Can Kevin Durant Surpass LeBron James as the NBA's Best Player?

Rob MahoneyNBA Lead WriterSeptember 18, 2012

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 19:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder drives against Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder at Philips Arena on December 19, 2012 in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

It wasn't too long ago that the basketball public could at least entertain the possibility that the title of the league's best player was a matter up for debate.

LeBron James has since eliminated that mere possibility; even if his overall performance over the last half-decade weren't enough to definitively make his claim as the NBA's finest, James swelled in the face of every obstacle in the last year. Playoff opponents were conquered, the championship was won, and James was unquestionably the best in the business every step of the way.

But LeBron can't hold such an honor forever. Another player is destined to unseat him atop the league hierarchy at some point, and candidates hardly come more qualified than Kevin Durant.

It is, frankly, tough to even find demerits on Durant's résumé. Beyond his incomprehensible commitment to the game and right-way attitude, Durant makes efficient bulk scoring seem far simpler than it is.

His range is unimpeachable, and his versatility grows by the minute; he's a talented scorer that has honed his ball-handling, defense and rebounding over his five NBA seasons. And based on his age and work ethic, we have reason to expect far more of the league's resident No. 2 over the next few seasons.

The only question that seems to remain is if Durant will catch James through his own ascent or LeBron's gradual fall—a reality for any basketball player, and particularly one who gets so much mileage out of his physical gifts.

James will eventually duck out of the spotlight, but it's entirely possible that Durant's commitment to rounding out his game will push that process along more quickly than would otherwise be expected.

At present, the biggest divide between the two players comes in the arenas of defense and playmaking, but Durant's advances in the former category have been substantial enough to expect an upward trajectory.

KD may have entered the league ill prepared to defend NBA-caliber wings, but since that time, he's honed his footwork and improved by leaps and bounds as an on-ball defender. Durant is still feeling out how to best make his mark within a team defensive concept (an area in which James is especially—and almost supernaturally—effective), but he has plenty of time to hone his craft.

The playmaking discrepancy is a bit more stark, and frankly, a bit less manageable for Durant. It's unlikely that Durant will ever match James in terms of passing ability or vision, but one could certainly anticipate Durant's other gains (and James' gradual regression) offsetting the import of that single differential.

That gives Durant a golden opportunity to one day claim the title of the NBA's best player, provided that no other star beats him to the honor. Dwight Howard isn't far removed from being a rightful runner-up, and a season (or more) in Los Angeles should re-energize his play and emphasize his strengths.

Chris Paul remains on the edge of this conversation and cedes an advantage to Durant based only on his age and post-injury reality. Derrick Rose may still have months of rehabbing ahead of him but holds incredible promise nonetheless.

And that's before even approaching talented stars-to-be that are even younger than Durant (Kyrie Irving and Anthony Davis, to name two examples)—a group whose exact extent can't yet be known.

KD has a chance to make this league his in the foreseeable future, but let's not pretend that talent and positioning alone casts his throne in iron.

There are still some issues of timing and competition to be squared away before the NBA's favorite son can claim such a high honor, and while there's no earthly reason to think him incapable of accomplishing this particular feat, we'll have the pleasure of seeing Durant challenged by the field.

And what better to bring out the best in a worthy heir than a bit of adversity?