Commentary

Why LeBron James is first-half MVP

Updated: January 22, 2013, 2:34 PM ET
By Israel Gutierrez | ESPN.com

J.A. Adande, who lives in L.A., and Israel Gutierrez, who lives in Miami, are teaming up this season for a look at the NBA from two perspectives. Today, they discuss the MVP race.

This is going to be close. It's going to be fun. It's going to be interesting for the exact opposite reason the Lakers still have our attention.

Watching LeBron James and Kevin Durant battle for MVP honors through the second half of the season will be a study in excellence. And if the past several weeks have been any indication, it will be a very difficult distinction to make.

But as of now, the edge goes to LeBron to take home his fourth MVP in five years.

There are so many ways to attack the MVP discussion, but let's start with the numbers.

There's no disputing that Durant is having a career season. He has suddenly overtaken Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony to place himself in the familiar position atop the scoring race. And his efficiency numbers are easily the best of his career. It's almost unthinkable that a player who shoots more than a quarter of his shots from 3-point range and throws up so many off-balance or running shots is easily shooting better than 50 percent from the field, but Durant is doing just that. He's also above 40 percent from 3-point range, putting his true shooting percentage above 65 percent.

But if Durant is going to truly separate himself from LeBron, it has to be in this category. And amazingly, Durant isn't doing that.

That's because LeBron is arguably having the best season of his career. Sure, the PER numbers will tell you his first MVP season, 2008-09, was his most impressive statistical year by a smidge. But there's plenty of evidence to argue for this season.

How many players in their 10th season can honestly say they are still significantly improving?

LeBron's doing that. His jump shot is looking pure. Maybe it's the result of having Ray Allen to compete with in post-practice shooting contests, but LeBron is mixing a consistent outside touch with his usual precision from two-point range. The outcome is an insane 55 percent field goal rate, along with a 40 percent clip from 3.

So while Durant's shooting percentage might seem more impressive, given the apparent difficulty of so many of his shots, LeBron has kept an irrefutable lead in this category.

Toss in the fact that LeBron is rebounding at a better rate than Durant, has his usual large advantage in assists and is turning the ball over at a career-low pace, and LeBron holds the edge in the numbers category.

But we all know numbers alone don't carry the MVP race.

There's the narrative that has six long months to develop, and Durant easily has the lead in that department.

Durant started with the advantage there, because we all love the story of a player who learns from losing. LeBron was lauded for turning an embarrassing Finals loss to the Mavericks in 2011 to his most impressive calendar year to date. So when we saw Durant transform his game after last postseason's loss to Miami, he automatically had our attention.

He was rebounding at a career pace -- though that has dropped some in the past couple of months -- and learned to be more of a playmaker with James Harden no longer around.

Then there's the demeanor. Durant has a nastier streak to him this season, whether marked by his first career ejection or simply a scowl he wears more often. That's fantastic for those who want to make judgments based on body language and facial expressions, but it still doesn't elevate him above LeBron.

LeBron's narrative isn't as compelling this season. Apparently, getting better when we thought we'd already seen his best just isn't that interesting. Never mind that LeBron has the additional burden of defending a championship, voting LeBron as MVP still feels repetitive despite his new challenges this season. LeBron's best storyline this season is he's playing without the championship burden for the first time. And that's still not compelling enough.

Durant also has the edge when judging by team success, with the Thunder currently holding the league's best record, while the Heat would be only a No. 4 seed if they were in the Western Conference. But the Thunder have the more conventional team, which makes regular-season success a tad easier. The Heat have an almost nightly disadvantage in size, which makes rebounding and defending that much more difficult. Yet there is LeBron leading the Heat in rebounding and steals, playing arguably the most consistent perimeter defense in the entire league, while still mixing it up with the bigs when necessary.

LeBron is the reason the Heat can go "position-less" when coach Erik Spoelstra wants to. He's a big reason why Chris Bosh can shoot 54 percent from the floor, and why the Heat defense, while regularly criticized early in the season, is still in the top five in field goal percentage allowed.

Simply put, LeBron is the reason the Heat work at all. It's hard to be more "valuable" than that.

It's no knock on Durant. In fact, a month ago, my vote probably would've gone to Durant for so seamlessly making up for Harden's absence by rounding out his game. But even as Durant continues to raise his level, scoring with such ease it's almost unfair at times, it's LeBron who's still holding the bar and raising it.

It has to be frustrating for Durant that he can't pull away from LeBron even in this, his sixth season (LeBron won his first MVP in his sixth season), but it simply speaks to how great LeBron really is. And Durant partially has himself to blame, because his own greatness pushes LeBron to continually refine his game.

It might be the boring route (and I don't believe in "voter fatigue," because it's an insult to the intelligence of those media members holding ballots). It might delay Durant from garnering an honor it feels like he should hold at some point. But it's still, through the first half of the season, the right call. LeBron James remains the NBA's most valuable player.

But if the first half was any indication, the second-half battle between these two is going to be epic.

Israel Gutierrez is an NBA writer for ESPN.com.