Is Kevin Durant Still the NBA's Second-Best Player Behind LeBron James?

Dave Leonardis@@FrontPageDaveContributor IIIJuly 20, 2015

AP Images

For most of his career, Kevin Durant has been widely recognized as the second-best player in basketball behind LeBron James. However, KD's injury-riddled 2014-15 campaign opened the door for players such as Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis and James Harden to stake claims to the No. 2 spot. 

As the Oklahoma City Thunder star's return to the hardwood nears, the question emerges: Is Durant still the NBA's second-best player? 

Ultimately, every player strives to be the best at their profession, and Durant made it abundantly clear in a 2013 interview with that he's done playing for silver. 

I was the second-best player in high school. I was the second pick in the draft. I’ve been second in the MVP voting three times. I came in second in the Finals. I’m tired of being second. I’m not going to settle for that. I’m done with it.

Unfortunately for Durant and the rest of the league, James' all-around dominance over the last 12 years has made us all witnesses in the King's court, and there are no signs of his reign ending anytime soon. Making matters worse, Durant's absence from the game made way for others to shine under the spotlight. 

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

While Durant was restricted to just 27 games last season because of numerous foot surgeries, Curry and Harden battled it out for the 2015 MVP, with the former coming away with both the trophy and an NBA championship. Davis, who finished fifth in the voting, has steadily improved each season since his arrival in 2012 and is fully entrenched as one of basketball's brightest stars. 

There is also another crop of young players on the rise steadily moving up the NBA ranks such as DeMarcus Cousins, Damian Lillard, John Wall and Andrew Wiggins. 

However, Durant didn't become the NBA's second-best player overnight, and it is going to take more than his first extended stint on the sidelines for him to lose that spot. The 26-year-old may have been overshadowed this past season, but he's determined to bounce back strong in 2015-16, per's Royce Young:

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It used to piss me off, but I love it now. Just gotta show and prove. I don't deserve to be up there with them this year. Next year is a different story. ... Sometimes you gotta remind people what you do. They tend to forget.

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With Durant sidelined, Curry, Harden and Davis each made compelling cases for the No. 2 spot last season. Curry continues to emerge as the NBA's ultimate heat-check guy, converting at least 42 percent from three for the sixth straight season. He's a threat to knock down a jump shot the second he crosses the half-court mark. 

Statistically, Curry's 2013-14 campaign (24.0 points, 8.5 assists, 4.3 rebounds) was superior to his MVP campaign (23.8/7.7/4.3), but the strides he made on defense are what set it apart. The 27-year-old allowed just 101 points per 100 possessions last season, while also posting career-highs in defensive win shares (4.1) and defensive box plus/minus (0.3), per Basketball-Reference.

That all-around excellence played a huge role in the Golden State Warriors winning a franchise-best 67 games and taking home their first NBA championship since 1975. 

Harden also took the next step in his evolution as an NBA superstar. He averaged career-highs in points (27.4), assists (7.0) and rebounding (5.7) last season. Also, after being mocked for his porous defense since entering the league, the 25-year-old improved considerably at the other end of the court. His 103 points allowed per 100 possessions was an upgrade from the 107 he gave up in 2013-14 and the 106 he permitted the year before that. 

Harden also led the Houston Rockets past the opening round of the playoffs for the first time since the 2008-09 season. The Beard carried Houston to the Western Conference Finals before bowing out in five games to Curry's Warriors. 

The 22-year-old Davis didn't enjoy the same amount of postseason success as the other two, but his emergence as the best power forward in basketball helped catapult the New Orleans Pelicans into a playoff spot. 

In just his third pro season, The Brow finished fourth in scoring (24.4 points) and eighth in rebounding (10.2), and led the league in blocked shots per game (2.9) for the second year in a row. He's also developing into a versatile offensive weapon, shooting 45.8 percent from within 10-16 feet to go along with his 73.4 percent around the rim. With offensive mastermind Alvin Gentry taking over the Pels, Davis' stock is bound to soar even higher.

Still, it's hard to justify putting anyone from that trio ahead of Durant because of one amazing season, especially when KD still managed to be productive in his short time on the court. The Texas product's 25.4 points per game would have been third-best in the league had he played enough games to qualify for the leaderboard. 

Additionally, last season's scoring effort was the seventh time Durant averaged at least 25 points per game in eight years. That's tied for third-most among active players behind James and Kobe Bryant. Since his arrival in 2007-08, he's won four scoring titles. No other player has taken home more than one during that span.

He's been such a prolific offensive weapon that ESPN personality Stephen A. Smith publicly declared him both a threat to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's all-time scoring record and potentially the greatest scorer ever on separate occasions. 

Curry, Harden and Davis may have had better 2014-15 campaigns, but Durant has put together a greater overall body of work, especially on the offensive end. In the chart below, you'll see how Durant's career numbers compare to the rest of the field. It's also worth noting that his lifetime player efficiency rating (PER) of 24.66 is fourth-best among current NBA players, while his career 27.31 points per game is a close second to James (27.35).

Kevin Durant's Career vs. The Field
Kevin Durant48.137.927.36.93.524.7
Steph Curry47.
James Harden44.437.
Anthony Davis52.511.

Last season was the first time Durant's body seriously failed him. Prior to 2014-15, he'd missed just 16 games throughout his pro career. While Harden has managed to avoid the injury bug, the chart below shows Curry and Davis haven't been as fortunate. 

Missing In Action
NameYears PlayedGames MissedAvg. Missed Per Season

If there is a reason to drop Durant down the NBA ranks, it's the uncertainty that surrounds his thrice surgically repaired right foot. He hasn't played a meaningful game since Feb. 19 and isn't expected to return to the court until August. However, ESPN's injury expert Stephania Bell believes Durant will make a full recovery from the bone-graft procedure he underwent in March and will return to his dominant form. 

Add to the success rate for bone grafting post-Jones fracture the fact Durant is still young (just 26 years old) and the fact he has avoided the lower-extremity joint-pounding of a full NBA season, and his outlook for next year is promising.

Until Durant is able to put a full season together following his latest foot surgery, the questions surrounding his foot will continue to cause skepticism, much like Curry's ankles once did. On the flip side, if he's able to stay healthy and be the KD of old, it will only help solidify his grasp on the No. 2 spot. 

Lastly, while Durant isn't an elite defender, he's made strides at that end of the court throughout his career. After averaging a defensive rating of 107.5 in the first half of his eight-year career, that number dropped to 102.5 in the last four years. 

Last season, he allowed a respectable 105 points per 100 possessions, which was on par with solid perimeter defenders such as Chris Paul, James and Wesley Matthews, per Basketball-ReferenceDurant even posted comparable defended field-goal percentages to his fellow elite peers, even as his lower body continually gave him troubles. 

2014-15 Defended Field-Goal Percentages
NameOverallNormal (Diff.)3PTNormal (Diff.)2PTNormal (Diff.)
Durant40.044.3 (-4.3)3835.4 (+2.6)41.448.0 (-6.5)
Curry40.543.2 (-2.8)33.334.2 (-0.9)44.447.2 (-2.8)
Davis39.846.0 (-6.2)27.434.9 (-7.5)42.849.1 (-6.3)
Harden42.744.3 (-1.6)30.835.1 (-4.3)50.148.4 (+1.7)

While Durant may never be an all-world stopper, he does enough on the defensive end to complement his electrifying offensive ability and legitimize his standing as the league's second-best player. If he can still provide all-around excellence at less than 100 percent, how will the rest of the field keep up with him when he returns to full strength?

Alonzo Adams/Associated Press

In an "out of sight, out of mind" sports world, it's easy to overlook everything Kevin Durant has done to become the NBA's second-best player, especially when other stars emerged in his absence. However, while uncertainty still surrounds his right foot, he's done enough during his storied career to earn the benefit of the doubt. 

As Durant prepares to make his triumphant return to the court, his 2015-16 season will be more than just a shot at redemption. It will be a reintroduction for those who so easily forgot about him.