How Long Before Kevin Durant Surpasses LeBron James as NBA's Best?
Kevin Durant has spent the past five years chasing LeBron James, a pursuit that isn't likely to end any time soon.
It's not because Durant doesn't have the talent necessary to match the potency or importance of James—because he does. He arguably already has.
Though LeBron has spent the season making history, Durant is on pace to do the same. Not only is he poised to join the 50-40-90 club, but he's also set to become the first player in NBA history to do so while leading the league in scoring.
Durant is also on track to become the first player to lead the Association in scoring while shooting at least 50 percent from the field since Shaquille O'Neal did it during the 1999-2000 campaign. Finishing out the season while sustaining said pace would prove to be very Michael Jordan-esque. He led the NBA in points per game while shooting 50 percent or better six times. The fact that Durant will be joining a part of his company and LeBron hasn't is a testament to his skill.
But is it indicative of his eventual rise to very top of the league's hierarchy?
Before you answer, first consider how compelling of a case Durant is making to be named MVP over James. In so many ways, he is actually outperforming LeBron on the stat sheet.
His 29.2 points per game beat James' 27.3. His 42.7 percent clip from deep outguns the King's 42.4. His 1.2 blocks are more than LeBron's 0.9.
As will become the prevailing theme, though, it's not enough.
It's not enough that the Oklahoma City Thunder are allowing fewer points per 100 possessions with Durant on the floor (103.6) than the Miami Heat are with James (104.8). It's not enough that, per 82games.com, Durant is holding opposing forwards (power and small) to a combined average PER of 12.1 to LeBron's 15.9. And it's not enough that, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required) Durant is actually allowing fewer points per possession on defense (0.86) than James (0.89) as well.
None of it's enough.
There may come a time when Durant is the best player in the NBA. When it does, it won't be because he is "better" than James, but because the natural progression of age coupled with the regression of abilities will have set in.
Belittling what Durant has been able to accomplish and what he will eventually do is futile. He's proved he can, at the very least, keep pace with much of what LeBron does—just not of all it.
Durant will never be the facilitator James is. His career high of 4.4 assists per contest is a showcase of his evolution, but he's a scorer first. He's not asked to run the point nearly as much as LeBron, nor will he ever be.
And despite what some of the stats suggest, plenty will steadfastly refuse to coin Durant the better defender or even scorer. Durant has never made an All-Defensive team and has never been a candidate for the Defensive Player of the Year award. As efficient and potent of a scorer as he is, he's never shot 60 percent or better from the field while scoring at least 30 points in six straight games.
He's not LeBron, nor will he ever be. This season alone has told us that much, hence the stake we must put into it.
This year, Durant is having is one for the ages. For reasons we've already discussed, among others, his crusade is bound to be historic. Still, it's not enough, which is revealing.
In the midst of the best season of his career and an unprecedented level of production, Durant continues to chase LeBron in every aspect of the game, including MVP honors (via Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman):
And yet Durant still could fall short of his first Most Valuable Player award.
That's right. A season so dominant, so efficient, so successful still might not be enough to earn Durant his first league MVP trophy.
He can thank LeBron James for that.
The top two finishers for the award last year again are locked in a two-man battle for the game's most prestigious honor. But for Durant to even be in the conversation, let alone have a shot at winning MVP, speaks volumes about both his improvement and impact given that James is just about universally considered the best player on the planet.
This is no narrow-minded sentiment, rather, it's one shared by other players and coaches.
Take Carmelo of the New York Knicks, who called LeBron's recent run of efficiency "crazy."
Or take San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who praised Durant's performance while still admitting he falls short of the King:
LeBron, especially lately, has been on another planet, the things he's been doing. He's on a heck of a run. Obviously, he's probably the guy to catch (in terms of) MVP if he continues to play the way he's playing.
Forget that Durant has been playing out of his mind and will likely break a handful of records himself. Forget that his displays have been "crazy" themselves. This season, this league belongs to LeBron.
And such are the perils of being second best.
James has achieved this generation's version of Jordan-like status. This is not a comparison of their skill sets or legacies, just their reputations.
Before Jordan retired (the first and second times), there was no one who could dethrone him. It was not until he returned with the Washington Wizards that we were prepared to entertain the notion of him being inferior to anyone.
Because it wasn't until then that he wasn't at the top of his game, and the same can be said for James.
LeBron is playing under different circumstances, yes, but until he begins his inevitable (barring an early retirement) decline, no one—not even Durant—will be able to take up his mantle as the NBA's best player.
Again, I point you to this season. Not because James' game has regressed—it's been just the opposite—but because Durant is closer to rivaling, bordering on exceeding his statistical prowess and still James is the favorite to do just about anything.
Durant currently leads the league in win shares with 13.1 and is on pace to total just over 20 for the year. James has exceeded 20 just once, with the Cleveland Cavaliers during the 2008-09 season. That just so happens to be the year that he won his first MVP award.
It seems all but certain Durant will not be allowed to say the same. His is a campaign of epic proportions, yet one that continues to stand in the shadow of The Chosen One.
In this particular case, that moniker is more than just an appellation, it's a state of being. Even at his best (now?), Durant isn't going to be able to supersede the rank of an athlete who has been coined the second coming of Jordan.
To some extent, the status that Durant and James seem to be vying for is more of a right than a reflection of one's performance. This doesn't diminish what LeBron is doing. He deserves every bit of recognition he receives, every crown we add to his throne.
What it does do is increase the difficulty of Durant's silent quest to overthrow him. Though James is best because his stats and worth will it to be, he's also the best because he's supposed be. He wouldn't be the best if he didn't have the ability to uphold said stature.
Even if Durant somehow manages to upset James and win this year's MVP award, few will be motivated to believe he has unseated LeBron. One award isn't enough. Tides of such strength don't turn overnight or even over a few years. Being the best in the business is not a short-term process, it's one fueled by longevity.
To that end, James won't wake up one morning and admit he no longer sits atop the pedestal he's been placed upon. Nor will we suddenly remove him from it. His fall will be a gradual one, incited by age and progressive limitations, and culminate in his retirement or eventual acceptance of an abated rank.
When will Kevin Durant supersede LeBron James as the NBA's best player?
Only then with Durant be able to truly surpass him, if at all.
Remember, LeBron is in the prime of his career and continues to ripen as both a player and person. By the time he has peaked and is ready to pass the torch, Durant might still be next in line. Or he might not.
James is just four years his senior, and the two continue to advance at a similar rate. Durant could begin to fall off at the same time, which means Durant's stay at the top will either be short-lived—before he himself is forced to defer to the next big thing—or fail to exist at all.
"I never can take it for granted being here," Durant.
Hopefully he never tires of it either, because until LeBron's career has run its course, Durant will spend his days continuing to wage a battle he just can't win.
*All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports and 82games.com unless otherwise noted.
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