Is Kevin Durant a More Complete Player Than LeBron James?

Dan FavaleFeatured ColumnistDecember 2, 2013

Is Kevin Durant a More Complete Player Than LeBron James?

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Prepare for some serious rehashing with a twist.

    Who's the better player, LeBron James or Kevin Durant? It's been asked before and it will be asked again. Each and every time, the same conclusion will be drawn: LeBron is, now shut up.

    Growing weary of answering the same question, an easier course of action is to dismiss it. Bury it beneath what we know. LeBron is the better player because: reasons. Championships. MVPs. 

    Easily lost in all that is Durant, who clearly isn't the better player but is starting to make a case for himself as the more complete talent. And yes, there is a difference.

    Allow me to point you toward Dwight Howard, often heralded as the league's best center. At one time, he was the league's unquestioned King of the 5. But there have always been more versatile big men. Better shooters and passers. That's what I'm talking about.

    Durant has come into his own in all facets of the game. Once a glorified version of Carmelo Anthony, he's now one of the best two-way talents in the Association. This was never more apparent than it was in the Oklahoma City Thunder's most recent victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves, when Durant almost registered a 5x5 stat line, going for 32 points, 12 assists, 10 rebounds, four steals and four blocks.

    Quietly, Durant has become a nightly triple-double threat. Underrated playmaker. Fierce rebounder. 

    Slowly but surely, he's allowed us to ask if it's possible he could be looking up at LeBron in status, but down on him as a finished product. 

     

    *All stats in this article were compiled from NBA.com, Basketball-Reference and Synergy Sports (subscription required) and are accurate as of Dec. 2, 2013 unless otherwise noted.

Scoring

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    Scoring is an art, and LeBron and Durant aren't new to creating their own masterpieces.

    King James' 27.5 points per game for his career presently exceed that of Durant's 26.6, but Durant has three scoring titles, has averaged more points per game in each of the last five seasons, and is generally considered the best scorer in the NBA.

    Nothing about their play styles unearths much of a difference. Both can shoot the three-ball, attack the rim, post up and thrive in transition.

    But LeBron isn't expected to score like Durant on a nightly basis. Such is the luxury of playing alongside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Such is also the burden of being the primary playmaker. LeBron has even indicated he could score more if he wanted to, but his first instincts are to pass.

    Durant, on the other hand, is expected to score. Expected to contend for scoring titles.

    Versatile in his own way, the Thunder aren't lusting after a point forward. They have a point guard in Russell Westbrook and a solid understudy in Reggie Jackson. They need points, and Durant gives them points.

    Under these circumstances, it's difficult to put their scoring prowess in perspective. Their point totals this season are within 2.1 points per game of one another, and both rank in the top 20 of points scored per touch among all players who have appeared in at least 10 games and are logging more than 20 minutes a contest.

    The biggest difference comes at the free-throw line. Durant, lanky and elusive, tends to rely on his quickness, while LeBron has developed a knack for overpowering opponents, all of whom are physically inferior. The former results in more free throws; Durant is attempting over 11 a night this season to LeBron's 7.6.

    There's little doubt that LeBron could be the best scorer in the NBA if that were his focus. With his physical characteristics and the way he can control and comprehend the game, he's an incredible rarity.

    Finding the bottom of the net isn't the foundation of his game now, though. Barring a sudden change in focus, if you're looking to build around a scorer, and strictly a scorer, it's Durant who has earned more keep there.

     

    Advantage: Durant 

Efficiency

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Volume efficiency is becoming a more distinguished achievement as statistical databases continue to deepen in complexity and available information.

    Players like Rudy Gay were once willingly compensated almost $20 million annually while struggling to shoot 40 percent from the field, all because they could score. Ask the Toronto Raptors or Memphis Grizzlies if they would give Gay that same contract now. Go ahead, ask them. Awkward silence followed by an admission that they wouldn't is sure to follow.

    LeBron and Durant continue to spearhead the new-age movement, where economic scoring and superfluous potency become one.

    Last season, Durant joined Larry Bird as the second player in NBA history to shoot 50/40/90 from the floor for an entire season while averaging at least 28 points per game. And LeBron became the only player in league history to shoot at least 55 percent overall and 40 percent from deep (minimum one attempt per game) while also dropping 26 points a night. 

    Never before have we seen what these two are doing. Never. Ever. And though Durant is shooting under 50 percent from the floor this year, he's still drilling over 87 percent of his free throws, a number LeBron can only dream of eclipsing.

    PlayerCareer FG%2P%3P%FT%
    LeBron49.253.034.074.8
    Durant47.450.237.388.3

    But it's LeBron who continues to push the boundaries of efficiency, closing whatever gaps exist between Durant and himself in the process.

    Need free-throw shooting? LeBron's currently hitting more than 80 percent of his freebies. Want King James to bomb away? He's turned three-point shooting from a weakness into a strength. 

    Player2013-14 FG%2P%3P%FT%
    LeBron59.862.748.180.6 
    Durant 45.8 48.8 37.187.4 

    Somehow, LeBron has made us believe a 60/50/80 season is possible. Or 60/50/90. Or 60/40/80. Whatever triumvirate you believe in, LeBron has made it possible, which is all we need to know.

     

    Advantage: LeBron

Playmaking

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    Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

    This isn't even a contest.

    LeBron is essentially a point guard trapped in a forward's body sporting an 80-year-old's hairline. When you look up "point forward" in the dictionary, there sits a picture of LeBron smirking in the middle of a lob. (If you cannot find it, your dictionary is outdated.)

    None of this is to say Durant doesn't deserve his own kudos. If there was a spot in the dictionary for underrated point forwards, he'd certainly make a cameo.

    But he's not LeBron.

    The Chosen One is assisting on 34.3 percent of made baskets while he's on the floor for his career, easily dwarfing Durant's 15.6. This season, Durant is on pace to notch a career-high assist percentage of 25.1, which still falls eight points short of LeBron's current mark (33.1).

    Player2013-14 APG Career APG 2013-14 AST% Career AST% 
    LeBron6.46.3 33.1 34.3 
     Durant 5.53.2 25.115.6 

    Nifty new player-tracking data courtesy of NBA.com shows much of the same. While LeBron consistently puts himself in the company of point guards, Durant is noticeably absent.

    PlayerAssist Opportunities Per GamePoints Created by Assists Per GamePoints Created By Assists Per-48 Min.
    LeBron11.115.020.2
    Durant9.912.715.4

    Of all players in the NBA who have appeared in at least 10 games and are averaging 20 or more minutes, LeBron ranks 13th in points created by assists a night. The 12 players before him are all point guards. Durant comes in at 26th using the same filters—respectable, but nowhere near LeBron's level.

    Then again, not many players, including starting point guards, are.

     

    Advantage: LeBron

Rebounding

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    Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

    Durant has developed into a monster on the glass over the last few years. Currently, he's grabbing a career-high 8.1 boards per game in his quest to average at least 7.9 for the third consecutive season. 

    Slacking on the glass isn't LeBron's thing, either. Though he's averaging just 5.8 boards per game, he's at 7.2 for his career and has eclipsed 7.5 on five separate occasions.

    It would be all too easy to look at Durant's wingspan and the one or two inches in raw height he has on LeBron and dismiss their differences as an inevitable fact. For all the skills Durant possesses, superhuman strength isn't one of them. Certain possessions actually leave me wondering why he wasn't broken in half.

    By comparison, LeBron is a bull. He can bang down low with power forwards or centers. It doesn't matter who the player is; LeBron is sturdy enough to battle with them.

    With that in mind, Durant's rebounding prowess becomes more impressive. He grabs a higher percentage of available boards on both ends of the floor, and his overall rebounding percentage has come to exceed that of LeBron's.

    Player2013-14 REB% DEF. REB% OFF. REB% Career REB% 
     LeBron 10.518.0 2.1  10.8
     Durant 11.118.6 2.9 10.3 

    Stark contrasts between the two don't exist. Right down to the nitty-gritty, bare-bone statistical bottom, they're eerily similar. According to NBA.com, 1.2 of each of their nightly boards come when an opponent is within 3.5 feet of them, so one isn't simply "outworking" the other or being handed "gimmes." They're right there. Together.

    At the moment, however, the numbers say Durant has a slight edge. Attribute it to what you like, but it's true. And it's been true for the past few years.

     

    Advantage: Durant

Defense

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    Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

    Close, but really not close. That's how I'll describe this one.

    In terms of blocks, Durant has a clear advantage. Everywhere else, in LeBron we trust.

    Player2013-14 STL%Career STL%2013-14 BLK%Career BLK%
    LeBron1.52.3 1.1 1.7 
    Durant 1.81.7 1.5 2.0 

    Where LeBron should truly begin to separate himself is outside of steals and blocks. According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), he's allowing 0.8 points per possession on the season to Durant's 0.9. But he hasn't routinely outperformed Durant in that department either.

    Below you'll see how many points each has allowed per possession since 2009-10:

    Player2009-102010-112011-122012-132013-14
    LeBron0.840.760.830.840.8
    Durant0.790.860.790.80.9

    Judging by those numbers, it's a dead heat. If anything, Durant has the advantage.

    Delve deeper and you'll find it doesn't stay that way.

    Not including this season, LeBron's teams allow an average of 1.3 points per 100 possessions fewer with him on the floor and his career defensive rating stands at 102. Until now, Durant's teams are allowing 3.4 points per 100 possessions more with him in the game—a 4.7-point difference compared to LeBron—and his defensive rating checks in at 105.

    Defensive impact cannot be simplified or dummied down in the space provided. We could spend hours upon hours breaking down plays in hopes of arriving at a different conclusion.

    But these baseline statistics tell us most, if not all, of what we need to know: LeBron, the 2012-13 runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year, is the more valuable defender.

     

    Advantage: LeBron

Usage Rate

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    Usage rates are a great way to glean insight into a team's infrastructure.

    The most important players typically have high usage rates because they have the ball in their hands more.

    Since entering the NBA in 2003-04, only three players—who have appeared in at least 50 games and are averaging more than 20 minutes during that time—are posting a higher usage rate than LeBron. He checks in at fourth behind Kobe Bryant, Anthony and Wade. Durant comes in at fifth in the same category since making his debut, behind only LeBron, 'Melo, Kobe and Wade.

    Look at how their usage rates compare since 2007, when Durant joined the Association:

    Player07-0808-0909-1010-1111-1212-1313-14
    LeBron33.533.833.531.532.030.229.8
    Durant28.128.332.030.631.329.830.2

    Assuming their current marks hold, this will be the first season Durant tops LeBron. The thing is, Durant isn't even the "most-used" player on his team. Westbrook's usage rate tips the scales at 32.7 right now. And why? Because he's the point guard.

    Floor generals have higher usage rates because, again, the ball is in their hands more. They're in charge of directing the offense and instructing their teammates—just like LeBron.

    This would be just the third time in his career LeBron didn't finish with a usage rate of at least 30. Each of the last eight seasons have seen him clear it rather easily, which is why his career usage rate (31.6) usurps Durant's (30.1).

    Although a 1.5 percent advantage may not seem like much, it is. In the scheme of all the plays they've been a part of, all the time they've spent on the floor, it's a difference.

    A difference that favors LeBron.

     

    Advantage: LeBron

Win Shares

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    Nothing paints a more accurate picture of a player's abilities than winning.

    Championships are valuable tools for sure, but comparing the number of win shares LeBron and Durant have amassed is even more useful. They show how many victories each player has accounted for. Win shares are currently one of the most telling statistics in the NBA.

    No player in the league has accumulated more win shares than LeBron since 2003-04. Like, it's not even close. He's racked up 156.5, while Dirk Nowitzki comes in a distant second with 123.3.

    Not even Durant has managed to ease LeBron out of power. Since he entered the league in 2007-08, he ranks third with 72.6, almost 35 fewer than LeBron's 107.1.

    This doesn't take anything away from Durant. All it does is reinforce the notion that LeBron is LeBron. That he's on his own plane.

    That more than a decade into his career, he cannot be caught.

     

    Advantage: LeBron

So?

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    Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

    Whenever we circle back to this question, there is always only one answer: LeBron.

    The King defines complete. All-around performances are his norm. He leads all active NBA players in triple-doubles (36). That in itself is a testament to his completeness.

    Enjoy Durant for who he is, for who he should be remembered as—one of the greats. One of the most complete players ever. But don't get caught up in pitting him against LeBron. That's a commitment to losing. You won't win. Durant won't win.

    Four-time MVPs don't grow on trees. Historically efficient beasts don't crop up by the team. Once-in-a-generation talents cannot be duplicated.

    LeBron, in all his completeness, can't be discrowned.