How to compare LeBron James and Kevin Durant

After blitzing the “world” this summer at the FIBA Championships in Turkey, Kevin Durant recently was named the #1 athlete on ESPN’s Cross-Sport power rankings.

Somehow Durant’s silky performance vaulted him ahead of the incendiary Rafael Nadal, who beat a legitimately formidable rival, not to mention a stacked field, to win a career Grand Slam—something only seven players have ever done in the history of professional tennis—at age 24. Durant beat up on the field about as efficiently as anyone could, but let’s be real: every contender in the field was missing serious NBA talent.

It may say more about the popularity of their respective sports that the World Wide Leader placed Durant at # 1, though Rafael Nadal just entered a hallowed pantheon never breached by the likes of Pete Sampras, John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl, or Bjorn Borg. Yet this is only one in a long string of accolades being eagerly foist upon Durant following his excellent play.

There is a bubbling stream of optimism running through the national commentary when it comes to Durant’s game. And as the enthusiasm overflows perhaps into the absurd, many have staked a claim on the prediction that Durant will supplant LeBron James as the greatest player on Earth over the next few years.

While I have been most disappointed by writers who use Durant’s clean slate to attack LeBron’s moral fiber (as is masterfully discussed by Tommy Craggs here), I’m not yet convinced that Durant’s professional growth will continue unabated until he is obviously superior to every player in the league both statistically and morally.

Perhaps Durant will surpass James, but I suspect it will be nearly impossible to statistically quantify any changing of the guard because the two players operate in such vastly different ways. Unless one of them puts the league in a Brett Hart Figure-Four Sharpshooter, it’s more probable that the role players, coaches, and organizations around these two great talents will determine who brings in more titles.

Yet commentators and writers around the country feel it necessary to predict who will go down as the greater player, even though they have only 10 seasons and 1 trip to the NBA finals between them.

For now, let’s just examine the statistics we have so far. At 21, the numbers that LeBron and KD put up make me more cross eyed than Stuart Scott:

Kevin Durant (2009-10)

30.1 Pts …47.6% Fg…36.5% 3ptfg…90% Ft…2.8 Ast…7.6 Rbs…1.4 Stl…1.0 Blk…16.1 WS (Win Shares)

LeBron James (2005-06)

31.4 Pts…48.0% Fg…33.5% 3ptfg…74% Ft…6.6 Ast…7.0 Rbs…1.6 Stl…0.8 Blk…16.3 WS

Statistically, the evidence is comprehensive that James was slightly ahead of where Durant is now, a few months further into his young life. But what can we really make of this?

The two statistical differences that jump off the page–and should be obvious to anyone who knows a lick about the Game–are Durant’s advantage as a pure shooter and LeBron’s advantage as a passer. LeBron will never shoot the ball as well as Durant does right now, and Durant will never pass the ball like King James did when he was in high school.

It’s interesting to note that LeBron’s statistical outputs have not increased dramatically in any single category since his third year other than assists +2.0 (2010) and Win Shares +4.0 (2009). Yet LeBron has clearly improved his overall game (especially as the defensive quarterback). It follows that as Durant evolves it’s unlikely he will score many more points than he does now because he will be happy to defer to his increasingly effective teammates instead of forcing his own looks a la Mamba.

It’d be great if there were a way to quantify inherently subjective factors like how well a player fulfills the role that best helps his team. If we could, we would settle plenty of debates. Unfortunately–or maybe fortunately because it’s so fun to talk about–this debate really comes down to philosophical approaches to the game.

The two young ballers (don’t forget LeBron is entering his prime at age 25) have beautiful games, but they are difficult to compare because LeBron and Durant’s instincts as players do not align. Durant is a pure scoring savant, the likes of which we haven’t seen since young Jordan (don’t bring that Kobe BS in here!). Meanwhile LeBron’s court vision and flare for the dramatic play draw comparisons from some (lazy) commentators to Magic Johnson.

But the truth is that they are both prototypes, two players perfectly engineered to perform different tasks within the structure of a team game. To make a judgment on which player, at his peak, will be better is really to make a judgment about what constitutes greatness in basketball.

In my opinion, LeBron is a force that impacts a game in a way that Durant never will. His wide ranging talents make irrelevant the age old conundrum of “position.” KD’s mutant size and skill combo platter also does this to an extent, but his role on the court is clear: put that ball in the bucket. At 21, James was the far more overwhelming presence in terms of both his physical dominance and strength of personality. It’s impossible for me to imagine Ron Artest punking a young LeBron.

For now, it would be nice just to keep the moralizing to a minimum, especially as a means to differentiate two players’ athletic abilities. (If you want a more complete take on how American fans morally sanctify their champions, check this out.)

What we DO know is that it’s going to be a great decade for NBA basketball, and knowing that is enough for me.

@BeckleyMason

beckleym@gmail.com

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  2. LeBron James and The Absence of Basketball Bushido
  3. His Own Man: LeBron James Finally Escapes Michael Jordan’s Shadow
  4. LeBron Leaves Cleveland: Basketball Fans Rejoice!
  5. Thunders-Lakers: Run, Kevin, Run

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