There’s an embarrassment of riches involved when comparing Kevin Durant and Paul George, two of the league’s elite players. It can get tricky separating the two small forwards because they’re both just so good. We aren’t comparing LeBron James and Austin Daye, after all.
Still, there are different levels of greatness and Durant lands on a higher one than George—at least for now.
The Oklahoma City Thunder’s Durant is one of the true superstars in the league—a player at his absolute peak, a terror to guard and currently the league leader in points scored at 29 per game through 20 games.
Paul George, on the other hand, represents the next generation of true greatness. In fact, he’s knocking on the door a lot faster than anyone would have thought.
There’s a reason the Indiana Pacers signed George to a max contract this summer as he headed into his fourth NBA season. He's not a development project here. He's a guy who’s mature beyond his years and is leading the way for a team that currently has the best record in the league at 19-3.
George may be the better player someday. And it’s entirely possible that the Pacers could face OKC in the finals this season. If and when that happens, there could be a new set of arguments and circumstances that come into play.
For now however, let the Durant > George reasons begin.
Size matters in this league. Paul George is no mini-me at 6’9” and 220 pounds. And in fact, Kevin Durant is also listed at 6’9” with just a little more weight at 240 pounds.
There’s something that doesn’t seem quite right about that. George doesn’t look skinnier that Durant. In fact, Durant’s the one who looks slimmer. Much slimmer.
Maybe that’s because...he’s actually taller than George?
Look, I don’t know who measures these guys for the team media guides. It’s one of life’s eternal mysteries, and when it comes to Durant, it becomes off-the-charts mysterious. In fact, the topic has been so widely discussed that it warranted an entire article by Jeff Caplan in Hang Time Blog.
According to Caplan, Durant’s own teammates aren’t quite buying the official story. Russell Westbrook ventured a 6’10” guess, Kendrick Perkins estimated 6’11” and Eric Maynor guessed 7’3”. Coach Scott Brooks also took a stab at “6’10-ish.”
And then there’s those impossibly long Stretch Armstrong arms. Speculation puts Durant’s wingspan at 7’4” and that’s easy enough to believe.
So this makes Durant better? Hey, if the tale of the tape works in boxing, then it works in basketball.
So this argument’s another statistical certainty, at least as of this writing.
First, credit where credit’s due—Paul George is lapping the rest of his teammates when it comes to scoring. He's averaging 24.7 points per game though 22 games compared to 13 points per game each for David West and Roy Hibbert.
But, and this is a distinction worth noting, Durant is the NBA league leader at 29 points per game through 20 games. George, meanwhile, is currently in fourth place.
You see where this is going, don’t you? First is better than fourth.
Durant scores more points and therefore wins this portion of the argument, as basketball is a game predicated on the winning team scoring the most points.
Don’t argue; I don’t make the rules here.
So you’re all thinking that this, finally, is where Paul George asserts his rightful dominance.
Bleacher Report’s Adam Fromal recently wrote an excellent article in which he set out a lot of cogent reasons why George should be the superstar of choice to build a team around. Fromal’s points were generally more well-reasoned than my own, which doesn’t necessarily make them more correct.
One of the key arguments posed by Fromal has to do with George’s defensive ability, spearheading a team that’s shutting down opponents to the tune of 96 points per 100 according to Basketball-Reference.
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.
So, this is a tough argument to get around. But also consider that old chestnut, that it’s the exception that proves the rule.
On Sunday night, OKC trashed the Pacers, 118-94. Durant just happened to go off for 36 points. Per Scott Agness of the Pacers’ official blog, while none of Durant’s scores were out of isolation sets against George, 10 of the buckets did come against Indy’s star small forward, nine of which included assistance from George’s teammates.
Translation: Durant gets double-teamed a lot. Why? Because it’s necessary. And at the end of the night, neither George’s defense nor anyone else’s was able to effectively stop the OKC star.
Defense wins, but not all of the time.
In the aftermath of the OKC beatdown, and with a game against the Miami Heat looming on Tuesday, Paul George had something interesting to say about Durant. Again, via Scott Agness of the Pacers' blog:
Following the Pacers’ 118-94 loss in Oklahoma City, George told reporters that Durant, even over LeBron James, is his toughest cover in the league.
"It is," he said. "It is a tougher matchup. I watch their games, I watch a lot of NBA games. And offensively, KD is most of the times he’s scoring in bunches off of iso plays and one-on-one plays.
"And when they play against us, he’s moving a lot. He’s the screener, he’s getting back-screened and he’s coming off pin-downs and it’s a little different when I’m guarding him and it makes it a tougher cover."
Kelly Dwyer in Ball Don’t Lie elaborated on the situation, noting the staggering number of times that George has had, and will have to, face LeBron James and the Miami Heat:
Paul George and his Indiana Pacers will play the Miami Heat on Tuesday. They’ll play the Heat four times this season, with all signs pointing to an eventual Eastern Conference finals rematch this spring that should last six or seven games. The Pacers played the Heat 11 times last season, counting that seven-game Conference finals run that Miami prevailed in, and Indiana took on Miami ten times the year before – ultimately bowing out in the sixth game of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
As for Tuesday's game, LeBron James scored 17 against George. And just as a reminder, on Sunday, Durant scored 36.
George's own words matter.
Stats can used and cherry-picked to suit the occasion, especially when you’re comparing two players that are both so fundamentally sound. The fact that you can even make an argument about who’s better just goes to show how good Kevin Durant and Paul George are.
Still, numbers do matter—especially when considering that big games are sometimes won by the slightest of margins.
We discussed the most obvious and elemental of stats—the almighty points-per-game. There’s a reason that Durant’s leading the league, but George is not all that far behind—there’s only a 4.3-point difference.
But seasons are cumulative, after all. We don’t simply evaluate the difference in one game, especially when it can seem relatively slight. The season is still young, but there are some discrepancies worth noting (stats per NBA.com).
Paul George’s free-throw percentage through 22 games is .863. Kevin Durant’s percentage from the stripe through 20 games is .874.
George is grabbing 5.7 boards per game, while Durant is pulling down 8.4.
George has 3.4 assists per game and Durant has five. As for blocked shots, George’s per-game average is 0.32 while Durant’s is 0.95.
These aren’t lifetime achievement awards. These are head-to-head stats based on just the games played so far this season. These numbers don’t tell the whole story, but they do play an important part.
So you noticed the small but important caveat at the end of the title—"for now." That leaves the future. But before looking forward, let's recap five essential points.
Just to rub it in a little.
Durant is bigger, he’s the league’s scoring leader, he rained all over George on Sunday, he’s tougher to defend than LeBron according to George, and the difference in some very obvious key totals is significant.
But then there’s always the idea that youth will be served at some point. It's not that Kevin Durant is beginning to resemble Father Time—he has just seven years in the league to George's four, after all. Still, time does have a habit of moving on, especially in professional sports.
For everything there is a season, they say. Paul George could very well be the heir apparent to all of the current greats. We're still in the present, of course, and that means some heated matchups, like the one last Sunday night. And Durant is very aware of the comparisons game.
Per Darnell Mayberry at The Oklahoman, it's subject that’s become taboo inside the OKC facilities:
“KD don't want me answering this question,” Thunder center Kendrick Perkins responded, in reference to Kevin Durant, when asked about the Pacers forward, “because he's getting tired of hearing about Paul George.”
Durant certainly had it all going on when game time arrived. As he said afterward, “Anyone who guards me, I take it personal.”
Paul George, you’ll get there young fella. There’s plenty of time. But for now, Durant's better. Sorry to end on that note but it can't be helped. It's simply the truth.