Kevin Durant Quietly Closing in on Kobe, LeBron as Game's Best

M. S.Correspondent IFebruary 1, 2010

ATLANTA - JANUARY 18:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder dunks against the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena on January 18, 2010 in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

When 99 percent of the NBA community speaks of the best player in the game right now, the debate is Kobe vs. LeBron and then everyone else after that.  Players like Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Dirk Nowitzki, Dwight Howard, and Kevin Durant are afterthoughts and have to work their tails off to be considered the third best player in the league.

But with his rapid progression and overall style of play, Durant is heading straight towards LeBron and Kobe for the title as the best player in the NBA.

Drafted second overall in the 2007 Draft (behind “can’t miss” Greg Oden) by the Seattle Supersonics, Durant was the obvious choice after averaging just under 26 points and 11 rebounds per game during his freshman year at Texas. But questions remained on how physical he could be in the NBA after failing to rep 185 pounds on the bench press at the NBA Combine and playing a much more finessed game than most 6′9″ players in the league.

By now, it’s obvious Durant can play with just about anyone on the court, as he has averaged over 24 points, six rebounds, three assists, and a three-pointer a game through his first two-and-a-half seasons in the NBA.  Not only has he averaged those numbers, but in each of his three seasons his numbers have gone up in points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks, and field goal percentage.

Durant has shot out of the gate during his first two seasons in the NBA, and has put up numbers comparable to anyone in the league right now.  Kobe didn’t average 20 points in any of his first three seasons, Wade averaged just 16.5 points per game in his first season, and even Carmelo does not compare to Durant in terms of each player's first three seasons.

The only player Durant seems to fall short of in terms of first three seasons is LeBron. But there’s another category to compare the two in that shows Durant is quickly on the rise.

The one attribute that LeBron and the cream of the crop in the NBA have had is the ability to take a bad team and make them a contender again, more or less by yourself.  In Durant’s first two seasons, the Sonics/Thunder won a combined 51 games and finished dead last in the standings both years.

Despite Durant’s phenomenal statistical years, the team went nowhere and Durant was looked at as a stellar up-and-comer, but for the time being was a glorified David Lee.  But things have been different in the 2009 season, as Durant has taken his game to a whole new level and has taken over the leadership role of the youngest team in basketball.

Predicted to finish no better than .500, the Thunder are currently tied for the eighth seed in the Western Conference, but are also just 1.5 games out of fifth place and just six games behind the current division-leading Nuggets.  Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green have been major contributors and some of the kudos goes to them, but it’s no secret that Durant’s rise to stardom is the main reason the Thunder have become relevant.

At just 21 years old, Durant is already making his name known in the record book, becoming the youngest player in the NBA ever to score 25 or more points in 20 straight games.  His follow-up act?  Forty-five points against the Warriors on 16-of-21 shooting and 11-of-11 from the line.  His ability to take over games is becoming apparent, but next on the list will be closing out games.

Durant still doesn’t have the same feel as a Kobe or LeBron when the game is on the line.  He has had his time in the spotlight and has hit his game-winners, but consistency will be the name of the game for Durant.

Everyone talks about LeBron and the mismatch problems he poses at 6′8″ and weighing 270 pounds, but Durant has many of the same qualities as him.  The physical brute strength is not there, but rarely does a 6′9″ player have the ability to shoot from anywhere on the court, drive over players, and bully his way inside.

Three years in an NBA weight room has done Durant some good, and he is no longer the lanky shooter we saw at Texas, but rather the all-around, physical forward that has made him one of the game’s best.

Until Durant develops that killer-instinct instead of the teenage-looking, smiley nice guy (think Dwight Howard) and becomes a big-time closer in the clutch, his name will get lost in the mix of the second tier all stars.  Durant’s supposed “Magic-Bird” counterpart, Greg Oden, has not helped him in the notoriety department, and playing in a small market like Oklahoma City has its downside.

He’s the most underrated player in the NBA, but those obstacles are what make the great ones who they are.  Everything Durant has done over the past two-and-a-half years is a great indicator of his future success.  The question of him reaching that level is more of an “if” than a “when.”

It’s a stretch to put Durant over Kobe or LeBron because of what the latter two have accomplished and continue to do on a nightly basis, but the time is sooner rather than later that you can expect to hear Durant’s name in the conversation as the game’s best.