When taking stock of this season's MVP candidates, the Western Conference features two hopefuls who have come to define the art of scoring in today's NBA.
One has been at it for a while for one of the league's storied franchises—the other is a dominant, young leader poised to take his small-market Oklahoma City Thunder to the next level.
Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant may be best known for their abilities to score prolifically from anywhere on the court, but they're also well-rounded superstars capable of turning good teams into exceptional ones. Each makes a compelling case that he's his club's most valuable player in the truest sense of the term—without Bryant and Durant, the Los Angeles Lakers and Thunder wouldn't have the slightest chances to contend.
Nevertheless, when compared head-to-head, one stands out as the league's most prized and irreplaceable asset. Here are five reasons Kevin Durant currently means more to his team's championship aspirations than Kobe Bryant.
The Thunder are hardly a one-man team. Russell Westbrook may be the best second option in the league, and James Harden may be its finest sixth man.
Still, no team in the NBA features a more dominant tandem of seven-footers than the Lakers. While one could make a convincing case that Westbrook is a better all-around player than either Pau Gasol or Andrew Bynum, it's difficult to argue that there's a better post combination than Los Angeles' dynamic duo.
Sure, Westbrook and Harden's combined 41.5 points per game reflects a slight edge over Gasol and Bynum's 35-point average, but the Lakers' big men yield otherwise dominant numbers. They combine for 22.8 rebounds, 3.3 blocks and 4.8 assists a game.
Beyond their production, Bynum and Gasol give the Lakers a defensive advantage that's difficult to measure statistically. Their combined length, strength, quickness and talent give any opponent's offense a headache of Jurassic-sized proportions. Even the most effective slashing guard is bound to think twice before trying his luck in this well-fortified paint.
Of course, Oklahoma City has its share of effective role players, particularly on the defensive end. However, Kendrick Perkins has yet to fit in as hoped, and Serge Ibaka remains a work in progress (albeit a very talented one with plenty of upside).
While the Lakers' superior presence in the paint hardly makes Bryant expendable, there's no question he becomes a slightly less essential piece of the puzzle when compared to Durant.
Few players standing at all of 6'9'' have ever possessed Durant's quickness and athleticism. With the ability to line up against small forwards, power forwards and big guards, he gives the Thunder a nearly unmatched defensive versatility.
Bryant is still one of the league's more intelligent defenders and hasn't lost much of a step as he advances into his 30s, but his average size and tendency to focus on the offensive end of the court are worth considering in a side-by-side comparison with Durant.
Durant's youth, size and epically long strides also give him an advantage when taking the ball to the rim. Bryant remains a creative finisher who's replaced his slightly diminished athleticism with a wide array of hocus-pocus moves in the lane. The Durantula, however, has proved time and again that even the most modest cracks in the defense are a green light for spectacular dunks and wizardry in the mold of Julius Erving and George Gervin.
While Bryant's 28.3 points a game is just a notch above Durant's 27.8, that's where his advantage ends.
Durant leads the Thunder in rebounding, with 8.1 boards a game, and fills the box score on defense, with 1.5 steals and 1.2 blocks. Even if one remains convinced that Bryant is the superior scorer, there's little question that Durant makes a greater defensive impact.
Bryant averages a little more than an assist more per game than Durant, but his distribution is likely to decline with Los Angeles' addition of Ramon Sessions. The Lakers' new point guard gives Mike Brown's team a legitimate floor general who should reduce the pressure on Bryant to facilitate the team's offense.
Durant, meanwhile, has contributed 3.5 assists while playing with Westbrook and Harden for the duration of the season. The two guards combine for 9.3 assists per game, suggesting that Durant's distribution is less a statistical inevitability than an indication of his willingness to share the ball, despite being one of the league's most elite scorers.
To the chagrin of those Lakers fans living in denial (not all Lakers fans, to be sure), there's little evidence to support the claim that Bryant remains the league's most dominant scorer. His league-leading points per game says far more about how often he shoots the ball than it does about how frequently that ball goes in.
Bryant takes an astonishing 23.4 field-goal attempts each contest, making only 42.9 percent of those shots. Even more unbelievably, he makes just 28.7 percent of his nightly 5.1 attempts from three-point range. These are MVP numbers only in the most nostalgically delusional circles.
In comparison, Durant makes 50.2 percent of his field goals and 37.5 percent of his 5.1 three-point attempts per game. Durant nearly matches Kobe's scoring output while taking almost four fewer shots per game.
In this case, there's simply no way the numbers are lying. When accounting for overall efficiency, Durant's 26.82 player efficiency rating comes out way ahead of Bryant, at 22.55.
Nobody can question Bryant's guts. Few players have demonstrated the same willingness to take the last shot, play with injury or otherwise rise to the occasion.
Nevertheless, Bryant's leadership in the face of adversity isn't all that it's cracked up to be. The icon lost his composure after his teammates' defensive failure in the waning moments of the team's loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, and Mike Brown benched him for a substantial chunk of the remaining minutes.
Some have chastised Brown for the move, but—his coaching decision notwithstanding—Kobe's negativity was the last thing the Lakers needed at that point in the game. Yes, there's a time and place to light a fire under one's teammates, but Kobe's chair-punching looked more like frustration than any kind of controlled, veteran leadership.
Frankly, it looked like the reaction of a player deeply unsettled by his team's direction, and it wouldn't be the first time he's had difficulty keeping it together.
Meanwhile, Durant's composure and team-friendly disposition have become the benchmark for NBA superstars. His ability to coexist with the unpredictable Westbrook reflects the kind of mature relationship that eluded Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal once upon a time.
Finally, Durant is no less capable of showing up for the big game. He outplayed Bryant in the teams' first meeting and—despite a rough shooting night—had a better all-around game in Thursday's 102-93 win over the Lakers.
Durant also tallied 28 points, 9 rebounds and 8 assists in 103-87 victory over Miami, another win establishing Oklahoma City as the league's team to beat.