This was supposed to be LeBron‘s time, wasn’t it? He finally climbed the mountain, finally beat the critics and the haters and the Kobe stans and all the rest of ‘em and finally became not only the undisputed King of the NBA, but one of the greatest players in NBA history. Now, just months after winning his second straight championship and fourth MVP (in five years) award, James has the fight of his life on his hands.
Kevin Durant, right now… as in this very moment, is playing better than anyone in the world. In the month of January, Durant is averaging 37 points on 52 percent shooting. In his last five games, the damage is even worse: 40.6 points per game on 59 percent from the floor.
That’s high praise. With that said, ‘Bron is coasting and still has a chance to make some truly UNREAL statistical history this season. So who do you think is the better player right now, this season: Kevin Durant or LeBron James? We argue. You decide.
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Discussing the merits of LeBron James and Kevin Durant is different from most player comparison conversations. Although the topic centers on the question of who is better, there’s ultimately a bigger conversation in play: who is the best player on the planet?
Both players are deserving of their place in that conversation, though they ultimately find themselves at the forefront of the league for different reasons. For LeBron, it’s his inhuman physique and overall awareness that set him apart from his peers. Standing opposite of the league’s bruising MVP is Durant, a wispy assassin who uses a lethal shooting touch to set up the rest of his game.
It’s hard to argue Durant has a superior resume to James, as he has only been in the league for seven years compared to 11 for his counterpart. The hardware, whether individual or team-based, is decidedly in James’ favor. But that’s not the question here. If we’re discussing who is better right now, the scales tip ever so slightly in Durant’s favor.
At the center of his case is his ability to get buckets against any and every team in the league. Durant is currently averaging a league-leading 30.9 points per game on 50.2 percent shooting, reigning terror on his opponents at an efficient clip. Durant’s offensive ability is scary in that he can kill your defense in so many ways. Leave him open downtown, where he’s shooting over 41 percent, and he’ll splash Js in your face all night long. Give him a driving lane, and he’ll get to the free throw line at will, a location he’s shooting 88 percent from on more than 10 attempts per game. All of this adds up to a 30.9 Player Efficiency Rating, first in the league by almost two full points.
That sounds impressive on its own, but that level of offensive efficiency is almost unparalleled in the history of basketball. Pop quiz: how many players in NBA history have averaged at least 30 points per game, shot 49 percent from the field and 39 percent from three over the course of a season? The answer is just one – His Airness, Michael Jordan in the Chicago Bulls’ 72-win campaign in 1995-96. If your closest competition is the league’s standard-bearer during his team’s most successful season, you’re doing something right.
Durant has always had a leg up on LeBron from a pure scoring perspective, but he’s closing the gap in the other areas that used to be the crux of James’ argument. His assist and rebound figures have climbed substantially since his rookie year, from 2.4 and 4.4 in 2007-08 to 5.1 and 7.8 in 2013-14. Though he averages about an assist less than James per game this season, he has surpassed him in rebounding, with LeBron hauling in just 6.7 boards on average.
Many have and will continue to make excuses for LeBron this year, saying that he and the Heat are coasting to save up for the big push to three-peat. There’s some merit to that argument, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that it’s the sole reason Durant is ahead of him in several statistical categories. If we average the numbers from this year and each of the last two, Durant’s averages of 28.9 points, 7.9 rebounds and 4.4 assists are on par or better than James’ 26.7 points, 7.5 rebounds and 6.7 assists.
Of course, there’s another end of the basketball court to account for, and LeBron has long been lauded for his ability to guard all five positions. Durant, as more of a pure scorer than James, is consistently fighting the perception he’s an offense-only guy. That’s far from the case.
Combing through the database at MySynergySports.com, a website which logs every play from every NBA game, Durant actually grades out as a better defender than LeBron in multiple categories. In isolation, the ultimate mano-a-mano NBA battleground, Durant has been the fifth-best defender in the league this season, forcing opponents into shooting a ghastly 22 percent from the field. James, on the other hand, ranks all the way down at 149, allowing almost a full point per possession in such situations. Perhaps more surprisingly, Durant has been better at defending post-ups than James, allowing 0.69 points per possession compared to 0.81 for James. Even with a significantly slighter stature, Durant has been able to stave off would-be scorers in the post.
Looking at Durant, it’s easy to see the tools that have made him such an effective defender. With long limbs that give him a standing reach of 9-2, he’s a pest whether he’s reaching into passing lanes for steals or getting a hand into the face of shooters. Durant is averaging more steals (1.5 vs. 1.3) and blocks (0.8 vs. 0.3) than James this year, and has blocked more shots than his counterpart each of the last four seasons. He may not have the versatility of James on that end, but he shines in the role that he’s asked to play.
When you really break it down, in what area of the game does Durant still have to surpass his peer? Unless the ownership of hardware makes or breaks your evaluation of a player, he has not only caught up to the reigning champion, but overtaken him as the league’s best player. Without the services of partner-in-crime Russell Westbrook, Durant has put the Thunder on his back (they’ve gone 11-6 with Westbrook this year) with a string of 30-point performances, including a 54-point onslaught against the Golden State Warriors on Jan. 17 and last night’s 46-point explosion over Portland, one of the West’s best teams. There is not a player in the league better than Kevin Durant right now, and that includes “The King.”