These are—without question—the two premier basketball players in the world, and they're each reaching new heights in recent days.
LeBron is in the midst of a championship defense while trying to push the Miami Heat onward toward the ultra-rare three-peat. Durant, meanwhile, is flat-out carrying the Oklahoma City Thunder with his sensational scoring efforts while Russell Westbrook is out of the lineup.
It's easy to look at the two superstars and compare them, but the comparison is often approached in the wrong manner.
We often try to determine which player is "better," but we overlook plenty of other factors in the process.
That first aspect is essential to any comparison, just when it's in proper context. And that context includes a bit of historical backstory, a dash of off-court comparison and a pinch of looking ahead into the future.
Durant and LeBron are different people, and it's time we understand the full extent of their differences—at least the ones relevant to their careers in the NBA.
How can you actually argue that Durant has been worse than LeBron this year?
Not only do the Oklahoma City Thunder have a more impressive record than the Miami Heat, but Durant has done an absolutely fantastic job coaxing his team on to one victory after another while Westbrook heals from arthroscopic surgery.
Since the dynamic point guard suited up on Christmas Day and then subsequently left the lineup, Durant has averaged a ridiculous 36.5 points, 7.4 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game while shooting 53.7 percent from the field, 41.3 percent from beyond the arc and 87.4 percent at the charity stripe.
Those numbers are, once more, ridiculous.
LeBron—even though you could still make an argument that he's the best player in the league thanks to his track record and all-around dominance—trails Durant by a rather significant margin in any logical MVP ballot.
Bulls.com's Sam Smith agrees, writing the following about Durant's candidacy and the spirit of the premier individual award in general:
He’s moved ahead of LeBron James for now with his high scoring run of late without Russell Westbrook and the Thunder continuing to win. But I had Durant there even before the last two weeks. I’m fine with spreading around this award. Michael Jordan didn’t deserve to win it every season. It’s not for the league’s best player. That would be the Most Outstanding Player award.
Durant single-handedly carrying the Thunder is an accomplishment absolutely unsurpassed by any other player in the NBA.
Between the 40-point outings, the game-winning shots and the utter domination late in games, Durant is untouchable right now. The Atlanta Hawks should still be reeling after a driving jumper from the scoring leader—over a triple-team, no less—put OKC into the lead for good at the end of a Jan. 27 contest.
How do you make that shot?
Better yet, how in the world do you inspire so much confidence that it would've been shocking to see that ball hit the rim? When that shot was in the air, difficult as it was, it would've been a surprise if it had rattled out, giving Atlanta a shot to win the game.
Hell, LeBron has been following Durant's heroic exploits. He even said so himself:
When the MVP favorite is capturing the undivided attention of the reigning champion, that's when you know he's arrived.
And boy, has Durant arrived.
However, this is a new development. Throughout the last few years, there's been a rather large gap between No. 1 in the world (LeBron) and No. 2 (Durant). If anything, the ridiculous efficiency that James has displayed over the last season-and-a-half has transformed the gap into a chasm.
Durant may be closing it (or might have done so already, depending on how you feel), but the gap still existed. And that's why we're traveling back further into the history of these two players.
Durant's Pace Through Seven Years
It's hard to believe, but we're already in the seventh season of Durant's increasingly impressive career.
Remember, he was the No. 2 pick in the 2007 NBA draft, selected one spot after the Portland Trail Blazers elected to make Greg Oden the newest member of Rip City. Back then, the high-scoring forward from Texas played for the Seattle SuperSonics.
He'd only don that green jersey for the first year of his professional tenure, as the franchise moved to Oklahoma City and he continued his growth.
So yeah, it's been a while since he was playing college ball for Rick Barnes and the Texas Longhorns.
Seven years into his own career, LeBron was in the middle of the 2009-10 campaign with the Cleveland Cavaliers. He'd just won MVP for the first time, and his second award-winning season was in progress. It was also the last year before the infamous "Decision" to take his talents to South Beach, if that helps you put everything in proper context.
So, who's been more successful?
Well, let's take a look at the per-game numbers:
And their shooting percentages, advanced stats included via Basketball-Reference:
Obviously those bar graphs can't paint a perfect picture, but LeBron already comes out just a little bit ahead. Whatever advantage the OKC superstar gains from his across-the-board advantage when it comes to efficiency, LeBron's impressive passing skills more than make up for the difference.
Additionally, LeBron was already one of the league's best defenders.
In 2009-10, he finished No. 4 in the Defensive Player of the Year voting, trailing only Dwight Howard, Josh Smith and Gerald Wallace. He's likely to finish around the same spot this season, and Durant still won't be on the leaderboard. Although he's improved his work on the less-glamorous end of the court, he's still not a game-changing defender like his Miami-based counterpart.
Well, he is sometimes:
Joking aside, let's move on to take a look at the awards each player won during the first seven years of their career.
In the interest of fairness, I'm going to go ahead and assume that Durant wins MVP in 2013-14, makes the All-NBA team and leads the league in scoring. After all, he's on pace to do so, and we're counting the awards LeBron won at the conclusion of his seventh professional season.
|Award||Kevin Durant||LeBron James|
Again, Durant has the advantage as a scorer, but that's the only place he's superior.
Now what's the point of this exercise? We know that LeBron got off to a historically excellent start when he entered the NBA, and Durant is just now becoming that all-around stud who's capable of producing a changing of the guard.
Err...a changing of the forward?
Well, it isn't until you look back and compare the first seven seasons directly that you realize Durant's developmental curve doesn't lag too far behind LeBron's. And if the next few years of the Miami superstar's career are any indication, Durant is due for some exponential growth in the near future.
This is where things diverge rather dramatically.
LeBron has always been at the center of everything, both on and off the court. He's a commercial junkie who loves being seen by the general public, making his voice heard and engaging fans on social media.
And it's resulted in quite a few memorable moments.
Remember the MVPuppets?
Remember the family of LeBrons?
Of course you do, as those were some of the most iconic commercials produced during the 2000s.
Durant's own spots have been funny for a brief spell, but they've been largely forgettable. As much as we laughed at the commercials playing off his nice-guy reputation, his work off the court hasn't had as much national—and international—appeal.
If the commercials alone don't convince you, just think about how often each superstar pops up in the press.
While the Durantula has been on his scoring binge, he's largely failed to make many appearances in the news for reasons other than his play. He hasn't done much commenting on his run of excellence, and he's usually been quick to distribute praise out amongst his teammates.
"Coach just drew it out for me and I had to make a play," Durant told the Associated Press via ESPN after sinking the Hawks' hopes on Jan. 27. "It was an emotional game. It was up and down the whole game. My emotions were everywhere, so I just had to try to keep it together at the end of the game and make a play for my team."
Just par for the course, and I'm referring to both the game-winner and the quote.
Meanwhile, LeBron has been all over the news for reasons other than his play. He's informed the world he's jealous of Durant's shot attempts, that he has a KD watch on his phone, that he'd love to score 60 points, that he wants to sit down with Adam Silver, that he can rap, that Dwyane Wade's knees are tough on the team and so much more.
Is either strategy better than the other?
Nope, not really. They're just different, and they've always been that way.
Think back to the summer of 2010, and you have the best example of all.
Here's how LeBron announced his free-agency decision:
And here's how Durant told the world that he was signing an extension with the Thunder:
How's that for a stark contrast?
Sports Illustrated's Frank Hughes had this to say after Durant announced his news in far more discreet fashion (well, discreet as can be when a 140-character message gets retweeted 565 times):
Kevin Durant had every excuse to act in a manner similar to this summer's star free agents. He is only 21 years old. He was raised in a me-first, reality TV culture. He exploded on the scene last season and instantly became one of the top five players in the league. He, too, will one day become a global icon.
Of course, he didn't use any of those excuses.
Again, this isn't necessarily a "better" way of going about business. LeBron's televised free-agency special was an ugly spectacle, but I still firmly believe he had good intentions and received bad advice. He did make the decision into a charity event, after all, and there likely would have been less uproar had he made the less-controversial choice to remain in Cleveland.
Not better. Not worse.
It's easy to assume that Durant will continue following a different path than the one LeBron chose.
You know, the one that leads him to stay with the Oklahoma City Thunder for his entire career, retire and make it to the Hall of Fame with only one jersey to his credit and still rack up plenty of awards and titles during the interim.
But where's the proof? How do we actually know what the future holds?
When LeBron decided to leave for Miami, there was never much of an indication that he was planning to switch locations. He'd done his best for the Cavs throughout his career, and he was playing for his hometown team.
I seem to recall plenty of prominent NBA writers, like Sports Illustrated's Ian Thomsen, predicting that the King would remain seated on his throne in Cleveland, after all.
Has Durant firmly committed to the Thunder? He's only signed through the conclusion of the 2015-16 season, and it's not like he's definitively shot down rumors that he'll leave.
In fact, this was his response when asked to respond to Jalen Rose's "prediction" about him eventually leaving OKC for the Houston Rockets, courtesy of NewsOK.com's Darnell Mayberry:
Nah, I’m here for the Thunder (laughs). I mean, that’s all I can say. I’m not thinking far down the line at all. It’s about today. Today we got better against the Chicago Bulls. I can’t tell the future. I can’t speak on that. That’s his opinion. I’m just going to keep playing for the Thunder. I love playing here.
That's a commitment for the present, not the future.
Durant's contract is going to expire after he plays out the next three seasons, and there's no telling what will happen then. Especially if he and the Thunder haven't yet had the privilege of holding up the coveted Larry O'Brien Trophy.
LeBron and Durant are quite different.
Not only do they play different styles of basketball—pure scoring with a bit of everything else sprinkled in for Durant, and all-around dominance with the ability to turn up any one aspect for LeBron—but they've enjoyed varying levels of success thus far. Not only do they engage the media differently, but they've always conducted business in opposite ways as well.
But in 2016, maybe Durant won't be all that different than LeBron. We can only wait to find out and witness what the future has in store.