Much is made of how Kevin Durant and LeBron James stack up against each other, but little attention is paid to how their supporting casts match up.
As James himself found out with the Cleveland Cavaliers and again in his championship campaign with the Miami Heat, a talented group of comrades can be the difference between a championship and naked fingers.
Superstars may carry their teams when called upon, but it takes five players at a time to win a basketball game, to help navigate the path to greatness.
Durant and LeBron are both fortunate to have two of the strongest supporting casts in the league; both play alongside an array of complementary pieces that have enabled their respective teams to achieve different levels of greatness.
But which MVP candidate, Durant or LeBron, has the most valuable companions?
LeBron James and the Miami Heat
Though the Heat are fresh off an NBA championship, there's no denying that they're a much deeper team than last season.
James is still afforded the luxury of playing beside two All-Stars in Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, but the addition of Ray Allen provides a level of potency off the pine Miami didn't have last season. Toss in the situational talents of guys like Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers, Joel Anthony and Norris Cole, among others, and the Heat stand to be one of the deepest teams in the league.
But are they?
James leads the team in points (25.4), rebounds (8.5) and assists (6.8). Though that speaks volumes about how important LeBron is to his team, it also speaks volumes about where they would be without him.
Without James on the floor this season, Miami is being outscored by its opponents by 3.6 points per 100 possessions. More notably, their offensive output decreases by 12.4 points per 100 possessions with him riding the pine as well.
To some extent, this is to be expected. James means the world to his team, hence his perpetual MVP candidacy. As impressive as his impact is, though, it is troubling that a team with two other All-Stars can't outscore its opponents when he's not on the floor.
Also troubling is the Heat's bench production. Despite having five reserves who average 14 minutes or more per game, Miami's bench is scoring just 29.8 points per game, putting them at 20th in the league.
And yet, is this indicative of a poor supporting cast?
Some of the Heat's statistical realities are troubling, but is there any other team in the league with as many clutch performers as Miami?
The Heat have three other players in Bosh, Wade and Allen who have all been No. 1 offensive options at some point. They aren't strangers to making big shots or serving as cure-alls, and down the stretch that takes a lot of pressure off James.
Their presence allows LeBron to defer when defenses collapse of him; their presence ensures that double-teaming anyone could prove detrimental.
Can Oklahoma City lay claim to the same?
Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder
No, Durant no longer plays alongside two All-Stars, but the players who complement him are still pretty damn good.
Outside of Durant, the Thunder have three proven studs in Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and Kevin Martin. From there they have specialists like Nick Collison and Thabo Seflosha to rely on, and even Kendrick Perkins has his moments.
That said, is this convocation of supporting cast members better than that of Miami's?
It's a fair question. Despite the difference in depth of rotations, the Thunder's supporting cast does, in fact, rival that of the Heat's.
Like Miami, Oklahoma City is extremely dependent upon Kevin Durant for everything. He leads the team in points (27.9) and rebounds (8.4) per game, and he has also emerged as their second-most talented playmaker.
Unlike the Heat, though, the Thunder have held their position relatively well with Durant on the bench. When he's not on the floor, opponents are outscoring Oklahoma City, but only by 0.5 points per 100 possessions.
Encouraging? Slightly, but it's still not that far off of Miami. And neither is their bench production, which stands at 22nd in the league with 29.7 points per game.
Despite such similar production levels, though, there is one glaring difference—go-to scorers.
Without James Harden, Oklahoma City now only has one other pressure-tested scorer in Westbrook. Ibaka is a solid scorer, but he's never been No. 1 option, nor is he someone who has proven himself a clutch performer beyond this season.
Much of the same goes for Martin, who is a former No. 1 option, but he was never the pillar of a championship entity.
Is that enough to give Miami the ultimate edge?
Both Durant and James have plenty of talent surrounding them and each of their team's relies on four total players to provide a majority of the offense. Even the production of their second units is eerily similar.
That said, the ultimate advantage goes to Oklahoma City.
Yes, the Heat are reigning NBA champs, and their dynamic does work. Just not as well as the Thunder's.
It's not just that Oklahoma City is younger; it's something more.
The Thunder are one of two teams (the San Antonio Spurs being the other) to be in the top 10 of both offensive and defensive efficiency per 100 possessions. A large part of that is Durant, but Westbrook, Ibaka and Martin are all having career seasons.
I understand Oklahoma City employs a thinner rotation than Miami. With that said, where would the Heat be without James?
LeBron is expected to do so much for the Heat, just like Durant is for the Thunder. But he has been tasked with such a burden alongside in aging Allen and an oft-injured and somewhat inconsistent Wade.
Not for a minute do I believe the Thunder would be a contender without Durant, but without LeBron, the Heat would be in dire straights, even with Wade and Bosh.
Call it insult to the Heat, or take it as validation as to just how valuable James is. Whatever you take it as, though, understand that Oklahoma City's shallow rotation, even outside of Durant, is dangerous.
More dangerous than what the Heat have to offer outside of LeBron.
*All stats in this article are accurate as of December 24, 2012.