Just imagine that the NBA creates a new franchise, and you're put in charge.
For the sake of the hypothetical, let's either call the expansion team the Seattle SuperSonics, Las Vegas Flush (my personal favorite), Albuquerque Oaks, St. Louis Gatekeepers, Virginia Tides or Montreal Royals.
Can you tell I've thought about this before?
All of a sudden, the league comes to you and tells you that you can steal one player from any team in the NBA, as long as he's not named LeBron James. To negate the impact of current contracts, the player you choose will automatically be given a six-year max deal.
There's no bad choice, but you have to make one.
What do you do?
The Case for Durant
How can you pass up the established superstar?
Durant is a guy with multiple scoring titles under his belt, and he's coming off a season in which he shot over 50 percent from the field, 40 percent beyond the arc and 90 percent at the charity stripe. And he did all that while actually competing for another scoring crown.
He ultimately fell short of Carmelo Anthony's gaudy points-per-game average, but he joined Larry Bird as one of two 50/40/90 members to be in striking distance of the title.
There's a reason that Durant is sick of being No. 2.
It's because he's been stuck in that spot for a long time. Although he remains well shy of LeBron, who is just on a different level as a basketball player, he's also emerged as the leading candidate from the rest of the field.
Players like Chris Paul and Kobe Bryant have come close to displacing him from the penultimate spot in player rankings for the last few years, but no one has successfully done so. Durant is just too good at offense.
Even though the Oklahoma City Thunder superstar is struggling with his shot, by his standards at least, he's still leading the league in scoring while shooting 46.4 percent from the field, 36.6 percent on his three-point attempts and 88.1 percent at the charity stripe.
But Durant is so much more than a scoring phenom, even though that's quite obviously his biggest skill on the basketball court. He's also developed into a tremendous facilitator, which is what pushes him firmly ahead of George on the offensive end of the floor.
NBA.com's SportVU data tracks assist opportunities, which are defined as passes that would have led to assists if the teammate made the ensuing shot. Essentially, it removes the result from the equation. Is a pass really worse if the open teammate misses the shot?
Here are the top non-point guards in assist opportunities per game:
- Monta Ellis, 11.7
- James Harden, 11.4
- LeBron James, 11.1
- Gordon Hayward, 10.6
- Andre Iguodala, 9.9
- Dwyane Wade, 9.3
- Kevin Durant, 9.1
- Lance Stephenson, 9.1
- Kevin Love, 8.5
- Marc Gasol, 8.5
Notice who is on that list? Durant.
Notice who isn't? George.
In fact, you have to go all the way down to No. 16 to find the Indiana swingman, as he also trails Manu Gionbili, Victor Oladipo, Evan Turner, Josh McRoberts and Arron Afflalo. But despite that, it's George who has the reputation as a point forward, not Durant.
Don't make the mistake of letting greatness in one area (scoring) trump the impact in another. Durant has made significant strides as a passer, and you can see that in the progression of his assist and turnover percentages over the years:
Now that's impressive.
Durant is averaging a career-high five assists per game during the 2013-14 season, and he's shown consistent improvement in that category. He's finding the right man whenever he's double-teamed, and he's more willing to make the correct play rather than forcing up a tough attempt.
It's just the latest step in the evolution of this offensive juggernaut.
The Case for George
You may have noticed that I failed to mention defense in the case for Durant. That's because while he's emerged as a quality point-stopper, he's nowhere near George's level.
George finished eighth in the Defensive Player of the Year voting last season, drawing eight first-place votes in the process. LeBron James and Tony Allen were the only perimeter players to finish higher, and George now has a serious shot at becoming the first wing defender to win the award since Ron Artest in 2004.
He's spearheading the league's best defense, after all.
The Pacers are allowing only 93.6 points per 100 possessions this season, according to Basketball-Reference. The San Antonio Spurs (96.4) and Charlotte Bobcats (99.7) also have double-digit defensive ratings.
Although Roy Hibbert and the rest of the Pacers contribute mightily to that effort, George is still the key. His versatility and ability to lock down the opposing team's best offensive player—so long as he plays shooting guard, small forward or power forward—is so crucial.
Oh, and he's gotten better since last year, as you can see from his points per possession allowed in each situation, per Synergy Sports (subscription required):
Focus first on the two bars on the left of each grouping. That shows you how George fared in each situation during the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons.
Although ball-handlers in pick-and-roll sets are faring better against him this year, he's improved everywhere else and stagnated against spot-up shooters. Most important is the overall improvement, as he's becoming one of the most stingy defenders on the stingiest team in the Association.
Now, what do you think that third column is?
If you guessed that it represents Durant's numbers this year, you're correct.
Durant has been slightly better against isolation sets, and he's a much better post defender thanks to the extra couple of inches he boasts on George (Durant has to be 7'0" now, despite what he's listed at) and his ridiculously lanky arms. But he's worse overall by a rather significant margin because he doesn't have the same level of defensive versatility.
On top of that, it's important to remember that these are context-neutral stats. They don't explain who is being guarded or why shots were made or missed.
George is at a natural disadvantage because he goes out and takes on the other team's best offensive player. On the flip side, Durant is occasionally hidden so that he can conserve more energy for offense. As a result, the defensive disparity between the two is much larger than the numbers would indicate.
But just as you can't assume Durant's scoring prevents him from being a good distributor, you can't make the mistake of letting George's defense overshadow his offense.
Doesn't that remind you of vintage Tracy McGrady?
George is taking—and making—superstar shots now. He's controlling games down the stretch and just torturing defenses with his ability to hit jumpers and still get to the rim.
Going into the season, turnovers and inconsistent shooting were the two biggest criticisms of the first-time All-Star.
So much for that.
As stated at the beginning of the article, there's no wrong answer here. Both Durant and George are superb choices if you're building a franchise. Other than LeBron James, there's really no one else on the same tier.
You could make an argument for Anthony Davis or Chris Paul, but that would be pushing it. The three small forwards have emerged as the elite building-block trio in the NBA.
But—strange as this would have been to say about a year ago—George has become the top choice in this two-man competition.
There's no longer too wide a gap in offensive production. I mean, take a look at the key per-36-minute numbers (to neutralize Durant's extra minutes) from this season, as well as a few other stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference:
|Player||Points||Assists||FG%||3P%||FT%||PER||Offensive Win Shares per 48 minutes|
Durant is clearly the superior offensive player. There has never been any attempt to argue otherwise, just to point out that the gap is no longer a chasm.
And that gap—as established above—be closed by George's vastly superior defense.
On top of that, George is two years younger and is playing in his fourth NBA season; Durant is in the middle of his seventh. What they've done in the past is irrelevant, so the argument that the OKC superstar has a better resume is relatively worthless.
Just imagine what George is going to be doing by the time he's in year seven.
While Durant is an excellent choice to build around (especially if you're just trying to win this year, though I'd still go with George in that situation), I'll take the extra youth, two-way play and incredible defensive ability any day of the week.
If you disagree, you're more than welcome to come apologize after my Flush have won a few championships.
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!