Kevin Durant vs. LeBron James: Good vs. Evil
Does Nike have a Kevin Durant puppet? If not, they need to make one pronto. They tried to pump up a rivalry between Kobe Bryant and LeBron James for years. Unfortunately, the closest those two got to meeting in the Finals was the Nike puppet commercials that ran during the Finals. While that match up could still happen (odds makers view it as the most likely match up this year), I don't think anyone really views LeBron and Kobe as legitimate rivals.
That's okay. Even if LeBron joined forces with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh over the summer there are still rivals to the King. One of the most intriguing potential rivals to LeBron is NBA scoring champion Kevin Durant.
Let me be clear, I doubt KD and the Oklahoma City Thunder will make the Finals this year. Yes, they have loads of talent that could continue to improve. However, the West is still stacked and the Thunder still need a few pieces to jump from playoff team to favorite.
Also, it is still too early to say Durant has surpassed James as a basketball player. Look, I love KD. He's my favorite player in the league, but Dwight Howard and Ron Artest looked foolish by saying he was better than LeBron. Sure, Durant has the potential to take the title of best player in the league, but it is crazy to say he's already captured it.
With those caveats in place, I do believe that Kevin Durant vs. LeBron James could be the best player vs. player rivalry in the NBA over the next decade. The seeds have already been sewn, not on the court but in the media.
This summer LeBron James fell from grace. Once one of the most beloved players in league, he has faced constant criticism since "The Decision." The poorly received hoopla generated by the television special was often contrasted to Kevin Durant's choice to announce his five year extension with the Thunder via Twitter.
"The Decision" vs. the Twitter announcement was when the potential of Durant vs. James became apparent. It was arrogance against humility, out of touch against down to earth. Essentially, it has become good vs. evil in the NBA.
Since LeBron joined the Heat, he has earned very little approval from the sports media. Meanwhile, Durant cannot make a mistake. KD played brilliantly as he lead the Americans to gold at the World Basketball Championships. He became the alpha dog of the team without coming across as selfish. In fact, Coach K complained that he was too unselfish in the games leading up to Turkey.
Durant dismissed Dwight Howard's claim that he was better than LeBron on Twitter. He handles most compliments with the same humility. He says he is grateful that people think such and such about him but he still has a lot to prove and wants to get better for his team. Durant always seems to say the right thing.
Of course, the adoration directed at Durant used to be directed at LeBron. It is easy to forget, but LeBron James actually the met sky high expectations set for him coming out of high school. Michael Jordan's legacy of six championships hangs over him like it does every star, but that shouldn't take away from the fact that LeBron James is easily one of the greatest players of all time. Go to his page at ESPN.com as look at his stats, few players have ever been as complete.
I wonder if LeBron envies Durant. Everyone wants to be liked. I'm not saying that LeBron spends his days reading sports columnists or watching Sports Center. I can pretty confidently say he doesn't read me. Still, he has to be aware of the public's perception of him.
LeBron has to be somewhat confused. Remember, he's only twenty-five. I don't believe he thought there would be such a backlash from "The Decision." In his mind he was giving money to charity and accepting less money to play on the best possible team. His motivation for doing the television special could easily have been a desire to explain his choice to America directly.
He received bad advice. He didn't realize that fans choose a uniform over a player. Repeatedly he mentioned his "real fans" during the special. I don't think he understood that his real fans were fans of the team more than they were fans of him.
Regardless of the mistakes LeBron made he doesn't deserve to be public enemy number one. I'm sure he knows this. Considering everything he has accomplish to this point in his career, it has to be baffling to see all the praise Durant has received. Why shouldn't LeBron be puzzled that people would place someone with three years of experience ahead of him?
Kevin Durant knows the praise is premature and says as much. If anything, that only applies the contrast between him and LeBron. The situation is reminiscent of Mad Men when Pete Campbell and Ken Cosgrove are made co-heads of accounts. Pete realizes that the company has created a contest for Ken and him. He begins being rude towards Ken, who keeps his care free attitude. To Ken, there is more to life than work. He refuses to indulge Pete in cut throat competition. Durant openly saying LeBron is better has the same effect.
Barring injury, any way this plays out will be fantastic. If LeBron wins the title this year he will further cement himself as the NBA's villain. The Heat will be the Yankees of basketball.
(When I say villain, I don't mean unpopular. While Derek Jeter is respected in the baseball community, I can't stand him simply because of his pinstripes. A dominant Heat team creates the same situation for LeBron and Dwayne Wade.)
Of course, the Heat may not win the championship. Such a failure would amplify the criticism directed at LeBron. Fair or not, plenty of people would be there to point out that it was winning that made Michael great. LeBron would be dismissed for not having the competitiveness and killer instinct. Columnists and talking heads said as much when Boston bounced him from the playoffs this year.
As for Durant, this is the first season he will play with expectations this great. Not just for him, but the Oklahoma City Thunder. He will be exposed to more criticism if thing do not go as smoothly as predicted. It's hard to imagine him not playing well or handling criticism poorly. However, if LeBron James has shown us anything, it is that opinions can change in a moment.
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