Taking the Crown: Will Kevin Durant Be Able to Leapfrog LeBron James?
The diversion of the respective legacies of LeBron James and Kevin Durant began in July of 2010.
Durant made his decision to stay with the Thunder and LeBron made his decision to leave Cleveland for the Heat. Durant tweeted "God Is Great, me and my family came a long way," to signify his contract extension and James of course had his ESPN special to detail his choice.
One action was humble in nature and the other flashy, but both decisions have gone on to have much longer lives than either athlete likely anticipated.
Two years later, those actions have come to define the public perception of both players.
LeBron is the arrogant villain. Durant is the humble kid.
Miami. Oklahoma City.
Scared in the fourth quarter. Clutch.
The comparisons are everywhere for these two because that's exactly what media and fans like to do.
LeBron as cocky only makes sense if someone on a comparable plane of skill to him can be framed as humble.
The larger example of this is how people can only say LeBron isn't clutch because Dwyane Wade is, even though the other side of that comparison is that Wade might not look clutch if the public didn't want to make LeBron out to look like a bumbling mess in the fourth quarter.
Splitting up LeBron and Durant into a dichotomy like this really makes no sense, though.
We have similarities in the two, yes. Both are considered elite, usually No. 1 and No. 2 in the world depending on who you ask. Both are incredible talents—Durant with his freakish length and shooting ability and LeBron with a general sort of freakishly overwhelming athleticism.
Durant, though, hugs his mom after each game—even losses.
While I can't remember if LeBron hugs his mom after every game, I'm relatively sure he still loves her very much. It's the kind of thinking that we have set up with this humble and arrogant dichotomy that really makes little to no sense.
The term "dichotomy" itself implies that there is a split from a whole. A great basketball example is the dichotomy of a win and a loss. There is one game, and from that game comes two separate outcomes.
The phenomenon that LeBron's decision and Durant's tweet set up has brought us to a place, though, where the collective careers of the two are being viewed as a whole. When LeBron wins, we assume that Durant loses based only on the thought that LeBron is LeBron and Durant is the anti-LeBron.
Now that we finally have the union of these two great basketball entities on the NBA's greatest stage, the 2010 divergence of decisions has the ability to reconvene.
When this series is over, the league will finally have its definitive best player.
Durant drew first blood.
Really, since their regular season meetings have not featured any iconic moment in which we can draw up one against the other, it is the first time we can say that Durant's win is actually LeBron's loss from a legacy standpoint.
But still, it is hard to tell if we can say that Durant's win is because of LeBron's shortcomings.
We are nearing the end (byproduct of the NBA playoffs' format) of what has been a historic playoff run for LeBron James in which he has led his team, of the supposed Big Three construction, in points, rebounds, assists and steals.
The stats, provided by ESPN, speak for themselves.
And I mean that in the way that they are jaw-dropping without any other context—so they speak for themselves—not that the numbers look better than the actual performance.
This near-mechanical dominance was present in Game 1 of the finals. Another routine effort—30 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists and 4 steals.
But, at this point in LeBron's career, the NBA observer has been conditioned to overlook his average performance.
It takes something otherworldly, take his Game 6 evisceration of the Celtics, for him to draw mainstream praise. Even in those cases, though, the responses feel like more of an "Oh yeah, he's really good, isn't he?" than another page in the career of the NBA's most prodigious talent.
It's really pretty easy to deconstruct or reconstruct the career of LeBron James, to the point where it's actually useless to do either.
Durant's career is currently one that speaks for itself, a concept that doesn't seem strange unless it's presented against Lebron's career.
Most great players' careers speak for themselves.
There are cases where players' legacies are heavily influenced by their own commentary, but it is generally the action. Before LeBron, who really is the great sports catalyst for the information age, we have never had a superstar be perceived primarily by the context of their actions.
This evolution commonly rears its head when sports analysts talk about how LeBron is the first athlete to be analyzed as intensely, as, well, himself. That idea of microscopic scrutiny and the nature of sports to constantly search for a foil to its stars has effectively bred the perception of Kevin Durant.
It's not to say that Durant isn't incredible. He is. I love him.
The way he carries himself, the way he plays the game in that way that you don't fully understand he has 30 points until the game is over and how he acts in ways that show he wants to be the own master of his definition.
So it would then follow that the dichotomy between himself and James is something he wishes did not exist.
The very nature of these constant comparisons require that Durant be what LeBron is not, clearly, so they don't allow Durant to just go out and be himself. When he does that, it looks like a reaction to what LeBron already is.
While Durant is a relatively reserved guy, there's no way that he likes being compared.
He could come out and say that, but there's no way to stop what sports media has already created and the fans have adopted.
The union of the two has always been an abstract. An idea that was born on Twitter, made possible in The Decision and fully implanted when the brains of America began to put two and two together.
What will play out in front of us over the next week or so is the concrete realization of that abstract.
And when you take an idea that worked best when it was not fully real and make it concrete, something always feels off about it.
By the end of this series we will have made real a dichotomy that really did not exist in the first place. A whole will be created out of two different parts that match only because they are parts, like when you realize as a child that you can get the square in the circle hole if you just shove it in there.
The only way King James held onto his crown last year was because Durant wasn't the one there to take it from him.
The emotion and importance surrounding championships makes it impossible to keep defending LeBron James as the best player in the league when he hasn't won a championship.
It follows reasoning that the best player in the league should be able to throw his team on his back and carry them to at least one ring, if he really is the best. S
o Durant, with his anti-LeBron aura and his superstar status, who has carved himself out as the second-best player, stands to be able to snatch the crown and emerge as the public's clear-cut best NBA player.
The question, if that happens, is if that crown should have ever been up for grabs in the first place.
It is a question that neither player really wanted to ask. Their focus is on winning the championship that is now in front of them, while the public's wanders elsewhere.
That is the nature of LeBron James and modern sports, though. Everything is overstated. We talk about things that really don't and never will matter for anyone else, but are relevant only because of James.
We do this because it is fun and it is engaging. As much as we wish people would just shut up and let players play, whatever that means, there is no denying the sheer fun that comes from debating No. 1 and No. 2.
It will be interesting to see where things go from here, too. Because either a new king will be crowned or the old one will remind us, in a tangible, gold and shiny way, why he calls himself King James.
There is no other outcome.
Keep in mind, though, that maybe there should be.
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