2011 NBA Season Preview: The Kobe, LeBron, Wade, or Durant Question

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2011 NBA Season Preview: The Kobe, LeBron, Wade, or Durant Question
Chris Trotman/Getty Images
Kevin Durant's strong play for Team USA this summer has led analysts to speculate about his status among the best players in the game today.

So for those of you who missed me, I apologize.  I'm back, and you can thank my mother for this opinion piece.  She suggested it.  Not joking.

I'm going to break down the best perimeter players in the NBA, and tell you who's going to be the best perimeter player in the NBA this season.

Kevin Durant (F, Oklahoma City Thunder)

Last week, Kevin Durant sent us a message from the FIBA World Basketball Championships in Turkey:  he will be very much in contention, if not the front runner, for Most Valuable Player this coming NBA Season. 

Never mind that Bill Simmons grossly extrapolated Durant's 3 PT% for next season at over 42% (Simmons isn't exactly the greatest soothsayer in sports, although he makes a wonderful court jester... he also predicted LeBron would take 18 shots a game next season with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh as teammates...).

Never mind that Durant shot an absolutely gaudy 7-13 from 3PT range against a national team that looks at Hedo Turkoglu like he's the second coming of Michael Jordan.

Durant is going to be a front-runner for MVP because he has the talent, the skills, and the desire to take his squad (that boasts another emerging star in Russell Westbrook) to the next level.  Remember, the Thunder were the 8 seed by a... uh... 0 game margin.  They could have just as easily been a six seed.  If that happened, they play Phoenix, where it's a coin-flip to see if they move on to the next round (if you thought Derek Fisher couldn't handle Westbrook, you should see Stevie Cash try to play defense). 

This coming season, I say Durant shoots closer to 38-40% from three point range, which is still saying something because teams will now no longer hesitate to send a man off the block or help from the perimeter to double-team him. 

What matters more than Durant's possibility of shooting 50-40-90 is his natural basketball acumen.  He knows when it's time to take the ball in his hands, put his head down, and barrel towards the basket, and when it's time to defer to Jeff Green or Russell Westbrook.

Am I the only guy who's freaking out at the prospect of the Thunder acquiring a half-decent big man?  I don't think I'd have many people disagreeing with the notion that if that happens, the Thunder become NBA Finals material.  Say that happens, and the Thunder eliminate the Lakers in the Playoffs (Next season?  I have a better chance of winning the lottery.  It WILL happen in a couple seasons, sorry OKC).  What does that make of our next player in the discussion?

Kobe Bryant (G, Los Angeles Lakers)

Ladies and gentlemen of the city of Los Angeles, I apologize.  I live here, but I cannot say in good conscience that Kobe Bryant is the best perimeter player in the league.  Kobe fans, I've got good news and bad news. 

Bad news:  Kobe is over the hill.  It's no longer a question, it's no longer an insult he can use to fuel himself to work harder, because the car itself is breaking down.  He is on the down-slope of his career.  When you start moving up the all-time scoring list, you know it's almost time.  Shaq's been in that limbo for as long as I could remember. 

Best case scenario:  Kobe acknowledges that his body can no longer produce the same results and decides to defer to his teammates Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom (who made a nice showing at the FIBA Worlds, by the way), and Andrew Bynum (when he decides to show up).  Kobe saves his body for when it really matters (at the end of games) and stops shooting the Lakers out of games (22 shots a game, Kobe.  I haven't forgotten).

Good newsKobe is doing everything he can short of sitting out and resting during injury to make that down-slope as gradual as possible.  He's developing less-taxing post moves on offense.  He's clearly mailing in his games.  (I heard Kobe once say, "People pay good money to come see me play."  I think he forgot to add "half-assed" at the end of that sentence.)  He's not chasing guys down on defense as much as he used to, and cutting in through passing lanes and gambling more instead of moving his feet and closing the lanes. 

Is this a good thing?  Sure-- Kobe can keep his body in decent physical shape, and it's not like his body is stopping the ball from going in.  Kobe has always been a mediocre percentage shooter, but he always seems to come through when it matters the most, be it through shot making, or when he's shooting 6 for 24, deferring to his teammates. 

I can say with confidence that Kobe will never win another NBA Regular Season MVP for the rest of his career.  His time has come and gone-- I say he has a re-hash of last year, and stays more focused on kissing more Larry O'Brien trophies, the one thing I believe the Lakers WILL accomplish next season... at the expense of our next two candidates.

Dwyane Wade (G, Miami Heat)

I've seen Dwyane Wade do things on a basketball court that made me cover my mouth, completely horrified.  If you remember the Anderson Varejao facial from last season, you know what I'm talking about.  That dunk was so nasty that Varejao's ancestors were humiliated on his behalf.  That shouldn't even be legal. 

And it's just that-- that nastiness, that swagger, that growl, that dark side that has been developed for a couple seasons, now, that makes him such an intriguing player.

Add to that his dizzying array of perimeter moves, including a smooth selling cross-over and a still-explosive first step, and we have the prototype "slash first, think later" guard.  Say what you will about his three point shooting:  Kobe averaged 32.9% last season, Michael averaged 32.7% for his career, and Wade averaged 30% last season.  (By the way, Skip, LeBrick averaged 33%). 

He is the best shooting guard in the game right now.  No question.  Wade carried a mediocre Heat team to a 5-seed in the East.  Add LeBron James and Chris Bosh, and you have a team with only one true weakness: post defense.

LeBron James (F, Miami Heat)

Am I missing something?  I know I hated on LeBron for "The Decision," but seriously, if you didn't hate him in the least for it, you either live in Miami, or you're LeBron James or LeBron James' mom.  I can hate him, I can diminish his maturity, but like Bill Simmons, I cannot deny he is the most talented player in the game today. 

What else really needs to be said about LeBron?  He's reaching the prime of his career, and I won't be surprised if he averages a triple-double next year.  I don't need to gush about his statistics, talk about how he will give just as much of a crap as he did for Cleveland 75+ games for 7 seasons.  The post-season, however, belongs to Wade. 

To win in the NBA Finals requires a degree of toughness that LeBron simply does not possess.  When it comes to toughness, Dwyane Wade has it in spades. 

What happens when LeBron has a hard time understanding why he's averaging a triple-double, Bosh has a double-double, and Wade put up 25, but his team is still losing to teams like Boston and Orlando? 

If they make it to the Finals, what happens when Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum completely outclass Chris Bosh and *gulp* Dexter Pittman?  Only time will tell. For now?  Some predictions.

 

Predictions


Regular Season MVP Ranking (descending order):  Kevin Durant, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant

Finals MVP:  Kobe Bryant

-  If the Heat are successful, and this is provided they are a one seed and a one seed ONLY, LeBron James MAY three-peat as MVP, with Dwyane Wade being the more likely candidate for "he's never won one before" reasons.

If one player is absolutely untouchable (as in, don't even bother calling about a trade) in this league right now, it's Kevin Durant.

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