What a difference a title makes.
LeBron James should know. He's been given the benefit of the doubt almost routinely ever since he carried the Miami Heat to a five-game series victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2012 NBA Finals.
This would've sounded strange prior to James' intimate acquaintance with the trophies named for Larry O'Brien and Bill Russell. He'd always been a tremendously talented player—his three MVPs and strings of all-everything accolades could attest to as much—but whenever something within his proximity was amiss, he was the first one to shoulder the blame.
Someone misses a shot in crunch time? Blame LeBron for not taking it himself.
James tries to do it on his own but falls short? Blame LeBron for not being "clutch" or not making the right basketball play.
The team looks lethargic on defense? Blame LeBron for not setting a better example on that end.
The list goes on and on, one shouting match between Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith at a time. Such responsibility was presumably the price to be paid for greatness.
Kevin Durant has been fortunate to avoid being the subject of such nauseating non-controversies through the first five-plus seasons of his NBA career. He didn't enter the league in 2007 with any daunting nicknames or quite the same outsized expectations for salvation that dogged LeBron from day one. He won one game in his first appearance in the NBA Finals—compared to none for LeBron when his Cleveland Cavaliers were crushed by Tim Duncan's San Antonio Spurs in 2007.
But Kevin's had plenty of help. He still does, even after the Thunder shipped James Harden to the Houston Rockets to avoid a salary cap snafu. If Durant is having an off night, he can always lean on an All-Star guard (Russell Westbrook), a midrange-making forward (Serge Ibaka) and/or a sweet-shooting sixth man (Kevin Martin) to carry the day—not unlike LeBron's current arrangement with Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Ray Allen, respectively.
Even with the help of superstars, LeBron still gets the lion's share of the dap, thanks in no small part to his championship credentials.
As well he should. But what of Durant? What of his continued improvement? What of his ongoing evolution from a sweet-shooting arachnid to a three-time scoring champ to an all-around basketball savant?
He's still scoring by the boatload (27.9 points per game) but is doing so on just 17.3 shots—the fewest since his rookie season. His shooting percentages so far—.521 from the field, .427 from three, .904 from the line—would be good enough to land him in the prestigious 50-40-90 Club by season's end. He's rebounding more (8.4 boards), sharing more (4.2 assists) and defending better than ever, be it against his own man or while helping someone else.
Durant's certainly getting some credit for his efforts, though perhaps not as much as he truly deserves. He's at or near the top of many early-season MVP lists, albeit while sharing the spotlight with some of his "forebears," chief among them Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and (of course) LeBron.
That could have something to do with the small market (OKC) in which he plays, the polarizing star (Westbrook) with whom he plays, his own understated personality or any combination of factors therein. Kevin's recognition (or relative lack thereof) might also find its origins in LeBron's presumed primacy in the world of hoops and Durant's own perpetual lot thereabouts.
See, James' run to the title didn't just allow him to shed stereotypes about a deficit of clutch or a shrinking heart in the biggest of games. It also guaranteed ownership of the ongoing "Best in the Game" discussion, at least for the time being.
LeBron has ostensibly been the top basketball player on the planet—by pure talent and ability—since, perhaps, the 2005-06 season. By that point, he'd already averaged more than 30 points per game in one campaign and better than seven rebounds and seven assists in another.
In other words, he was well on his way to being Magic Johnson 2.0, and truly became a once-in-a-generation talent when his defensive effort came around in subsequent seasons. He was seen by many as the best of the best but didn't free himself of argument in that regard until taking the title this past spring.
Winning made LeBron the King he'd long been presumed to be and left Kevin as the clear No. 2. The logic was simple. James' team had just ousted Durant. The former had officially rounded his way into all-around greatness, while the latter, a tremendously versatile talent in his own right, still had yet to prove himself in all facets of the game.
LeBron, at 27, had earned his place within the sport, while Kevin, then at 23 and now at 24, was still a precocious youngster pushing the envelope. The label of "second-best" had been Dwight Howard's to bear before he threw the Orlando Magic under the bus and threw out his back while doing so.
Who's the better player right now?
And it's a label that Durant may struggle to shake in the absence of another up-and-comer prepared to usurp the runner-up distinction.
Unless, of course, there's a seismic shift at the zenith of basketball brilliance. Durant can simply bide his time while awaiting LeBron's decline. He can put in the sweat equity to expand his arsenal and improve his game, perhaps anticipating that Father Time and Mother Nature will eventually conspire to sap James—one of Durant's offseason sparring partners—of his otherworldly athleticism.
This would leave LeBron with "just" his size, strength, ever-sharpening shooting stroke, court vision and ball-handling ability.
Or, Kevin can do something about shaking up the "natural" order of things. That is, he can knock LeBron from his throne of pre-eminence or at least unsettle the foundation upon which James sits. He can re-open, if not reignite, the debate over who the best baller on Earth really is by showcasing his own growth in a head-to-head matchup with LeBron.
Durant will have every opportunity to do just that—to demonstrate his next-level brilliance before a national audience with the reigning MVP in the building—when the Thunder take their talents to South Beach for a Christmas Day duel with LeBron's Heat. It'll be the first rematch of the year between Durant and James, between the teams that most recently met to tussle over the golden ball-and-hoop trophy.
And if these two squads, led by these two stars, come to blows again in June and the outcome is any different, then...well, what a difference a title might make.