It’s funny how quick the dialogue shifts. Two weeks ago we were seriously debating whether LeBron James had surpassed Michael Jordan as the greatest basketball player in history. Today, we are doubting whether LeBron James is even the best player in the league anymore. Come again? That’s right, Kevin Durant, who has lived in LeBron’s shadow for a vast majority of his career, has been performing at a level that is directly challenging The King’s throne. Pundits and players alike have hopped on the Durant bandwagon and defend an argument that would have been asinine months ago. Even the general public has substantiated the debate, just take a look at social media. In fact, USA Today ran a poll where 66% of respondents believed that KD had indeed surpassed LBJ. Is this debate perpetuated by media hysteria or is it warranted? Let’s take a look.
Obviously both Durant and LeBron’s games are centered around their ability to score the basketball. But, let’s first compare their abilities to pass, rebound, and defend. Initially, many would give LeBron the edge in all of these categories and that’s probably the right answer for a majority of their careers. However, the tide may have turned. Sure, we all know of LBJ’s capability of guarding all positions, but KD deserves the same credit. At 6’10” with a 7′ wingspan, Durant’s defensive versatile should not be understated. I watched last night as Kyrie Irving tried to dance on Kevin Durant on the perimeter and subsequently got the ball stolen. That is a power forward locking down one of the game’s best point guards in an isolation situation. I also watched the countless times that Durant defended the interior against LeBron, K-Love, and Tristan Thompson. In Game 2, Kevin Durant compiled five blocks and three steals, perfectly exemplifying his defensive prowess. Also, has it gotten to a point where we should question LeBron’s ability to guard premiere scorers? When James has defended Durant this series, Durant has scored 31 points on 13 of 21 shooting.
Then there is passing and rebounding, or the triple double factor. As far as being a facilitator goes, LeBron James plays the game like a true point guard. So much so that people believe Magic Johnson is a better comparison for him rather than Michael Jordan. I mean the man averaged 8.7 assists this season and is currently averaging 10.3 assists through three NBA Finals games. It would be nonsensical to try to argue that Kevin Durant is a more adept passer than LeBron James. But, Durant’s passing ability has definitely improved since joining the Warriors. When KD was on the Thunder, it was the “Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook Show.” Let’s be honest, passing wasn’t a major component of either of their games. Once Durant left OKC to surround himself with scorers, just as LeBron James did twice in his career, he became more prone to facilitating the basketball. Whether he’s assisting or passing to an assist, Kevin Durant has clearly made passing a more significant part of his game. As for rebounds, the difference between the two is negligible. Both Durant and LeBron have averaged 8 rebounds per game throughout their careers.
Finally, and arguably most importantly, there is scoring. When you are getting paid the money that Durant and LeBron are, you are expected to consistently score the basketball, especially in clutch situations. Here is where I believe that Kevin Durant has emerged with the clear advantage. Sure, him and LeBron have comparable skills in regards to their post play and ability to attack the rim. However, Durant possesses the talent to create his own shot that parallels that of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, two of the best ever at creating shots on offense. KD can shoot off the dribble, he can nail fade away jumpers, and he excels at being a spot-up shooter. Lebron, as amazing as he is, has not mastered these skills on the level of Kevin Durant. Consistently, we have seen LeBron James’ jump shot be the achilles heel to his game. Just take a look LBJ’s quarter by quarter scoring this series. In the later parts of games, when fatigue is a factor, LeBron James settles for jump shots more often than he does in the beginning of games. As a result, his scoring numbers and field goal percentage plummet. In the 4th quarter of this series, Durant has 31 points on 10-15 shooting compared to LeBron’s 11 points on 4-11 shooting. It is clear that in this series, LeBron has failed to perform at a superstar level in the later parts of games, unlike Kevin Durant. LeBron James goes from aggressive and dominant to recused and hesitant. I watched last night as LeBron bricked a layup, clanked a turnaround jumper, got the ball stolen while trying to shoot a three, and deferred to Kyle Korver all in the defining moments of the game. What did Kevin Durant do? Hit a three pointer over LBJ to take the lead with 40 seconds left in the game. The Warriors ended the game on an 11-0 run and LeBron James could do nothing to stop it. If there every was a moment to feel that the torch was being passed, it was in the defining moments of Game 3.
Dramatics aside, I still believe that LeBron is the best player in the world, but boy is it close now. A lot of people will point to the value LeBron James adds to his team relative to Kevin Durant, which I believe is a valid point. But in the third quarter of last night’s game, when the Cavaliers had their best quarter of the series (+11), Kevin Durant only had one point. If there is something to look forward to, it will be how this rivalry would pans out in the coming years. Will LeBron relinquish his throne to KD, or does The King have more left in the tank? With this year’s NBA Finals series pretty much wrapped up, here’s to next season to find out.