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.