In Kevin Durant, LeBron James may be seeing a similar career trajectory as the one he had in Cleveland.
It was almost too easy to forget while watching him drop 39 points and lead his Oklahoma City Thunder to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since the franchise moved from Seattle:
Kevin Durant is only 22-years old. And this is only his fourth season in the league.
Durant already has two scoring titles and All-NBA first team selections to his name just a year removed from being able to legally buy a beer for himself. But when thinking about who else made such a splash at the same age and same season in the league, one has to shift his eyes away from the Oklahoma City superstar to South Beach.
When James was 22 and in Year Four, he took the Cleveland Cavaliers to their first and only trip to the NBA Finals. That run included one of LeBron's signature moments in the Eastern Conference Finals against Detroit, where "The King" scored the Cavs' final 25 points, 29 of their last 30, all 18 in the two overtime sessions combined and 48 overall to help Cleveland break Detroit's back and take a 3-2 series lead.
Many NBA fans will stop the comparisons right there. To compare the two is asinine, they will say. Sure, Durant has had signature moments in these playoffs, such as scoring Oklahoma City's last nine points in the closeout game against Denver and 41 overall. Or his Game 7 performance against Memphis where he made superstar plays on both ends of the floor en route to 39 points and nine rebounds on 13-of-25 shooting.
But neither moment stacks up to that moment. The moment in Game 5 at the Palace of Auburn Hills in Detroit on that May evening in 2007. And Durant is still a ways away from taking his Thunder to the Finals like LeBron did, especially with a white-hot Dallas team serving as the barrier between Oklahoma City and the NBA's biggest stage.
However, comparing the climate of the league back then to the one it is in now is like comparing apples and oranges. The 2007 Cavs could arguably be the worst team in NBA history to make the Finals, as you would be hard-pressed to name a single Cavalier on that particular squad outside of LeBron. But those Cavs also had what has to be—by far—the easiest road to the NBA Finals.
Cleveland took out two .500 teams in Washington and New Jersey in the first two rounds, respectively. Neither the Wizards or Nets would have even come close to qualifying for the playoffs in the Western Conference, either this year or in several subsequent years. The 53-win Detroit team that LeBron helped take out in the Eastern Conference Finals had a worse record than Durant's 55-win Thunder this year and would have been a first round matchup for OKC had they been in the West.
That has to negate some of the argument that Durant has a better team around him right now. No Cavalier other than LeBron had a triple-double during his career in Cleveland, let alone in the playoffs like Russell Westbrook did in Game 7 against Memphis. But the Thunder are playing far superior competition, and Durant is still the headliner on one of the league's young and exciting team. Even the eighth-seeded Grizzlies were a better team than any team the Cavs beat in '07 because of the way they played in these playoffs.
And to say that LeBron received absolutely no help at all would be premature. Sure, the Game 5 in Detroit was all him, but in that particular series, little-known 3-point specialist Daniel "Boobie" Gibson first made a name for himself by scoring a then-career high 21 points in Game 4 before leading all scorers with 31 points in the clinching Game 6 in Cleveland.
Numbers-wise, both Durant and LeBron were unstoppable in the postseason in their fourth years. In 2007, James averaged 25.0 points, 8.0 rebounds and 8.0 assists while shooting 41.6 percent from the floor, 28 percent from 3-point range and 75.5 percent from the stripe in 20 playoff games. Through 12 playoff games this season, Durant has averaged 28.9 points, 7.7 rebounds and 2.4 assists while shooting 46 percent from the floor, 37 percent from downtown and 81 percent from the stripe.
Durant's superior supporting cast (especially Westbrook) is negated by the weak road those Cavs had to take in the playoffs. The '07 Cavaliers probably would have been beat in the first round in this year's Western Conference (provided they would have even been able to qualify), and they had to foray outside of the East to face their first real test, the San Antonio Spurs. The result? A four-game sweep that was not even that close.
Durant and the Thunder get to face that test in the next round against the Dallas Mavericks, a team that is playing as well as anyone right now and just got done dusting off the two-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in a second-round sweep. Regardless of who wins that series, suffice it to say that it will not be a sweep based on how well both Oklahoma City and Dallas are playing at the moment.
Durant's postseason run in this fourth season is still a work in progress. His signature moment could be awaiting in the Western Conference Finals against Dallas. Or perhaps a round beyond that, where James himself could be waiting armed with a new and improved supporting cast in his eighth year in the league.
And if it does get that far, forgive LeBron if he takes a minute to wonder if he is looking in the mirror when he checks his small forward counterpart on the other team. He may just be playing against himself from four years ago.