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Can Kevin Durant Overtake LeBron James as the Face of the NBA?

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Can Kevin Durant Overtake LeBron James as the Face of the NBA?
Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

It's starting to circulate through the basketball world, but it's never voiced at anything above a whisper and always comes with a qualifier.

At the moment, it's still blasphemous to put Kevin Durant ahead of incumbent best player on the planet LeBron James on a macro level. Frame the talk inside a one-season window, though, and people are getting more comfortable placing KD above the four-time MVP:

Durant isn't giving us much of a choice.

Whether scrutinized through the standings or audited on the stat sheets, he's having the type of season you can't fully appreciate without having the history books always within close reach:

Frankly, he's having the type of season we've come to expect from James—and James alone.

Processing this type of production boggles the mind on its own. These are the no-category-left-behind kind of numbers that only the greatest of the greats ever approach.

Might they be more than lavish stat lines, though? Is there a hidden meaning underneath everything that's taking place?

Are we witnessing the Association's changing of the guard?

The process has certainly started. KD hasn't crossed off all the items on the face of the NBA checklist, but he's a lot further along than you might think.

 

Statistical Dominance

Numbers don't make the player, but it's hard to carry a league without supersized box scores.

Durant has some of the finest in the business. His "off-nights" are some of the best we've ever seen:

His numbers are special not just for their quantity, but the quality at which he produces them. There was nothing manufactured in his 12-game streak with 30-plus points—third-longest over the last 30 years—and no bitterness when it ended.

In fact, he was relieved to close that chapter.

"To be honest, I didn't care at all," Durant said, via B/R's own Howard Beck. "I just play the game, just on feel, just on instincts. I'm glad it's over with."

No hard feelings over a missed shot at making history, no regret that he could have done more—just the kind of unselfishness that can leave a three-time scoring champion with nearly as many assists (seven) as field-goal attempts (12) when an 83.3 percent field-goal percentage screams a legendary effort is within reach.

The kind that shows exponential growth in the stat sheet from a player who could care less what it says.

Sounds strikingly familiar, doesn't it? Isn't that what led LeBron to his prominent perch in the first place?

These aren't the same players, but KD is well on his way toward meeting—perhaps surpassing—the standard James set. Just look at where the 25-year-old is now in his seventh season compared to where the King stood in 2009-10, when he was also 25 and a seventh-year vet.

Then and Now: Comparing the Seventh Seasons of KD and King James
Player PPG RPG APG FG% 3PT% PER
Kevin Durant 31.2 7.7 5.2 51.5 42.7 31.3
LeBron James 29.7 7.3 8.6 50.3 33.3 28.7

Basketball-Reference.com

James' biggest advantage is in assists, but that number is a little misleading.

The King himself had never posted an average that high before or has come anywhere near it since. For his career, he's dished out 6.9 assists. During 16 January games, KD averaged 6.1 dimes.

The efficiency is decisively in Durant's favor, with some shooting percentages that James may never reach. Durant's three-point (42.7 percent) and free-throw (88.3 percent) marks easily surpass the King's career highs (40.6 percent and 78.0 percent, respectively).

KD's an offensive weapon unlike anything we've ever really seen.

"He has the height (6-foot-11) of a center, the range of a shooting guard, the handles of a point guard and the offensive understanding of a coach," as Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman put it.

He's a physical anomaly. People aren't supposed to be built like this. We say the same thing about James—a 6'8" locomotive with linebacker size, point guard vision and high-jump hops.

This isn't to make the argument that KD is or even will be better than James one day. It's merely to emphasize his chance to be historically special, to shine under the same spotlight we cast on LeBron now.

Stats start the discussion. But it takes more to shoulder an entire league.

 

Starting a Jewelry Collection

Rings don't make the legend, but they're a necessary piece of historical relevance.

Some of the most talented players to ever step foot in this league walked away without a ring. While we still hold them in high regard, they're never actually allowed into our greatest-of-all-time debates. In fact, we keep them in a separate group entirely, complete with its own hierarchy.

Championships don't end these discussions, but the talks can't start without at least one.

By the time James migrated to South Beach in 2010, he had five All-Star appearances, four All-NBA First Team selections, a pair of MVP awards, two All-Star MVPs, and a scoring title already under his belt. He was a whopping 25 years old.

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

Try tossing his name among the all-time greats back then, though, and you were laughed out of the conversation. Your license to talk hoops was suspended, if not outright revoked.

Even people who thought James could get to that level needed to see him do it first.

Everything changed in 2012.

With two failed Finals trips in his past, the King wasn't going to stop until he'd captured his crown. He averaged 31.5 points, 10.7 rebounds and 5.3 assists over the last two rounds of the playoffs, closing out Durant's Oklahoma City Thunder in style—a series-clinching triple-double (26 points, 13 assists and 11 rebounds).

Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

That was the tipping point.

We knew who James was. He was officially a "ring" guy and could finally be ranked as such.

Durant still finds himself on the outside looking in. He's been to the brink but never closed the deal.

This could well be his breakthrough, his 2012.

He's tired of being No. 2. He's captaining a ship that should be in shambles—his All-NBA running mate, Russell Westbrook, has missed 23 games (so far)—and steering it to the league's second-best winning percentage (38-11, .776)...and its top net rating (plus-8.8 points per 100 possessions).

The transcendent scorer is suddenly a premier playmaker and, as USA Today's Sam Amick noted, a lockdown defender:

For 12 masterful seconds, Durant managed to keep James at bay on the left block in ways he never would have been able to a few years ago. Process that for a moment, and you'll realize how far Durant has come on the defensive end.

This was the same Durant who couldn't complete one bench press repetition of 185 pounds when he left Texas for the NBA seven years ago, and the same Durant who likely gives up some 40 pounds to James in the present day. And, yes, this was the same James who is one of the strongest, most athletic specimens on the planet.

No matter what OKC needs to traverse the postseason waters, Durant now has it in his arsenal.

He's been the best player in the league this season and already has a resume that will hold up through the test of time. Still, he's a ring—and some business deals—short of taking over this league.

 

Transcending the Sports World

This is that rarefied air even most Hall of Famers haven't experienced.

The NBA is a star-driven league, and it takes more than one hardwood hero to lead it.

Basketball eras aren't broken down by time; they're remembered by names: Chamberlain vs. Russell, Magic vs. Bird, Jordan vs. The World, Kobe vs. Shaq. As more money has flooded into the league—perhaps the single greatest achievement of David Stern's career—those names have grown bigger outside the basketball world.

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Championships set these superstars up for their ascensions. The business world grants them their wings.

According to Forbes, KD is set to rake in $14 million in endorsement money this year—nothing to scoff at for sure, but not exactly face-of-the-league kind of money, not when Derrick Rose has $21 million coming in, another $34 million is going to Kobe Bryant and King James is pocketing a cool $42 million.

Durant has set himself up for that payday. Signing with Jay Z's Roc Nation Sports doesn't necessarily mean he'll search for a bigger market down the line, but it shows he's conscious about his brand.

Those dollars will come after the title—along with the heightened exposure inside and outside the basketball world reserved for one global phenom at a time.

James is sitting in that throne, and he won't give it up easily. KD wouldn't want him to, anyway.

This position can only be earned. Durant's put in all the necessary work; now it's just a matter of reaping his rightful rewards.

 

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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