Metrics 101: Where Does Kevin Durant Rank Among All-Time SFs After Finals MVP
Twice now, Kevin Durant has held up the Larry O'Brien Trophy and the Bill Russell NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award at the conclusion of an NBA season. And it just so happens he's done it each of the past two years.
The small forward was unstoppable throughout the 2018 NBA Finals, averaging 28.8 points, 10.8 rebounds, 7.5 assists, 0.8 steals and 2.3 blocks during the anticlimactic sweep of the overmatched Cleveland Cavaliers. Better still, he did so while making a mockery of one adversary after another and slashing 52.6/40.9/96.3.
Some may still not like how he put himself in position to earn back-to-back Finals MVPs, electing to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder and join a stacked Golden State Warriors squad that entered both of the previous two seasons as overwhelming title favorites. But he's earned those trophies. That much is indisputable, and the feat allows his legacy to swell even further.
Back in 2015, I ranked the best 3s of all time as part of my historical Legends 100 series. Durant, then nearing the conclusion of his age-26 season, already checked in at No. 8.
Now carrying more hardware and preparing to leave his 20s behind, he's forced the issue. We need an update, again diving into all sorts of numbers, contextual clues and overarching legacy components to determine the new positional hierarchy.
10. Adrian Dantley
Years Played: 1977-91
Teams: Buffalo Braves (1977), Indiana Pacers (1978), Los Angeles Lakers (1978-79), Utah Jazz (1980-86), Detroit Pistons (1987-89), Dallas Mavericks (1989-90), Milwaukee Bucks (1991)
Career Per-Game Stats: 24.3 points, 5.7 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.2 blocks
Career Accolades: Hall of Fame, Six-time All-Star, Two-time scoring champion, Two-time All-NBA, Rookie of the Year
Adrian Dantley's resume is far from flawless.
He was a lackluster defender throughout his professional career—and that's during the possessions on which he actually went at 100 percent rather than conserving energy for his offensive exploits. He never truly excelled on the glass or as a distributor, though he did occasionally shine in those areas for short spurts. Perhaps most importantly, his teams never experienced much playoff success.
We're not just talking about the "Bad Boy" Detroit Pistons finally getting over the hump after he was traded to the Dallas Mavericks. Though Dantley was a tremendous individual presence in the postseason, he sits down at No. 140 in NBA Math's career playoff score metric due to his teams' perpetual inability to earn rings. He never made the Western Conference Finals with his Utah Jazz, and he got tantalizingly close with Detroit (Game 7 loss in the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals and a Game 7 NBA Finals defeat one year later) but never tasted championship bliss.
Still, he sneaks into the top 10 because of his awe-inspiring scoring ability—a tremendous blend of volume and efficiency that's rarely been matched by players operating without extreme three-point quantities.
Not only does the mid-range maestro own a pair of scoring titles, but he's also one of just seven players to average at least 30 points with a true shooting percentage north of 60 during a qualified season. Dantley (three times), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (twice), Kevin Durant (twice) and Michael Jordan (four times) are the only players to join the club multiple times.
Honorable Mentions: Carmelo Anthony, Paul Arizin, Rick Barry
9. Dominique Wilkins
- Dominique Wilkins, 943.6 (No. 225 overall)
- Blake Griffin, 816.7 (No. 266)
- Kiki Vandeweghe, 789.48 (No. 275)
- Baron Davis, 777.5 (No. 282)
- Thurl Bailey, 646.53 (No. 337)
Years Played: 1983-95, 1997, 1999
Teams: Atlanta Hawks (1983-94), Los Angeles Clippers (1994), Boston Celtics (1995), San Antonio Spurs (1997), Orlando Magic (1999)
Career Per-Game Stats: 24.8 points, 6.7 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.6 blocks
Career Accolades: Hall of Fame, Nine-time All-Star, One-time scoring champion, Seven-time All-NBA
Speaking of troubling playoff resumes...
Dominique Wilkins, even while jumping between teams at the end of his career, never advanced to the postseason's penultimate stage. Try as he might, engaging in miraculous duels with Larry Bird and doing everything in his power to carry the Atlanta Hawks, he always fell short of the Eastern Conference Finals (or the Western, during his lone seasons with the Los Angeles Clippers and San Antonio Spurs). But turning back to NBA Math's playoff score, we can see just how impressive his postseason career remains.
These are the top scores by players who have never seen the conference finals:
We can safely say Wilkins is, rather easily, the best player whose resume features that glaring hole. He was great in the playoffs. He was great in the regular season. He just never found that elusive team-based postseason success while playing out his prime years in an Eastern Conference dominated by Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas and plenty of other Hall of Famers.
Fortunately, that doesn't remove his scoring prowess from the equation. Wilkins, thanks to a blend of high-flying athleticism and immaculate touch from inside the arc, remains one of the deadliest producers of points the league has ever seen.
During his run of nine consecutive All-Star appearances, he posted a 4.4 offensive box plus/minus and avoided being a major defensive liability—the trait that allows him to squeeze past Dantley.
8. Paul Pierce
Years Played: 1999-2017
Teams: Boston Celtics (1999-2013), Brooklyn Nets (2014), Washington Wizards (2015), Los Angeles Clippers (2016-17)
Career Per-Game Stats: 19.7 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.6 blocks
Career Accolades: 10-time All-Star, One-time NBA champion, Four-time All-NBA, One-time Finals MVP
Paul Pierce wasn't as glamorous a player as some of the legendary figures surrounding him in these all-time rankings. He never won a scoring title or finished higher than seventh in a season's MVP voting (2009, when he trailed LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups). He was never the best player in the league. Three of his All-NBA selections placed him on the Second Team, and the final one saw him finish as a member of the Third Team.
But that's all fine.
Pierce was a winner—that unquantifiable descriptor only handed to those players who did all the little things correctly and constantly found themselves on successful teams. Even with only one title to his credit, he kept the Boston Celtics relevant throughout the current millennium and established himself as a contributor who could make an impact in every facet of the game.
During a seven-season stretch that spanned his age-23 through age-29 campaigns, he scored 24.8 points per game while slashing 43.9/35.8/79.3. He averaged more than six rebounds during eight different go-rounds. For that matter, he dished out more than four dimes per contest throughout another eight years. He never made an All-Defensive squad, but he's 24th in career defensive win shares.
Finding a definitive weakness is nearly impossible, which makes up for the relatively limited number of accolades he compiled.
7. Scottie Pippen
Years Played: 1988-2004
Teams: Chicago Bulls (1988-98, 2004), Houston Rockets (1999), Portland Trail Blazers (2000-03)
Career Per-Game Stats: 16.1 points, 6.4 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 2.0 steals, 0.8 blocks
Career Accolades: Hall of Fame, Seven-time All-Star, Six-time NBA champion, Seven-time All-NBA, 10-time All-Defensive
Rarely do we get such a perfect opportunity to see what a Hall of Famer can do without his primary running mate. But Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen provided us with that chance when the former pursued an ill-fated baseball career and the latter took over as the Chicago Bulls' No. 1 option throughout the 1993-94 campaign.
Pippen was squarely in the midst of his athletic prime, playing out his age-28 season and leading the Chicago Bulls to the second round of the playoffs, where they lost in seven games to Patrick Ewing's New York Knicks. Maybe he couldn't add to his ever-growing collection of rings, but it's hard to hold that against him when Chicago went 55-27 and earned an opening-round sweep even without the greatest player in franchise history.
Plus, he thrived as a one-man show who could check every box on the basketball court.
Pippen averaged 22.0 points, 8.7 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 2.9 steals and 0.8 blocks that season while shooting 49.1 percent from the field. Even excluding his field-goal percentage, he submitted numbers in the main box-score categories that no one has ever matched during a qualified season. Moreover, he set career highs in player efficiency rating and box plus/minus, refusing to slip on the stopping side despite shouldering more offensive responsibilities in Jordan's absence.
Don't think of this small forward as a mere sidekick. He was plenty capable of carrying a team on both ends.
6. Julius Erving
Years Played: 1977-87
Teams: Philadelphia 76ers (1977-87)
Career Per-Game Stats: 22.0 points, 6.7 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.8 steals, 1.5 blocks
Career Accolades: Hall of Fame, 11-time All-Star, One-time NBA champion, Seven-time All-NBA, One-time MVP
If we included Julius Erving's ABA exploits for the Virginia Squires and New York Nets, he'd rise higher up these rankings.
During his five seasons there, he averaged a staggering 28.7 points, 12.1 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 2.4 steals and 2.0 blocks. With a high-flying style suited perfectly for uptempo ABA exploits, he led the nation in scoring three times, won two titles and earned three MVP awards. Beyond that, he led the league in both box plus/minus, win shares and win shares per 48 minutes during each of his final three seasons.
But due to the lesser competition, we're not factoring that in. The decision depresses Erving's standing, but it's not like it wrecks his resume. He still won MVP in the NBA and continued as an offensive ace who made the Philadelphia 76ers one of the Association's most feared organizations throughout the '80s.
With his long arms, boundless hops and skill handling the ball, Erving couldn't be kept away from the basket for those trademark thunderous finishes. He could kiss the ball off the glass in creative fashion after spinning through the air with immaculate body control, or he could rise above all other players on the hardwood for a highlight-reel slam. Even without too much shooting range, he proved impervious to the best efforts of defenders throughout his lengthy prime.
The Doctor was a better defender than popular perception might indicate, though he could certainly be caught gambling for steals and blocks in the relentless pursuit of momentum-swinging possessions. That's still not his biggest weakness, though.
Timing is. Removing five years of his prime from the evaluation dooms him to a shorter career and a diminished all-time standing.
5. Elgin Baylor
Years Played: 1959-72
Teams: Minneapolis Lakers (1959-60), Los Angeles Lakers (1961-72)
Career Per-Game Stats: 27.4 points, 13.5 rebounds, 4.3 assists
Career Accolades: Hall of Fame, 11-time All-Star, 10-time All-NBA, Rookie of the Year
If you're going to hold Elgin Baylor's lack of rings against him, it might be time to remember that basketball is a team sport. This legendary member of the Los Angeles Lakers (and Minneapolis before that) still ranks No. 18 overall in NBA Math's playoff score metric, and he was utterly phenomenal throughout just about every one of his deep postseason runs.
Seriously. He averaged 27.0 points, 12.9 rebounds and 4.0 assists during his playoff career while shooting 43.9 percent from the field and 76.9 percent from the charity stripe—comparable to his regular-season percentages of 43.1 and 78.0, respectively. He just couldn't avoid any of the eight Finals losses, despite his excellent individual play.
Maybe that has to be held against him, but only a bit. Throughout his career, he was an ahead-of-his-time athlete with an all-around game that helped lift the Lake Show to heights that hadn't been seen since the end of George Mikan's career.
Though he wasn't an all-world defender, he could score from everywhere—both in transition and the half-court set—when he wasn't rebounding like a center and racking up assists like a point guard. Don't be fooled by his relatively meager per-game average of 4.3 dimes, because scorekeepers were notoriously stingy during his era. Baylor actually posted over five successful feeds per contest in three different seasons, even finishing as high as No. 8 on the qualified leaderboard during the 1960-61 campaign.
4. John Havlicek
Years Played: 1963-78
Teams: Boston Celtics (1963-78)
Career Per-Game Stats: 20.8 points, 6.3 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.3 blocks
Career Accolades: Hall of Fame, 13-time All-Star, Eight-time NBA champion, 11-time All-NBA, Eight-time All-Defensive, One-time Finals MVP
John Havlicek's superior postseason resume is certainly a factor in his placement ahead of Elgin Baylor, but it's by no means the only reason for the narrow edge. Winning eight rings has to be notable, especially because two were earned after Dave Cowens replaced Bill Russell as the Boston Celtics' starting center. This small forward's jewelry collection wasn't solely a product of fortuitous timing.
Much like Baylor, Havlicek was a do-everything standout who could impact the game in myriad ways. But two elements of his game push him marginally ahead: defense and consistency.
We could surely wax poetic about Hondo's scoring abilities, as well as his rebounding and passing. But his work on the preventing end were his primary calling card and allowed him to affect games like few others at this position ever have. The man simply wouldn't stop running, displaying a level of tenacity and endurance nearly unthinkable for the era in which he played—an era filled with players enjoying the occasional cigarette and not engaging in the strict 24/7/365 training regimens that now see standouts spending literal millions of dollars on their bodies.
"A roadrunner taking you through every ditch, every irrigation canal, barbed-wire fence and cattle guard," Los Angeles Lakers general manager Pete Newell said about Havlicek, per Sports Illustrated's John Underwood in a 1974 profile. "You've had a trip over the plains when you've played him for a night."
If only SportVU cameras were installed in those pre-merger arenas.
Still, we do know Havlicek, who played in at least 70 games during every season of his career and always operated at a high level, did run around enough to earn the 12th-most defensive win shares in league history. Jason Kidd and 10 big men are the only players to accumulate more.
3. Kevin Durant
Years Played: 2008-Current
Teams: Seattle SuperSonics (2008), Oklahoma City Thunder (2009-16), Golden State Warriors (2017-18)
Career Per-Game Stats: 27.1 points, 7.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.2 steals, 1.1 blocks
Career Accolades: Nine-time All-Star, Four-time scoring champion, Two-time NBA champion, Seven-time All-NBA, Two-time Finals MVP, One-time MVP, Rookie of the Year
Kevin Durant didn't need back-to-back titles in order to validate his standing as an all-time great. He could've lost out on both Finals MVPs, ceding the awards to Stephen Curry (or even LeBron James in his losing efforts), and still come out near the top of the small forward heap. You can even put asterisks next to the championships if you're feeling particularly petty, overlooking the notion that the general public's fascination with rings as the ultimate barometer of greatness might have compelled Durant to join the Golden State Warriors in the first place.
But he has those titles now. He owns a pair of Finals MVPs, putting him in a class containing only himself, Willis Reed, Hakeem Olajuwon, Kobe Bryant, Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O'Neal, Magic Johnson, LeBron James, Tim Duncan and Michael Jordan. History won't take those away, though it might instead gloss over the free-agency decision that overloaded the Dubs once a few decades have passed.
What won't be forgotten? Durant's status as a unicorn among unicorns, a 7-footer with a guard's skill set who can take over games as one of the greatest scorers in league history while playing excellent defense and filling a point-forward role. His lithe, wiry frame allows him to speed by bigger defenders and shoot over the top of smaller ones, making him a veritable cheat code when he finds a rhythm.
Among all 999 players in NBA history with at least 500 games to their credit, Durant ranks seventh in player efficiency rating. He sits at Nos. 10 and 16 for win shares per 48 minutes and box plus/minus, respectively. And none of those numbers isolate his greatest skill: sheer, unadulterated scoring excellence.
Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Jordan, James and Durant are the only six men in NBA history averaging at least 27 points per game throughout their careers. None of them can come close to matching Durant's true shooting percentage (61.1), with James (58.6) and Jordan (56.9) coming in a distant second and third. No one has ever blended together volume and efficiency quite like this two-time reigning champion.
And as such, with 11 professional seasons under his belt, he's truly earned treatment as the all-time great he's become. That would've been true even if he'd somehow come up short against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2018 NBA Finals. But a little icing on the cake, especially in the form of two trophies earned in conjunction, never hurts.
2. Larry Bird
- LeBron James, 7772.68 (No. 3 overall)
- Larry Bird, 5158.3 (No. 8)
- Scottie Pippen, 3694.3 (No. 20)
- Julius Erving, 3171.03 (No. 24)
- Kevin Durant, 2917.97 (No. 33)
Years Played: 1980-92
Teams: Boston Celtics (1980-92)
Career Per-Game Stats: 24.3 points, 10.0 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.8 blocks
Career Accolades: Hall of Fame, 12-time All-Star, Three-time NBA champion, 10-time All-NBA, Three-time All-Defensive, Two-time Finals MVP, Three-time MVP, Rookie of the Year
No one metric should be used as gospel. All require context and evaluate the game in different manners. But they can still help establish baselines for the conversation. And with NBA Math's TPA, which looks at both per-possession efficiency and volume accrued over a career, we can easily see how Larry Bird is locked into this No. 2 spot throughout the foreseeable future.
Just as Bird now trails our No. 1 small forward (spoiler alert: It's LeBron James) by a wide margin in career TPA, he also rises far above the best of the rest of the small forwards:
Our countdown isn't solely based upon these results, but it's instructive when sorting players into tiers. And Bird, though he might have joined James in that top one if his back hadn't betrayed him toward the end of his career, is unquestionably alone in the second. Durant, especially if he only sticks around for another five years, might never get there.
Even more astoundingly, Bird is one of those players who'd be even better if he'd had the chance to operate in today's NBA—something not every player from the rough-and-tumble '80s can claim. Given his three-point abilities and knack for serving as a point forward, as well as his switchiness on the defensive end, he'd be an ideal combo forward in 2018.
Of course, he was still pretty damn good for the Boston Celtics throughout his actual career. You don't need me to tell you that.
1. LeBron James
Years Played: 2004-Current
Teams: Cleveland Cavaliers (2004-10, 2015-18), Miami Heat (2011-14)
Career Per-Game Stats: 27.2 points, 7.4 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.8 blocks
Career Accolades: 14-time All-Star, One-time scoring champion, Three-time NBA Champion, 13-time All-NBA, Six-time All-Defensive, Three-time Finals MVP, Four-time MVP, Rookie of the Year
At this point, the competition isn't particularly close. Maybe it would've been if Larry Bird had been able to stay healthy throughout his career, but LeBron James keeps expanding the gap as he refuses to succumb to Father Time.
Most players are supposed to begin declining as they work through their age-33 seasons. James is doing the opposite, despite the remarkable amount of mileage he's accumulated with eight consecutive trips to the NBA Finals, international adventures and an unwillingness to sit out for sustained stretches of any given season. In his 15th NBA go-round, he led the league in minutes played, suited up in all 82 games and then operated at arguably the highest level of his career while willing his Cleveland Cavaliers back to the biggest stage.
Only one knock exists against James now: his record in the Finals.
He's an unimpeachable scorer, even if that's never been his primary method of domination. He might be the best distributor in NBA history, given the high degree of difficulty, wide variety and pinpoint precision of his feeds. He's a remarkable defender, though his effort levels have (understandably) slipped in recent seasons. The only boogeyman is the losses when the lights are brightest...except he's still played at a high individual level and has been the underdog more often than not.
"I think it's very unfair to put it solely on LeBron James, six Finals losses," Jon Barry told Bleacher Report's Howard Beck as part of a panel examining the superstar's legacy. "In 2011, I think he had a lot to do with that [loss]. But all the other ones, he got a lot of inferior teams to the NBA Finals. It's not his fault that the Eastern Conference was as weak as it was."
Losing so many times in the final round does have to matter, at least to some extent. But so does getting to that biggest stage, since a player should never be penalized for working deeper into the playoffs and then falling harder against a historically great opponent. Would James' legacy really have been aided by failing to even get to the finals a few of those times?
When the Finals record is the only knock against this small forward—and it's one steeped in logical fallacies—his historical placement should be pretty secure.