distributor. This means that Kevin Durant is playing more within the natural flow of the offense and is getting better looks for his teammates. His improved passing is a sign of maturity and growth for one of the best young stars in the game.

He is simply becoming more valuable to his team, which is pretty remarkable considering how heavily they have leaned on him during his entire career. However, the departure of Sixth Man of the Year James Harden has forced Durant to take up a bigger leadership role on the squad and he has responded beautifully. He has not necessarily replaced Harden's scoring, but he has helped replace James' playmaking ability and efficient shooting.

To further drive home how much Durant has improved so far this year, refer to the following advanced statistics to gain a better insight into his on-court play. His Player Efficiency Rating is 28.1, which is by far the highest of career by nearly two full points. This rating measures the per-minute efficiency and effectiveness of a player and takes into consideration factors such as shooting percentage, all-around statistics and minutes played. 

Also of note is his increase from 2011 to 2012 in Total Rebounding Percentage (11.8 percent to 12.9 percent), Assist Percentage (17.5 percent to 19.8 percent) and Block Percentage (2.2 percent to 2.9 percent). These statistics measure the amount of available rebounds, assists or blocks that Kevin Durant collected during his time on the court. As you can see, he is simply grabbing more available rebounds, distributing more of his team's assists and swatting more shots than ever before.

There is one more important statistic to round up the improved quality of play and value that Kevin Durant has shown off this season. That is Usage Rate, which measures the percent of possessions "used" by a player. In other words, it measures how many offensive possessions were ended by a player either with a shot attempt, a foul or a turnover.

Durant is averaging a career-low 28.0 Usage Rate, which is remarkable considering that most of his career numbers are at an all-time high. What this usage rate means is that Durant is playing smarter and more efficient basketball. He is taking better shots, turning the ball over less often and setting up his teammates better than ever. This statistic is in line with his increase in assists per game and shooting percentages.

In conclusion, Kevin Durant is on a tear this year and is on pace to finally win his first NBA MVP award. Even though the defending champion LeBron James is likely the current favorite, Durant will gain more support if he can keep up his improved play and guide the Oklahoma City Thunder to the West's top overall seed. The statistics certainly display a much improved Durant, but his play in the absence of James Harden is also telling of how valuable he truly is to his team's success.