The marquee matchup of Kevin Durant versus LeBron James will conclude sometime in the next seven days, but the debate of which superstar will have the greater career has just begun.
In the NBA, greatness is defined by championships. While Durant and James continue to battle for their first ring, this newfound rivalry will spark a decade of debate surrounding the two superstars.
MVPs, scoring titles and All-Star games will flood their resumes, but it's the coveted championship rings that we will be talking about once both stars have walked away from the game.
Why Durant Will Win More Rings
In an aging Western Conference, the Oklahoma City Thunder are the picture-perfect example of a great team that stands to get even better.
The San Antonio Spurs showcased their depth this season, but when it came down to it, the fresh legs of the Thunder were too much to handle.
Kevin Durant may be in his fifth NBA season, but don’t forget that he is still just 23 years old. Barring any sort of significant injury, the 6’9” small forward will play at least 10 more seasons, and from what we have already seen, it’s not hard to imagine his game getting even better.
As Durant grows, the Thunder will develop as a unit.
Russell Westbrook (23), James Harden (22) and Serge Ibaka (22), currently make up the most dynamic group of young talent in all of basketball. If they are able to stay together for the long run, the NBA could be looking at its newest dynasty.
While the Miami Heat were able to put together one of the most core groups in the history of the Association, they lack a pure point guard and a consistent shot-blocking presence.
Westbrook has emerged as one of the best point guards that the league has to offer, and while his willingness to shoot the ball has been a concern in the past, it has also helped ease the defensive pressure on Durant.
While the supporting cast in OKC has been great this year, Durant is the unquestioned leader of the team. After leading the league in scoring for the third consecutive season, Durant has established himself as the best closer of the 2012 postseason.
As a versatile player who doesn’t rely on athleticism, Durant should be able to play at a high level late into his career. Although his style is mostly showcased out on the perimeter, the young star has more than enough time to add new elements to his game.
Why James Will Win More Rings
While James is now in his ninth year, it can be argued that he’s only beginning to enter the prime of his career.
James has never been known as a true clutch performer, but he had displayed strong free-throw shooting and improved fourth-quarter play throughout the 2012 NBA playoffs.
A three-time NBA MVP, LeBron's ability to fill up the stat sheet makes him one of the game’s most complete players.
If the adage that "defense wins championships" holds true, James will have the edge over Durant.
The Heat are a far better defensive squad than the Thunder, and James is one of the best defenders in the league.
While Durant’s defense is improving—he averaged 1.2 blocks and 1.3 steals per game this season—he will never have the physical presence of James. A four-time member of the All-Defensive First Team, James is a major reason the Heat allowed the fourth-fewest points per game this season.
When comparing the staying power of the Heat and the Thunder, it’s important to consider not just what they look like today, but what they could look like down the road.
We know that Durant and Westbrook are locked up long-term, but Harden and Ibaka are big-time question marks moving forward. The potential Big Four of the Thunder could turn into a Big Two if the team is unable to pay Harden and Ibaka the money they have earned with their strong play this season.
The core group in Miami was supposed to have a fourth piece in Mike Miller, but inconsistent play and lingering injuries have kept him out of the equation since his arrival in 2010. His five-year deal will eat up nearly $6 million in cap space this summer, but the Heat’s unused amnesty clause could help solve that problem.
Steve Nash’s impending free agency has been a popular topic for Heat fans. If the team exercises its amnesty this summer, Nash could be the piece that helps bring a title or two to South Beach before his playing days are over.
And let’s not forget that James has an opt-out clause that would allow him to once again take his talents elsewhere following the 2013-14 season. James could very well retire as a member of the Heat, but he could ultimately have a change of heart. This has happened once before, after all.
James may be the best player in the league today, but don’t be surprised if Durant comes away with more rings when it’s all said and done.
Predicting Durant to win more titles is not a knock on James—he is still the better player, and the Heat may very well win this NBA Finals series against the Thunder.
However, this is about the growth that Durant and the Thunder have, and will continue to, display as they mature.
Only time will tell who'll have the greater career, but at just 23 years old, Durant has a younger roster, a more complete rotation and more years remaining to get a handful of rings before he retires.