Most nights my group of friends and I camp in front of my living room's flat screen and immerse ourselves in the NBA's action. Invariably, raucous debates take place at such a high volume my neighbors must think I'm hosting a fight club.
As Lebron James begins his prime and 21-year old phenom Kevin Durant's streak of consecutive 25 point games comes to an end, they find themselves tied for the league-lead in scoring (29.8 ppg). Consequently, I feel now is the perfect time for another of those debates.
I posed the question to my NBA crew last night.
"LeBron can score from anywhere on the court and play any position. Christ, he can cover half the league's centers," one of my friends barked.
"So?" another replied.
"Durant is an inch taller and longer. He already covers power-forwards, and his frame is perfectly tailored for adding some weight. Plus, he's clearly a more polished scorer than LeBron was at age 21. Might even be more polished than LeBron is now."
I listened in delight as two factions emerged, launching verbal mortars at each other from across the room. In my head, I pondered what I could present as a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
It's difficult to deny he's the most physically-gifted athlete in the history of the NBA; 6'8'', 250 lbs, Olympic leaping ability, speed, and strength. He's quick, can finish around the rim with both hands, and can take defenders' toughest shots while still maintaining body control.
He's the most legitimate triple-double threat (27.5 points, 6.7 assists and 7.0 rebounds per game for his career) since Oscar Robertson, accentuating his ability to control all offensive aspects: scoring, facilitating the offense, and securing boards. This year, in addition to averaging 29.8 ppg, he's doing it at 50%.
Questions about his defense have been answered, as he was named to the All-NBA Defensive team in 2009. His athleticism allows him to smother nearly anyone he chooses to. Whether it's Deron Williams or Dirk Nowitzki setting up their game-winning shot, you can be sure LeBron is equipped to stop them.
He gets up the court faster than anyone (minus Chris Paul, perhaps) and has displayed the ability to chase down fast-breakers and pin their layups against the glass. He is the only one I've ever seen or known with the unique combination of speed, hops, and power to accomplish this routinely.
One of the common critiques of LeBron has been the lack of consistency in his outside shooting. He would also often settle for long, mid-range jumpers—the most illogical choice for a player with his gifts. Both of those issues have been rectified this year.
He's shooting a respectable, career best 35% from three-point land and possesses unlimited range. In two separate games I've seen, he was literally and voluntarily swishing threes from a step inside the half-court line (One of those games included a 23 point first quarter.)
In six years he's made countless game-winners, single-handedly led his team to the Finals over veteran "team basketball" squads, and continues to refine the less proficient aspects of his game. At age 25, he has at least five more years at top performance-level. Given his freakish athleticism, more wouldn't surprise me.
Now, to the youngster.
In his third season, Kevin Durant supplies a much smaller statistical cross-section for analysis. Still, his progress and ceiling as a player are debatably faster and higher than LeBron's.
As previously mentioned, Durant's 6'9", 230 lb frame makes him a nightmare for opposing defenses. While LeBron slashes and pounds, Durant is arguably quicker and able to elevate over taller defenders, not because of superior leaping ability but because of his length.
He has a wingspan measured at 7'5", which puts him near the top of the league. If LeBron has the mass to cover virtually anyone, Durant has the length. Like a young LeBron, his defensive commitment is questionable. But also like LeBron, he is sure to improve this area as he continues growing.
Durant is currently averaging 29.8 ppg, 7.34 rpg, and 2.96 apg. James averaged similar numbers his third year, including steals and blocks, though with a significant edge in assists. Offensive facilitation is one area I believe that James proves himself more valuable than Durant. But Durant's free throw percentage (88%) is already much higher than LeBron's career best (78%), further giving legitimacy to the argument of him as a more efficient offensive weapon.
His three-point percentage (37.6%) and overall field goal percentage (48%) are alarmingly high for such a young, prolific scorer. LeBron himself has never averaged better than 35% from three-point land. At only 21, if Durant can further develop his three-point stroke into the 40% to 43% range, he could in fact be considered more lethal than the King.
When a question of this nature is asked, most tend to choose the younger of the two players. Kevin Durant has at least a decade of dominance in front of him, and his reliance on jump-shooting means he has potential to be effective extraordinarily late in his career as a post player (Michael Jordan, anyone?).
LeBron has less time left, though only by a few seasons; he also possesses the athletic ability to have a longer, more consistently-dominant career than anyone in history. He has proven he can make big shots and literally carry a team on his back while also possessing a significant edge in ball-handling and a slight edge in own-shot-creation, abilities vital to a franchise player.
I am anxious to see how Durant responds to the playoff pressure, particularly in the Wild Wild West. If he chokes or folds up, it won't necessarily settle the debate, but it'll most certainly influence it.
A franchise player, no matter how young, needs to perform well when it matters most.
VERDICT: LEBRON JAMES. Too fast, too strong, too much of a chip on his shoulder, too able to tear through hard-nosed, defensive drapery. While KD appears to have the ability to guide my team to the Finals, I prefer the proven player who is going to drag them there.