LeBron James might not actually be jealous of Kevin Durant's offensive green light, but the recent back-and-forth between the NBA's top MVP candidates shows just how interesting the race for the league's top individual honor could be in the season's second half.
Before diving into that issue, it's worth parsing out James' most recent comments.
According to ESPN's Tom Haberstroh (insider link), LBJ said:
I do get jealous, I'm not gonna lie. I get jealous sometimes when I look over at KD and he's like 16-for-32 and then 14-for-34. ... Man. ... First of all, you have to have an unbelievable mindset to get up 30 shots. I always think about it, though. If I get up high-20s, 30 shots a game, what could I do today, with the way I'm playing?
Let's get something clear up front: James isn't jealous of Kevin Durant—at least not in any overarching sense. Maybe some part of him misses the freedom that comes with being a high-volume shooter, but don't forget that he left the Cleveland Cavaliers, in part, because he got a seven-year taste of what that life was like.
And it sucked.
"In seven seasons in Cleveland, James had at least 20 field goal attempts in 61 percent of his games. Since coming to Miami, that number has been reduced to 36 percent."
Besides, James must know in his heart of hearts that taking 30 shots a game would absolutely result in a decline in his beloved field-goal percentage. Part of the reason he's redefining offensive greatness lately is because he's been so selective in his attempts.
He's not after scoring titles anymore. LBJ wants to be King of Efficiency in the NBA's new era of analytics, which is probably a smart move for his legacy.
James is most certainly proud and probably has just a little insecurity in his makeup. All the great ones tend to possess those qualities; they're helpful in the constant quest to stay motivated. But we're not dealing with a Michael Jordan-level psychosis here. James has never been the type to create enemies out of whole cloth or concoct imagined challengers and doubters long after he's buried all of the real ones.
Really, James is just being complimentary toward a peer when he says he's jealous of KD.
That leads into the dichotomy between him and Durant, which is probably the most interesting part of the ongoing MVP conversation.
The fact that James is so ready to praise his counterpart is indicative of the edge he still retains. Without climbing inside his head, it certainly seems like he's still completely confident in his status as the NBA's alpha dog. He's still probably the league's most complete player, and he's got the hardware (four MVPs and a pair of championship rings) as reminders of his primacy.
Plus, if James really felt like Durant was somehow in a better position than he was, he probably wouldn't be so generous with his praise. That's the kind of thing you can only do when you're on top.
Durant is on the other side of this relationship, and his approach to questions about James is vastly different. He's terse, a little tired of hearing about every syllable his sort-of nemesis utters and generally less effusive.
Per Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman, Durant responded like this when confronted with James' "jealousy" remarks:
"What he say?" Durant asked, rhetorically.
"How can I not see it? It's been on CNN. It's been on ABC, FOX Sports. Man, it's been everywhere. Ya'll blowing that out of proportion, man. I mean, I'm pretty sure, matter of fact, I'm 100 percent sure LeBron can do whatever he wants."
KD is the challenger. He's focused on catching the one guy fans and players still largely view as his superior. As such, he's not spouting wistful quotes about how nice it would be to shoot less, pass more and have better support from his teammates.
For what it's worth, Durant is closer than ever to catching James. By many statistical measures, he's already done it.
These are still two very different players, though, and they're in markedly different situations. Team context makes it harder to compare them than you'd think. Plus, for all of KD's growth, there are still areas in which he lags behind James.
Durant has absolutely improved in this area, but the passing/playmaking gap is the first thing in my mind regarding LeBron and the MVP.— Couper Moorhead (@CoupNBA) January 7, 2014
Above all, there's a sense that until something monumental happens—a Durant MVP perhaps, or even a championship for the Thunder—that James is still the King.
Ultimately, there's respect between these two players. But they clearly view one another differently.
James is a magnanimous champion, secure and comfortable in his dominance. He's still on top until somebody overthrows him. Plus, he's the rare superstar who balances a desire to dominate with a desire to be liked.
Durant is quieter, a little more petulant and, right now, maybe a bit more singularly driven. He wants what James has, and paying compliments or engaging in some breezy media exchanges with James isn't part of his plan for getting it.
To this point in his life, Durant hasn't done much failing. But in a basic sense, he has failed to eclipse James. That doesn't sit well with him, so it shouldn't be any great wonder that he's not saying as much about his main rival, and being very brief whenever forced to comment at all.
The dynamic between these two players, combined with the narrowing gap in their skill levels, is going to make for one of the best MVP races we've seen in years.
The only people with real cause for jealousy are the ones who won't get to watch this thing play out in the second half of the season.