Is Kevin Durant's Evolution the Final Step in Challenging LeBron James' Throne?

Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistOctober 16, 2013

From the looks of his preseason work, Kevin Durant is fed up with playing second fiddle to LeBron James in the NBA's superstar hierarchy.

Armed with a broadened array of scoring moves and a striking focus on facilitation, KD appears to have taken his already top-notch offensive game to new heights.

Against the Philadelphia 76ers, Durant handed out 12 assists, a figure that surpassed his career regular-season high of 11. And then he went out and reminded everyone that he hadn't forgotten how to fill it up, tallying 36 points in just 23 minutes against the Denver Nuggets.

No word yet on whether Dirk Nowitzki has called to ask for his pet move back.

In the span of two games, KD showed the world that he's added a new dimension to his game while keeping his other skills as sharp as ever. So what does Durant's evolution mean in the context of his ongoing pursuit of James' perch atop the league?

A lot, actually.


Necessity Is the Mother of Invention

Part of Durant's new, more well-rounded game derives from what happened to the Oklahoma City Thunder during the 2012-13 postseason. Missing Russell Westbrook, OKC took a severe beating at the hands of the Memphis Grizzlies.

Durant struggled against relentless pressure as OKC's offense fell apart without its second star. When he looked to shoot, there were two or three Grizzlies nearby to make his attempts as difficult as possible. Unaccustomed to handling distribution duties along with the team's scoring responsibilities, Durant didn't show a knack for finding open teammates at the right time either.

May 15, 2013; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant (35) handles the ball against Memphis Grizzlies guard Mike Conley (11) and Grizzlies forward Tayshaun Prince (21) during the second half in game five of the second round of t
Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Also, Derek Fisher was on the court a lot, which is basically a nice way of saying the Thunder were often playing four-on-five.

Still embarrassed by the undressing the Grizzlies administered last spring, and facing the prospect of a season in which Westbrook might be somewhat limited, OKC head coach Scott Brooks spent the summer thinking of ways to add some diversity to his offense.

Apparently, he landed on "make Durant do everything" as a solution.

To be fair to Brooks, whom I've probably spent too much time bashing since last year's playoffs, he seems to have installed an offense with more motion and fewer predictable set plays. As a starting point, added variety was a must. 

But now that it appears Durant has morphed into a complete offensive player, OKC's ability to score the ball should be able to stand up against the pressure of great playoff defense—with or without Westbrook.

It's fantastic that Durant has added to his game, especially considering that nobody would have criticized him if he'd continued putting up 28 points per game as a member of the ultra-exclusive 50-40-90 club. Had he merely stood pat, Durant would have held on to his spot just behind James in MVP debates in the coming years.

But with new additions to his game, KD has a chance to make those arguments more contentious than ever.


Moving Closer, But Not That Close

Durant has long been a more economical scorer than James. Even when LBJ took a remarkable leap in efficiency last year, KD still narrowly outpaced him. Here's how the league's two best players stacked up last season:

That's Some Hot Shootin'

If we assume Durant's preseason role carries over to the 2013-14 season, he'll almost certainly post career highs in assists. But because it's still too early to gauge what kind of contribution Westbrook will make during the season, we can't be sure how high those totals might climb.

It's difficult to imagine that Durant will manage to equal James as a facilitator, largely because LBJ is so far beyond KD as a natural passer. That's no knock on Durant; James is the kind of born distributor who has to be goaded into scoring. Durant, on the other hand, has only begun to develop as a passer through a conscious effort.

Consider the following: James has never averaged fewer than 5.9 assists per game in any season of his career. Durant registered a career high with 4.6 last year. So even if he takes a significant step forward as a facilitator, KD is going to fall far short of James in that category.

`MIAMI, FL - JUNE 18: LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat attempts a pass while being contested by Tim Duncan #21 and Kawhi Leonard #2 of the San Antonio Spurs during Game Six of the 2013 NBA Finals on June 18, 2013 at the American Airlines Arena in Miami,
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Ball movement and unselfish play are part of James' basketball DNA, whereas KD's natural instinct is to score, as it should be.

We could belabor the comparison between James and Durant's conventional numbers all day long.

For example, any thorough comparison should also include the fact that their career rebound rates are nearly identical. But knowing that James has pulled down 10.8 percent of available boards to Durant's 10.3 percent, per, isn't all that important in answering the bigger question about whether KD is getting closer to toppling the King.

Maybe it's possible that Durant will maintain or improve his incredible scoring numbers. And maybe he'll come closer to equaling James as a passer.

But even if KD were to somehow move past James as an offensive player, he'll still only be halfway there.


Hey, Remember Defense?

Jan. 14, 2013; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant (35) and guard Russell Westbrook (0) play defense in the game against the Phoenix Suns at the US Airways Center. The Thunder defeated the Suns 102-90. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer S
Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports

Here's the thing: NBA basketball is played on a court with two ends, each just as important as the other. That's bad news for Durant, who, while a good defender in his own right, is nowhere near as dominant as James.

It's tricky to use the normal defensive metrics to compare two players on separate teams. On- and off-court splits are necessarily dependent on a player's supporting cast. So we can't take too much from the fact that James made the Heat 3.6 points per 100 possessions better on defense last year, while Durant made the Thunder 1.3 points worse, per

Those numbers weigh in James' favor, but it's the anecdotal analysis that really makes the difference.

Put simply, James is probably the best individual defender in the league. He can guard all five positions in a pinch, and he can handle everyone from point guards to power forwards extremely well.

MIAMI, FL - JUNE 6: LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat defends against Tony Parker #9  of the San Antonio Spurs during Game One of the 2013 NBA Finals on June 6, 2013 at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges a
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

He has superhuman off-ball instincts and an unparalleled combination of size, strength and speed that makes him a truly unique defensive weapon.

KD just isn't in the same neighborhood as James defensively.

He shouldn't feel bad about that; few players are. But until Durant can completely dominate the game on both ends of the floor, he'll always fall short of James.

Durant's move toward a more balanced (but still deadly) offensive game makes the gap between him and James a little narrower, but it's still a substantial divide.