Fair or not, the go-to metric when parsing the comparative greatness of NBA superstars—players who’ve already proved to be statistical behemoths—lies in one place: the bling on one's fingers.
Championships. Rings. Ringz, with a “z,” if colloquial is your thing. Whatever you call them, NBA titles separate the good from the great, and the great from the galactic.
LeBron already has a couple, but may have taken a slight competitive step back in returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Durant, meanwhile, has yet to nab his first, but boasts the better near-future prospects.
So which of the two stands to tally the next title first?
Here’s what we know: James hasn’t missed an NBA Finals since he arrived Miami Heat-side in 2010, with a pair of losses as bitter bookends to back-to-back titles in 2012 and 2013.
Durant, on the other hand, has only crossed the Finals threshold once, a five-game loss to LeBron’s Heat three seasons ago.
Having not made much in the way of game-changing moves over the past few seasons, the Oklahoma City Thunder—led though they are by a pair of stars in Durant and Russell Westbrook—aren’t exactly championship shoo-ins.
Rather, their strategy lies almost entirely in banking on next-level leaps from KD, Russ and 24-year-old power forward Serge Ibaka.
Should all three of them take significant steps forward this season—statistically, efficiency-wise and in terms of leadership—you could certainly go out on thinner limbs than penciling the Thunder into next year’s Finals.
The Cavs, their place might be marble-engraved, at this point:
Sources: Cavs have agreement for Kevin Love, including long-term contract commitment. Wiggins, Bennett, pick to Minn. http://t.co/r2KmO5owwY— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) August 7, 2014
As Charley Walters of the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported a few days back, Minnesota Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor had already resigned himself to dealing the All-Star power forward sooner than later, lest the Wolves wind up with nothing once Love leaves in free agency next summer.
"I'm saying [a trade is] most likely because Kevin has made it pretty clear that that's what he wants to do," Taylor said, specifying a deal could be done as early as Aug. 23 or 24.
With Love in tow, the Cavs will surely rocket to the top of the contender heap.
From a pure personnel perspective, it’s not hard to understand why: In Love, Cleveland essentially boasts a younger, better version of Chris Bosh.
And while K-Love’s defense has a ways to go before it can be mentioned in the same book as Bosh’s, the former’s offensive weaponry alone gives James and the Cavs a deadly second option—one as adept at pounding the paint as he is stepping out to can corner threes.
A starting five of Irving, Dion Waiters, James, Love and Anderson Varejao isn’t merely formidable; it’s frightening.
If head coach David Blatt really wants to go nuts, he could even sub in Shawn Marion—whom Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski reports is close to signing a deal with Cleveland—at the small forward, slide James to the 4, Love to the 5.
Either way, adding Love to the fray automatically makes Cleveland the odds-on favorite to hoist the city’s first championship banner in over 50 years.
“I’m not promising a championship,” James wrote. “I know how hard that is to deliver. We’re not ready right now. No way. Of course, I want to win next year, but I’m realistic. It will be a long process, much longer than it was in 2010.”
Whether that was James’ of way of deflecting as much pressure as possible from his young charges, it’s difficult to say. That would certainly be a prudent move, in terms of sheer psychological strategy.
But with landing Love now looking like a forgone conclusion, James can no longer bank on Durant’s lack of championships—to say nothing of his first MVP—making for a bigger basketball burden.
Still, there are plenty of X-factors ahead for the Cavaliers. How will Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters adjust to being recast as second fiddles? Can David Blatt strike the right balance between blowing the scoring doors off and defensive respectability? How long before James and Love forge a sustainable dynamic?
Clearly, questions abound for the Cavs.
That’s not to spare Durant the pressure’s rod entirely, of course. As Bleacher Report’s Adam Fromal noted in a recent column, sooner or later—and regardless of the formidability of the foes before him—Durant will have to heed a familiar career clock:
James won a ring in his ninth season, but the eighth featured his move to the Heat and the ratcheting up of that pressure dial, one that was already approaching unbearable levels at the end of his Cleveland tenure. Hearkening back to the past for the inevitable comparison, Michael Jordan won the first of his six rings in his seventh go-round with the Chicago Bulls.
Durant is now entering his eighth professional season. Like it or not, here comes the pressure.
Cleveland’s new superteam might buy Durant a few more years of doubt’s benefit. At a certain point, though, KD will have to best a superior opponent, just as Jordan arguably had to with the 1992-93 Phoenix Suns and, later, the veteran-laden Utah Jazz.
The way things are looking, that ascent will inevitably run through the Love-LeBron Cavs.
NBA history is littered with larger-than-life teams that, for whatever reason, never quite lived up to the hype. The 2011 and 2014 Heat being the most obvious—and poignant—examples.
To avoid that legacy-tainting fate will require the Cavs not take their superstar stock for granted—to batten down a sustainable system capable of weathering OKC’s hardwood hurricane.
As they make their way up the NBA's all-time ladder, Durant and James are certain to have their comparative merits measured, first and foremost, in championships. And while Durant's relative youth might buy him a bit more time, don't be surprised if next season ends with one more ring's rung between them.