When we posted this debate earlier this month – LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant – it set off an avalanche of opinions… so much so that one writer felt the need to clarify exactly what he thinks…
LeBron James will undoubtedly go down as the most physically talented player of all-time. His regular season numbers might even rival those of the great Michael Jordan by the time The King steps down from his throne. Unfortunately for James however, championship performance and clutch play largely separate the gifted from the elite in the NBA, and Kevin Durant’s playoff progression has him primed to soon eclipse James on the list of the league’s best players.
Think of these two players as high school students. James is the brainy freshman, busting through the classroom doors with enormous expectations. He soon delivers, rising to the top of the class and almost acing his first big test, the 2007 NBA Finals. But then, the pupil begins to display growing inconsistency, effortlessly breezing through the homework and quizzes but faltering at the end of the year under the pressure of final exams.
Finally, in his most difficult and important semester with the 2010-11 Miami Heat, he makes it through the entire term, just to fail altogether in his closing assessment. In the prime of his career, when the grades really count and the school of public opinion is looking on, he fails on the grandest of stages.
Meanwhile, Durant steadily advances through his classes. He gets off to a solid start as a freshman, and takes a steady course. As an upperclassman, Durant begins to distinguish himself, reaching the playoffs in his third year and the Western Conference Finals in his fourth. The youngster’s future appears full of promise, and teachers rave about his ability to pick up the performance of his classmates and produce under pressure.
You are an admissions officer, who would you accept?
All metaphors aside, the statistics don’t lie. Both James’ points per game (23.7) and field goal percentage (0.466) reached three-year playoff lows in the 2011 postseason. More importantly, however, last summer the so-called “Chosen One” suffered the greatest points per game disparity between regular season and Finals in NBA history, going from 26.7 points to a meager 17.8. For a bona fide superstar in the prime of his career, this pattern of underachievement is disturbing.
Durant on the other hand averaged 28.6 points per game in last summer’s playoffs, up nearly four points from his previous postseason and good for the highest 2011 playoff total of any NBA player. In addition, his postseason numbers improved in nearly every statistical category from the preceding year, including field goal percentage, three-point percentage, assists, rebounds, steals, and even turnovers.
While James’ shooting is frequently subject to pronounced hot and cold streaks, Durant has displayed his ability over the last four years to consistently hit any shot within the three-point line. For every big shot James has hit, he has also forced countless more on an off-night, often from deep beyond the arc, and cost his team the game. In Games 2 through 5 of the 2011 Finals, during the most crucial point in the series, he proceeded to put up 18 threes and shot an abysmal 16.7% from downtown.
James also failed to serve as an efficient source of offense, shooting a collective 42% from the field in those games and impeding momentum that could very well have tipped in the Heat’s favor. On the contrary, Durant shot 45% in the 2011 postseason and 43% in the Western Conference Finals, despite averaging six threes a game and 21 total shots in that series to James’ 4.7 and 15 in the Finals.
Nonetheless, Durant’s unselfish demeanor is the key reason why he will end his career with multiple championships. The quiet leader knows how to rise to the occasion and come up with huge efforts in vital games, but he doesn’t have to be the whole team. Durant knows how to defer to his teammates when he’s having a bad game, and doesn’t try to be the hero just because he is billed as a star. According to 82games.com, Durant shot 41.5% from the field in 2009-10 during the last five minutes and overtime in games in which neither team was winning by more than five points. Still, Durant passed up the ball enough times for his teammate Russell Westbrook to average 2.65 field goal attempts for every five minutes of “clutch time,” compared to Durant’s 2.8 attempts.
In contrast, James often dominates the ball in critical situations, completely isolating his teammates and attempting to win games by playing one, or even two-on-one. As recorded by 82games, James attempted over 50 game-winning shots from 2003-2009, connecting on only 34% of them. In addition, he recorded only six game-winning assists in the same span, compared to nine by Paul Pierce (32 shot attempts) and six by Mike Bibby (22 attempts). Or, if James has a few subpar games and starts to feel the pressure, he will completely disengage like he did during the most recent Finals.
The stats, however, do not tell the full story. One just has to watch James at the end of a game, either pounding the ball against the court as he barrels with his head down towards a wall of defenders, or standing behind the three-point line with his hands at his sides, watching disinterestedly as a teammate tries to make a shot.
Unless James can find a way to alter his playing style, or can go through an entire postseason with no individual shortcomings, The King will retire with a hand void of jewelry.
So, while James find himself on the edge of a downward spiral, universally maligned for his epic collapse in the most important series of his life, Durant is advancing in strides every year, on a team full of talent that’s poised to compete for the Western Conference title.
Do you agree?
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