After LeBron James signed with the Miami Heat, he became the villain. It was a role that was imposed upon him by the backlash to The Decision, and he embraced it.
At least he tried to.
But after that first season ended with no championship parades taking their talents to South Beach, the king without a crown decided to turn back into the white-hat hero he had always been.
Playing from the "dark side," as he called it, was not in his DNA.
"You start to hear 'the villain,' now you have to be the villain, you know, and I started to buy into it," said James to ESPN after the season. "I started to play the game of basketball at a level, or at a mind state that I've never played at before ... That's not the way I play the game of basketball."
This year, Kevin Durant is the one trying to mean up.
Nike and Footlocker have spent a fortune on an advertising campaign trying to convince the world that KD is "not nice," and NBA officials have bought in; only three players in the NBA have earned more technical fouls than Durant's 13.
While fewer people are buying that Durant is someone to root against, this trip down the same path LeBron traveled is an interesting wrinkle that connects the two.
Of course, they don't need that to be compared to one another.
In many ways, they are more similar to each other than they are to the rest of the mere mortals dribbling a ball across the league.
Durant is the best scorer on the planet. He is on pace to win his fourth straight scoring title, and if he does he will join Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain as the only players to do so.
James doesn't have much trouble getting buckets either.
His 26.9 points per game is a step below Durant's 28.3, but the difference comes almost entirely at the line. If James matched KD's free-throw shooting prowess at 90.8 percent, he would average 28.0 points a night.
While LeBron will never be automatic at the charity stripe, he does shoot more efficiently from the floor. His 59.9 percent effective field-goal percentage (which adjusts shooting to account for three-pointers being worth more) edges out Durant's 55.4 percent.
To put those numbers in perspective, Durant has always been an efficient scorer. And this is his career-high eFG.
LeBron is just on another level.
Of qualified leaders, only DeAndre Jordan, who has taken 322 of his 432 shots this season inside the restricted area, has shot better, and almost everyone else in the top 10, according to Basketball-Reference, is a big man.
Increasingly in the NBA, just scoring is no longer considered enough. It has to be done efficiently. And no two stars have devoted themselves to this mentality more than James and Durant.
On top of his career-high shooting from everywhere, James is now making a higher percentage of his three-pointers than he ever has. A player who had never shot even 37 percent from behind the arc has made 40.4 percent this season.
Durant is still more proficient, at 41.0 percent, and he attempts about one more per game, but both rely on keeping defenders afraid as soon as they cross half court.
In the past, if LeBron hit six straight three-pointers, as he did in the first half against the New Orleans Hornets recently, it would come as a major shock.
Now, just like if Durant did the same, it is just met with the shrug and a reaction of "LeBron being LeBron."
Both James and Durant have been able to get buckets since the first day they laced up their shoes. Each is a born scorer, and Durant may be one of the best to ever live.
But like James, Durant is increasingly making his team even harder to stop by setting up open teammates. LeBron's ability to do so is unparalleled. He creates cross-court assists by leaping and using his inhuman strength to make passes nobody else in the league can.
The result this year, according to Basketball-Reference, has been a 35.7 assist ratio (the percentage of teammate's field goals a player assists while on the floor).
Durant isn't on that level, but the 20.9 he is posting this season is easily the highest of his career. In his first four seasons, he barely broke 13.0, but he jumped to 17.5 last year and has made another leap this season.
It has reached the point that both LeBron and Durant can hurt you just as much by dishing as they do by shooting.
In this way, as in many others, it is starting to seem like the only person you can compare either player to is the other one.
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