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The LeBron James-Kevin Durant Debate Is Closer Than Anyone Wants to Admit

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The LeBron James-Kevin Durant Debate Is Closer Than Anyone Wants to Admit
Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

LeBron James has a peer.

For so long, there's been James, a near-immeasurable chasm and everyone else. Not even Kevin Durant, the NBA's unchallenged second-best player, came close to equaling James.

Already one of the all-time greats, James is unrivaled. He is beyond comparison of any active player. No one has touched him. No one will touch him.

Four league MVPs, two championships and countless statistical accolades have left him standing alone, miles and miles (and miles) above everyone else. 

Except Durant.

 

Closed-Career Quarters

Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

Careerwise, James has always been safeguarded against eviction.

Players have improved and new-age superstars arrived, but no one's put up the numbers he has for so long. No one.

Continued dominance is a difficult craft to master. Forfeiting an MVP award to Derrick Rose—or Durant this season—doesn't mean much. Michael Jordan wasn't named league MVP every year, because those awards aren't all-defining barometers.

For one season, a player can rival James. Be more valuable than James. Aberrations happen.

When comparing career production, though, James stands the test of any one player. That's a fact. But Durant's output has approached James-like levels of consistency and absolutism, more so than most realize or care to admit.

LeBron vs. KD
Player PTS FG% 3P% REBS ASTS STLS BLKS Off. Rtg. Def. Rtg. PER
Durant 27.1 47.9 37.9 6.9 3.4 1.3 1.0 115 105 24.4
James 27.5 49.5 33.8 7.2 6.9 1.7 0.8 116 102 27.7

Via Basketball-Reference.

The numbers clearly favor James, even when comparing his first seven seasons to Durant's current totals.

LeBron vs. KD: The First 7 Seasons
Player PTS FG% 3P% REBS ASTS STLS BLKS Off. Rtg. Def. Rtg. PER
Durant 27.1 47.9 37.9 6.9 3.4 1.3 1.0 115 105 24.4
James 26.9 47.5 32.9 7.0 7.0 1.7 0.9 114 102 26.9

Via Basketball-Reference.

Once again, there's no question James' marks are better, but they don't put Durant's to shame. In most categories, he's right there, having posted comparable numbers.

Where James actually begins to separate himself even further is win shares. He collected 103.3 win shares through his first seven seasons while Durant is only tracking toward 90.3. The gap in average win-share accumulation only increases when you factor in James' forecasted total for this season (16.4), too.

Infogr.am.

Even where James is most different, Durant is still in the vicinity of his performance. James has routinely registered more impressive stat lines and accounted for more wins, but he hasn't left Durant staring at the abyss that exists between him and every other player.

In more ways than one, Durant has come along for the ride.

 

Recent Headway

One season's matchup doesn't mean everything, but Durant's current tear cannot go unnoticed.

Durant has the opportunity to outperform James this season. A fourth scoring title seems imminent and Durant has made great strides in every aspect of the game, so much so that his current production levels cast a shadow over James'.

LeBron vs. KD: 2013-14
Player PTS FG% 3P% REBS ASTS STLS BLKS Off. Rtg. Def. Rtg. PER
Durant 31.2 51.2 41.9 7.7 5.5 1.4 0.8 124 101 31.1
James 26.1 57.3 35.8 6.9 6.6 1.4 0.3 121 105 28.6

Via Basketball-Reference.

Call Durant's season what it is: better than James'.

The Oklahoma City Thunder superstar leads the league in PER, a feat that's been James' God-given right for the last six years. And if Durant's PER continues to hover above 30 (it will), he'll become just the eighth qualified player in NBA history to top 30, joining Wilt Chamberlain, Dwyane Wade, Shaquille O'Neal, David Robinson, Tracy McGrady, James and Jordan.

Are we supposed to ignore that? Or gloss over the fact Durant leads the league in win shares, too?

Infogr.am.

For the last five years, James has never been usurped in the win share department. Not only is Durant on course to break his streak, his projected total (21) is higher than any of James' single-season marks. It would also make Durant the fourth player to ever hit 21, making him part of an exclusive club that only now includes Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Chamberlain and Jordan.

Tell me, where is it that James pulls away? It took him six years to exceed 20 win shares and it will (probably) take Durant seven. That's beyond eerily similar.

Relying on the two-way argument doesn't work anymore, either. James may be able to guard every position, but Durant's defensive rating has rivaled his for the last three seasons. It's actually better this year.

Infogr.am.

The belief that somehow James has pulled away in recent years because of his offensive balance is outdated as well. More similarities are found there.

Infogr.am.

At no point over the last few years have we been able to say Durant is better than James. But looking back, and looking at this season, we shouldn't have been so hasty to deem James this unparagoned, matchless superhuman.

 

Understanding the Discussion

James is still the world's best player.

Is he playing like the best player in the NBA right now? Absolutely not. That honor belongs to Durant, who has picked apart opposing offenses and defenses like they're mere stepping stones. In doing so, he's put Oklahoma City in position to contend for the league's best record, largely without Russell Westbrook.

That doesn't mean he's better than James. He's not. But, like USA Today's Adi Joseph writes, Durant's candidacy is worth discussing:

LeBron James is amazing, but let's not call him peerless.

Why? Well, Kevin Durant is around. And he's pretty amazing, too.

James is the defending NBA MVP, and his Miami Heat are the defending NBA champions. So let's not make any missteps when speaking about Durant, the Oklahoma City Thunder star and James' only one-on-one rival. The only trophies he has won in his career are the 2007-08 NBA Rookie of the Year Award and the 2012 All-Star Game MVP. But he's turning a corner.

This season alone, Durant has reached new heights, taken his game to new levels. The Thunder are perhaps the best, most well-balanced team in the NBA, and that's because of him. 

Don't carry on believing that Durant's ascension is some sort of anomaly, though. His progress and how it relates to James has been a long time coming. For years, he's been rivaling James' production. Approaching James' value.

Touching the untouchable.

Kevin Durant is...

Submit Vote vote to see results

Grazing James' ceiling may be as close as Durant ever comes. He still hasn't won a championship and even if he does, there will always be those who doubt and underrate him in this conversation because James is near-flawless in their eyes. But Durant remains right there, almost next to James, a not-so-distant second in a legitimate head-to-head debate that's only intensified as the former inches closer to a league MVP award.

"To be honest, I'm going to be totally real, like, I don't go in every day, when I go into the gym and work on my game, I don't have a LeBron picture [on the ball], or I don't have his name in my mind when I'm going in there and working," Durant said before Oklahoma City torched Miami on Jan. 29, per ESPN's Brian Windhorst. "It's all about trying to get better for myself."

Bettering himself, for himself, has left Durant trailing James, a player he may never catch, but one who wasn't supposed to be chased in the first place.

 

*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference unless otherwise attributed.


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